When he first appeared on The X-Files in its pilot episode in 1993, William B. Davis’ character didn’t even have a name, nor did he say anything. In fact, he didn’t say more than five words the entire first season. He just lurked in the shadows, chain-smoking Morleys.
Yet his character – later named the Cigarette Smoking Man or the Cancer Man – achieved notoriety, becoming the premier adversary on The X-Files. Perhaps the most dangerous man on the planet, the Smoking Man is the mysterious leader of the Syndicate, a global conspiracy that reaches far into the corridors of power, hiding the truth about the existence of extraterrestrials and their plan to colonize Earth.
Davis, 80, a native of Canada, shared his insight on what makes the Smoking Man such an iconic villain to belong in the company of TV’s worst of the worst, including J.R. Ewing of Dallas, Dr. Hannibal Lecter of Hannibal, and Mr. Burns of The Simpsons. (Davis laughed when he learned Mr. Burns surpassed the Smoking Man on TV Guide’s “Nastiest Villains” list in 2013 and Rolling Stone’s “40 Greatest TV Villains of All Time” list in 2016.)
“I can’t fully answer the question. The character has a degree of menace and a degree of enigma. Nobody quite knows who he is, or what he is, or what he’s doing, or why he’s doing it, or where he fits. There’s an energy that he evokes. The smoking helps the image, of course. The lighting helps, too. Everything helps,” said Davis.
Interestingly enough, Davis doesn’t smoke. In fact, he hadn’t smoked for more than 20 years prior to getting the role of the Smoking Man. In his first two episodes, he smoked actual cigarettes. Since then, he’s smoked herbal cigarettes, which have tasted horrible by his own admission.
The Smoking Man has plagued FBI Agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) from the very beginning, manipulating events from behind the scenes. It was revealed in the 1996 episode “Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man” that the Smoking Man, a frustrated author raised in orphanages, assassinated JFK in the service of the government and framed Lee Harvey Oswald.
He also rigged the Oscars, arranged it so the Buffalo Bills will never win the Super Bowl, and orchestrated the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill scandal in addition to more weightier matters, such as the alien conspiracy.
“I have mixed reactions to (‘Musings’). It was not very accurate, I don’t think, in terms of what his real backstory is, so it was confusing that way,” said Davis.
However, X-Files writer/executive producer Frank Spotnitz has stated in interviews this episode is only a possible origin for the Smoking Man.
Davis’ favorite episode is the Season 3 finale “Talitha Cumi,” which aired in 1996. The episode was heavily influenced by “The Grand Inquisitor,” a chapter in the novel The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, particularly the scene where the Smoking Man interrogates Jeremiah Smith (Roy Thinnes), a mysterious healer. References to this novel were hinted at throughout this episode.
Davis wrote the Season 7 episode “En Ami” in 2000, which explored the relationship between the Smoking Man and Scully. In 2011, he published his memoir Where There’s Smoke… Musings of a Cigarette Smoking Man.
The X-Files spanned nine seasons (1993-2002) and two feature films released in 1998 and 2008, respectively. It returned for a 6-episode mini-series in 2016 (Season 10) where the X-Files division at the FBI has reopened. It also revealed that the Smoking Man was alive. Davis had no trouble getting back into character after a 14-year absence.
“The character’s pretty much there. I slipped into it very readily. I had some time to prepare because I had to sit in the makeup chair for 4.5 hours while they fixed my face to make it look as if I had survived this great fire. That was creepy-looking,” explained Davis.
A second X-Files mini-series debuted on FOX (Season 11) January 3, 2018. In the first episode, the Smoking Man reveals his real name to be Carl Gerhard Busch. This finally puts to rest what the initials “C.G.B.” stood for in his CGB Spender alias.
The Smoking Man is the father of Mulder and FBI Agent Jeffrey Spender (Chris Owens). It’s also revealed that Mulder and Scully’s son, William, whom Scully gave up for adoption for his own protection, given their line of work, isn’t Mulder’s son – he’s the Smoking Man’s son. The Smoking Man claimed to have drugged Scully and impregnated her via alien technology during the events of “En Ami.”
That is, of course, if the Smoking Man is to be believed, since dealing in lies and half-truths and treachery is his modus operandi.
“Nothing is confirmed on The X-Files, for heaven’s sake!” said Davis, laughing. “It was confirmed that I died and I came back.”
Davis tried explaining what gives The X-Files such staying power after nearly 25 years, which he admitted was not easy to answer.
“That’s a long question in a way,” he said. “It had iconic success in the 1990s for a variety of reasons. I think it appealed to a particular zeitgeist in the 1990s as we moved into the Internet age, but I have to write a book about that. With all that popularity, of course, it creates its own inertia that’s carried it forward. Now there’s another generation of fans.”