Feature: May 7, 1997
Before The X-Files
Classmates Recall David Duchovny '82,
the Star of TV's Hit Series,
as a Low-Key Guy More Focused on Basketball
BY TOM KRATTENMAKER
To the millions of people who watch The X-Files every Sunday night, David Duchovny '82 is the quirky, low-key, ultra-cool, obsessed-with-the-paranormal, oh-so-hunky FBI agent Fox Mulder. His stardom has reached the level where his every romantic move appears in gossip columns, and dozens of fan-built Internet sites rave about his acting and "the sheer poetry" of his looks. But to Princeton classmates like Chris Leggett '82, Duchovny will always be "Scruff," a bright, down-to-earth, basketball-playing English major who didn't seem to take himself or anyone else too seriously.
"We were close because we were both kind of unimpressed with the world," says Leggett, Duchovny's junior-varsity basketball teammate and friend. "It didn't matter to us what someone's station in life was-they were a good person or they weren't. It was really a function of what kind of human David was.
"Basketball was one area in his life where his impression of himself was not commensurate with his talent," Leggett, an Atlanta cardiologist, adds with a chuckle. "We would have some of the funniest times hassling each other about our basketball playing, about how good we weren't. David had this line-drive jump shot that was crooked. He thought he was Earl the Pearl-he dribbled behind his back, between his legs. He thought he was a great ballplayer, but he was just OK. We called him 'Scruff.' I don't remember how it evolved, but it's about all I ever called him for four years."
One thing for which Duchovny is not remembered is acting. He took no part in theatrical activities at Princeton, and most of his old college mates don't recall his ever professing an interest in a career on the screen or stage. However, Jonathan Darnell '82, Duchovny's dinner partner at Charter Club, recalls his friend's casual mention of wanting to become an actor. "I remember being shocked," says Darnell, who now lives in Santa Barbara, California, and raises money for public-interest groups. "It was surprising because I thought of him as a quiet guy and someone who didn't need a lot of attention. He didn't seem like someone who would want to be an actor."
Charles "Chip" Monk, another fellow basketball player and Charter member, saw Duchovny in a different way. "I could tell he always wanted to be a star," says Monk, a songwriter and musician based in Bethesda, Maryland. "JV hoops didn't quite cut it."
Duchovny's rise to fame as a TV star began at Yale University, where he was working on his Ph.D. in English literature. Looking for some new stimulation, Duchovny gravitated toward Yale's drama school. A friend encouraged him to audition for a Lowenbrau beer commercial. He got the part. Soon Duchovny was out of school, studying acting, and pursuing roles full time. Acting, Duchovny has said, was emotionally liberating. "It was great. I could scream, yell, and cry on stage without consequences. I could have a full life."
Duchovny would not agree to an interview with PAW. But as he told Playboy, there was no life-altering moment, no grand turning point at which he consciously decided he was an actor, not a scholar. "I find that you make few decisions in life," Duchovny says. "As Kierkegaard said, 'the moment of decision is madness.' If you look inside your mind at that precise moment, all you would find is craziness, madness, confusion. . . . So, you see, I never said, 'today I am an actor, yesterday I was a graduate student.' "
From a start on off-Broadway stages he advanced to Hollywood, snatching supporting roles in such films as Working Girl (1988), The Rapture (1991), Beethoven (1992), and the Brad Pitt movie Kalifornia (1993). In between film parts came a bit appearance on the television series Twin Peaks that would foreshadow his future: Duchovny played a transvestite federal drug-enforcement agent known alternately as Dennis or Denise. Twin Peaks, like The X-Files, was known for its quirky edge. And though the Mulder character is no transvestite, he, too, is a federal agent with some out-of-the-norm beliefs.
When series creator Chris Carter was casting The X-Files in 1993, Duchovny showed up in a pig-print tie and read for the part. "We knew David was it from the start," Carter told Entertainment Weekly. "He was just very, very right for the role."
Whether the show was right for Duchovny was a different story. As he told one interviewer, he found the concept somewhat far-fetched; he was certain it would flop. He was wrong. Now in its fourth season on the Fox network, The X-Files is one of the most popular shows on TV. At the Golden Globe Awards earlier this year, The X-Files captured best-series honors, and Duchovny and costar Gillian Anderson (Agent Scully) walked away with best actor and best actress prizes. An X-Files movie is in the works, as is a fifth season on Fox.
Says Professor of English Elaine Showalter, who spent last year reviewing television for People magazine, "Duchovny and Anderson play their parts with absolute seriousness and intensity, but every script has a subtext of satire and absurdity. It's the contrast between the content and the style that makes each episode so compelling."
Like the actor who plays him, Fox Mulder is a serious, scholarly guy who has taken some career turns that made colleagues scratch their heads. The Oxford-educated agent was on the FBI fast track until he became obsessed with all things paranormal, with cases involving UFOs, alien abductions, ghosts, genetically mutated serial killers, and-perfect for the '90s-insidious government conspiracies. Despite his colleagues' scorn, Mulder is undeterred. "The truth is out there," as the series motto proclaims, and Fox Mulder is bent on finding it.
As critics have noted, Duchovny plays the part with a wry wit, a low-key earnestness, and an intelligence that make the implausible plot lines almost believable. "I think only someone as bright as David can get away with delivering some of the lines he has to deliver," says Howard Gordon '84, the series's executive producer. (Gordon says he and Duchovny "were vaguely aware of each other" during their Princeton years.) "He has a level of credibility because it sounds like he knows what he's talking about. David's contribution to the success of the series has been profound. A lot of the Mulder character is David and his understanding of him."
Timothy Burke, a Swarthmore College history professor with a scholarly interest in popular culture, believes the program's success owes to several intersecting strengths. "It's really well-made in the technical sense, with above-average acting, writing and cinematography," Burke says. "It makes use of a well-established genre-horror-in some novel ways, which makes it both familiar and interesting. Also, it taps into some really deep strains of American cultural paranoia about government, secrecy, and modern life. Duchovny is a real good fit for the part. He conveys the character's intelligence but also a quality of repressed wariness."
Duchovny has acknowledged that he and Mulder have some things in common. But here's the big question: Does Duchovny believe in UFOs? He told TV Guide in an article last year, "I try to balance having to live in this painful physical world and trying to open up channels to another world. When you experience [the channels] you know they're true. But when you talk about them, you're in great danger of sounding like a knucklehead."
While some part of Duchovny's stardom is about his looks-Internet chat went wild after the airing of an episode in which he appeared in a Speedo swimsuit-people who knew him at Princeton say he's anything but a dumb hunk. "He didn't strike me as scholarly when I first got to know him," says Darnell, "but in our senior year we were in a poetry precept together, and I remember being surprised and impressed by how perceptive and insightful his comments were."
Maria DiBattista, a professor of English and comparative literature, advised Duchovny on his senior thesis. He wrote about the playwright Samuel Beckett-a challenging, difficult writer for an undergraduate to take on, DiBattista says. "Given what's happened to him with The X-Files, it's striking to me now that he was drawn to Beckett, who has this slightly macabre yet comic aspect to his work. David always liked horror films, which I used to tease him about. Sometimes when I watch The X-Files now I can see that deeply comic part of David's imagination coming out. He was an extremely serious student, one of the best I ever had. I urged him to apply to graduate school, and he followed through on that. Yet I always wondered whether academia was the place for him. There was something too restless about him, some need to have a more varied set of experiences. He certainly could have done it, but I don't know if was the thing for him."
How long The X-Files will continue to engage Duchovny is a matter of some concern among the shows' devotees, known as "X-philes." He admits that the demanding shooting schedule in Vancouver, Canada, wears him out, and he has made it known that he's interested in pursuing other roles, which to some extent he has been able to accomplish. Duchovny plays a drug-addicted surgeon in the film Playing God, which is due out later this year. Despite his reservations about the series, however, Duchovny admits he'll no doubt be "sad and confused" when The X-Files finally does run its course.
Leggett, for one, says Duchovny would give up his fame in an instant if he grew tired of acting. "I could see Dave, if he reaches a point where he's not happy with what he's doing, just say, 'I've had enough' and go back to what he was doing before."
Though he hasn't had contact with his old basketball buddy for years, Leggett has seen enough of Duchovny in the media to know that at least one part of his personality has not changed since Princeton. Duchovny always considered himself a good dresser, according to Leggett, but his perception squared with reality no better than his shirts matched his trousers. "He never could dress," Leggett says with a laugh. "I saw him on TV once and thought to myself that he'd better give me a call next time he has to appear in public."
Tom Krattenmaker is the director of communications at Swarthmore College and a frequent contributor to PAW.
In the world of The X-Files, it's dark and sinister, and the unbelievable usually turns out to be the only explanation. The show almost always pits FBI Special Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny '82) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) against one of the following:
€ Strange phenomena (Is it pyrokenisis or spontaneous combustion?)
€ Monsters (Is it Bigfoot? The missing link?)
€ Aliens (They are out there.)
€ Government conspirators ("Who shot JFK?" is the least of their manipulations.)
The two must struggle to find explanations for the mysterious happenings, which inevitably takes them into harm's way.
Mulder's motto is "The truth is out there." When confronted with the inexplicable, this instinctive, headstrong agent-who has an amazing grasp of the paranormal, the grotesque, and the extraterrestrial-insists on the implausible. His partner, Scully, a doctor who specializes in forensics, and the duo's supervisor, FBI Assistant Director Walter Skinner (Mitch Pileggi) usually dismiss Mulder out of hand-until he turns out to be right.
Phenomena: In this type of episode, people are haunted with strange visions of the past and the future, or pursued by phantom forces. In "The Field Where I Died," Mulder encounters a woman who's a member of a religious cult in Tennessee. She eventually reveals that she and Mulder were lovers in a past life during the Civil War.
Monsters: Sometimes it turns out to be a deformed human being or one with supernatural powers. Other times, it's a slug from the sewers, as in "The Host." One of the show's best episodes, "Humbug," places Mulder and Scully in a trailer park full of freak-show retirees during a string of bloody murders. It's bloody, scary, and surprisingly funny.
Aliens: These episodes comprise one of the two plot lines that drive the show. As Mulder and Scully search out proof of the existence of alien life, they visit UFO crash sites, as in "Fallen Angel"; interview people who were abducted by aliens, as in "Tempus Fugit" and "Max"; and run into the occasional extraterrestrial or half-human mutant, as in "Colony." Usually, they do all this while battling secret government forces who want to keep all such information from reaching the public eye.
Conspiracy: Many episodes put Mulder and Scully (but especially Mulder) under the watchful eyes of the shadowy and nearly omnipotent figures who really run things in Washington, D.C. Prime among them is Cancer Man, whose clouds of cigarette smoke can turn up anywhere. (He was in Dallas in 1964, as "Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man" reveals.) Sometimes the government thwarts Mulder's attempts to unearth long-guarded secrets such as in "F. Emasculata" and "Tunguska." Sometimes conspirators keep him from rescuing his partner, Scully, as in "Ascension," or his sister (whose alien abduction led Mulder to open the X-Files, as divulged in the show's pilot episode).
-Paul Hagar '91