What you notice first about Brad Davis is his size. He is very short, about 5-foot-5, maybe five inches shorter than Robert Kennedy was.

The next thing you notice about Davis is his lack of charisma, which is surprising when considering that the character he plays in "Robert Kennedy and His Times"--the seven-hour miniseries debuting Jan. 29 on CBS--is larger than life.

Davis is all right, though, if unconventional. No pretentions. No arrogance. We were at a chic French restaurant. And you have to like anyone who comes to a sniffy bistro like this, blows his nose in his napkin and lets milk dribble down his chin.

Davis said he'd had a bad week. He had car trouble in a downpour and waited hours for a tow truck.

Then, there was the TV interview, when he didn't know the camera was on, and he spit and "it went all over the place."

Even worse things had happened to him that week, Davis reported, things too horrid for him to mention.

Davis set a greeting card on the table and kept it in sight as a reminder that things weren't as bad as they sometimes seemed. He said it was a card from a stranger who had seen "Robert Kennedy and His Times" at a special screening for the entertainment community. The stranger wrote a message on the card praising Davis' performance as Kennedy.

The praise is deserved.

Davis perfectly illustrates the gap between reality and screen illusion. It's hard squaring the refreshingly unglib and earthy actor in the restaurant with the power-wielding character on the screen.

Owing to the influence of TV, "Robert Kennedy and His Times" will inevitably linger as the nation's predominant impression of Robert Kennedy: as a young man emerging from the shadow of his older brother, as a young husband and father, as attorney general in his brother's Administration, as a U.S. senator and as a presidential candidate struck down by an assassin.

"Robert Kennedy and His Times," which is based on a biography by Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., may also redefine Brad Davis as an actor.

Although he has hardly been idle since playing Billy Hayes in the memorable 1978 movie "Midnight Express," it is that role as a real-life amateur drug smuggler who escaped from a Turkish prison that froze him into the public consciousness.

It was not Hayes the individual, but his survival and ultimate escape, that was heroic in the movie, which recently made the rounds of pay and network TV. "People still come up and look at me with the same passion as if it was still yesterday," Davis said.

"And I got letters for years after 'Midnight Express' from young guys telling me who they were and what they wanted to do with their lives. Watching Billy Hayes win over odds that he shouldn't have won over gave them hope that they could win too."

The movie turned Davis, a relatively obscure stage actor, into an international star at age 27. "I had no idea what I was going to do," he said. "How could I top that? I felt I had done my best work."

So he was choosy. He began turning down role after role. Looking back at it now, though, Davis sees his performance in "Midnight Express" as merely "OK" and feels he's a much better actor now.

Davis starred in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's "Querelle" and had prominent roles in two other network miniseries, "A Rumor of War" and "Chiefs." But it was his tiny cameo as American Olympian Jackson Scholz in "Chariots of Fire" that Davis says brought him to the attention of Kennedy miniseries co-producer Rick Rosenberg.

"There are people who call it (Davis as Kennedy) the most bizarre casting ever," Davis said. But it was also a chance for Davis to finally escape his old image.

"I got out of blue jeans," he said. "I became a man. And I'm finally playing a character who has a vocabulary of more than 100 words. I'm proving that I can play an intelligent person."

Knowing little of Kennedy when he got the role only two weeks before the start of production, Davis had to do some quick cramming. He saw the usual TV footage and read the Schlesinger book. "If I didn't feel right about using the character in that book, I'd have gone to another book. I have to look for one that rings true to me, and this one did. I love Kennedy's passion. I love his heart. Whether or not the character in the book is actually true, I'll never know. I mean, the guy died 16 years ago."

No one will be comparing Davis to past TV portrayals of Bobby Kennedy, which have been largely superficial. But he will be compared with the real Kennedy.

Public expectations?

"You throw them out," Davis said. "Your first reaction when you get the role is, 'Oh, my God, they want me to play Bobby Kennedy!' Then you make the deal for the part. Then you go 'Oh, my God' again, because you are playing a legend. You wonder how you do play a legend. But you just have to throw all that out."

Davis said he didn't fear the comparison. "I've always said that a pie in the face comes with the job," he said. Or at this restaurant, mousse.

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