The X-Files: Return of a Cigarette Smoking Man

Feature Chris Longo
5/27/2015 at 8:35AM

We chat with William B. Davis about the Cigarette Smoking Man, his meeting with Chris Carter and his role in The X-Files Revival.

The man who made a living standing in the shadows of The X-Files recently had a moment in the late-spring Vancouver sun.

Cups of coffee separated William B. Davis, a former Cigarette Smoking Man, and X-Files head honcho Chris Carter, who wished for shade to cast over the Canadian actor’s hometown. Davis agreed. The quickly approaching X-Files revival doesn’t belong in the summer.

“Chris was sitting here on a sunny afternoon saying ‘I hope it’s a rainy summer,’” Davis says. “It really belongs in the gloomy depths of the fall and the rainy winter.”

Before interviewing Carter for a discussion on the film industry at Digital Days 2015, an event for Canada’s filming community, the 77-year-old actor tried his hand at cracking Carter on the top-secret details of The X-Files revival that begins production in Vancouver in June. 

After years of intermittent appearances as the Cigarette Smoking Man, a fan favorite and key piece to X-Files lore, Davis was told he was “definitely in the first episode,” and may also reprise his role in “some of the episodes” of the six Fox ordered. Sorry to slip in a decade-plus old spoiler, but Carter will have to live up to his “no one in the X-Files is ever really dead” line. The meeting yielded few script details, or details he is allowed to share, though Davis says on a personal level, he “got to know Chris better than all of the years during the show.”

The relationship between Davis’ character and Carter’s brainchild was never supposed to be so strong. The longtime stage and screen actor and director was cast in The X-Files pilot in a cigarette-smoking, non-speaking role. It took a few seasons, but the character eventually blossomed into a linchpin of the series’ mythology. Gone were tedious days of shooting where Davis was “hanging around to play a character who hangs around” as he recalls in his memoir, “Where There’s Smoke… Musing of a Cigarette Smoking Man.”  

When The X-Files crossed over from cult hit to mainstream success, Davis’ mysterious lurker became the villain, dubbed “Darth Vader of The X-Files,” and given a few nicknames from Mulder, including “Cancer Man,” and “Black-lunged son of a bitch.”

“The character I played was really iconic in a way,” Davis says. “It was very fun to play, just great fun to do.”

Small doses of the character did wonders. Each drag of a cigarette could evoke as much emotion as a line of dialogue. He held the cigarette between his thumb and forefinger – a trademark of the character – and one day noticed from an old family photo that his father puffed cigarettes the same way. Maybe it’s in his blood. Though he doesn’t believe in the paranormal, he won a prize in high school for public speaking… on the topic of flying saucers. 

Davis never lost his knack to command the attention of a room. He still teaches at the school he founded, The William Davis Centre for Actors Study in Vancouver. He’s also kept busy with a recurring role in the Canadian sci-fi series Continuum.

Some actors choose to leave their iconic roles in the past in favor of other projects, but returning to The X-Files, even as an “actor of a certain age” as he put it, was an easy decision.

“As an actor it’s good for me, it’s good for my career and it’s stimulating,” Davis says. “I had no hesitation, I would have been quite disappointed it the show had been done without me and I think a lot of fans would have been disappointed as well.”

Davis is unsure exactly how the CSM returns, and Carter has been secretive about specific plotlines beyond hinting that there will be a mix of monster of the week and mythology episodes. The hope is they’ll be able to recapture something special, even if Davis is just an old friend, well, enemy, dropping by to say hello.

“Chris is really eager to tell his stories again,” Davis says. “There’s a sense that they never really finished the story and there’s more to tell.” 

Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man...

On X-Files fandom:

"There are a lot of new fans. It’s remarkable how many second generation fans there are because of Netflix or wherever they are seeing the original show. I see fans all the time who were way too young to watch it in the 90s."

On where Mulder and Scully’s storyline picks up:

“I asked [Chris Carter] if Mulder and Scully were a couple like there were at the end of the series and the indication was no, they were apart. Now whether they’ve been a couple of separated or if they go back in time and they’ve never been a couple, I don’t know. It seems like it’s going to be a somewhat different take than the finale left us in.”

On adjusting to stardom later in life:

“I’ve always tried to discourage people’s desire for stardom in an acting class because that’s foolish to want to be a star. What is a logical thing to want to do is to act. Stardom is so much an accident. Take Gillian’s case. This is a terrific story. She was fairly unknown and inexperienced when we started The X-Files. After she started to do a whole range of work. Now she’s just recently done A Streetcar Named Desire in London, which is one of the most respected and challenging roles in the English cannon. Would she ever have had a chance to do that work if she wasn’t in the X-Files? Probably not, but she had the skill, ability and talent to take advantage of that. It’s a degree of luck. How many actors were they looking at for The X-Files? It was lucky that she got on the show and lucky that it became a hit. From there, she’s done some great work.”

On shooting in Vancouver, the original home of X-Files production:

“Canadian X-Files fans are glad it’s shooting here, but it’s the production community that is really excited. It’s like coming home. This is where the show belongs.

You can find Chris Longo on Twitter and discuss the whereabouts of Fox "Spooky" Mulder. 

Our Suggested X-Files Reading: 

The X-Files Revival: Everything We Know

I Still Want to Believe: On 20 Years of The X-Files

The X-Files Episode Roadmap for Beginners

Best Monster-of-the-Week Episodes

The X-Files Season 10 Comic - Joe Harris Interview