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Thirty-five years after 'Savannah Smiles," and Donovan Scott is still making people laugh

Donovan Scott and Brigette Anderson in "Savannah Smiles."

I recently came across a movie from the 80’s that I had forgotten about; it appeared as a suggestion on one of my streaming services a few weeks ago, and when I watched it, it moved me just as much now as it did then.

The film “Savannah Smiles” (1982) inspired me as a young gay tween, because in it, two men; Boots (Scott) and Alvie (Mark Miller),  take on the role of dads by themselves after accidently kidnapping the little girl (Bridgette Andersen) of the film’s title.

I remember watching it, and even though the two men in the film aren’t portrayed as a gay couple, I fantasized that they were because they had such great chemistry.

Later on, I found out that one of the stars in the film, Donovan Scott is actually gay. That propelled my curiosity even further; perhaps there was a gay undertone after all and the film was actually more progressive than I thought, so I decided to reach out to Scott to ask, but I found that he didn’t necessarily agree with me about my assertion.

I asked Scott since he is a gay man if he infused a gay nuance to Boots when he performed the role, “No, it was not in the writing and I never felt the need to make it feel otherwise.”

You have probably seen Scott in many things, he has acted alongside many iconic actors from Lily Tomlin, George Hamilton to Robin Williams.

He has also appeared in many classic movies and television shows: Police Academy, Popeye, Back to the Future III, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and of course his starring role in “Savannah Smiles.”

In the comedy, Scott plays Bootsie, a kind-hearted convict who unnecessarily busts his longtime friend Alvie out of prison. Together they commit petty crimes in order to survive until one day a little girl, Savannah, hides in their car and inadvertently becomes their kidnap victim.

On the lam, they take refuge in an abandoned house. The two men care for Savannah, bathing her, feeding her and keeping her in good spirits until they can figure out how to get a $100,000 reward without being caught.

The relationship between the two men feels like a marriage, Alvie is the crotchety older man who has no patience for the antics of a cutesy six-year-old, while Bootsie takes on the motherly role providing toys, freshly cooked meals and sympathy.

With this type of set-up, it seemed the film was a subtle liberal Hollywood nod to the LGBT community in the conservative era that was dominated by the GOP.

Scott already told me that he didn’t consciously add gay subtext to his role of Bootsie in the film, and I asked him why he didn’t. His answer seems to address more than just the role he was given.

“Because I have always felt normal in my sexuality and have never once questioned it, once I knew what it was,” he said. “I have always treated my life as a normal one, only the sex was better. I am not the kind of person who sees sexuality first -- I want to know the person, if I don't like them then I will not spend the energy on them.”

Scott has carried this philosophy throughout his career.

He demands that his work environment see him for his talent not his sexuality. It’s an omission that forces others to not initially label him and instead get to know  him as a person; it's worked for many years. 

He and his husband have been together for 43-years, and married for 24. Scott says just because he has "never been militant" about his gayness, he has never denied it either.

“Every location I went to: ‘Popeye’ was Malta, ‘Police Academy’ in Canada, ‘Sheena’ in Africa, Russia for 5 years, I always went first by myself to the location,” he explains. “I was funny, so people liked me a lot, they found me honest and fair to all people and pretty much a good caring person. Later I would, after a few weeks, start talking about my partner, by the time he was to arrive to the set everyone was excited to meet him and treated him as part of the company the whole time he was there.”

He says this is true for every location he visited and he even managed to change a few minds in some homophobic countries that shun gay people.

“In Russia where it was against the law. The crew did not know what to think, they had heard how terrible and sick it was to be a homosexual. But were totally confused by me, when I told them that I was gay and my lover would be coming to visit.”

Scott seems to be a person who has seen it all in Hollywood. I feel as though he could really tell some good stories about the closeted times of the 70’s and 80’s when “straight” actors had to maintain their secret identities because they were playing heterosexual parts.

He says that gay allies such as Robin Williams made him feel really comfortable when they were on set together.

“Robin and I worked on three projects together,” he recalls. “’Popeye,’ ‘The Frog Prince’ and ‘Best of Times.’ He was either on and filled with an inhuman amount of energy or he was unusually quiet. Since we loved to make each other laugh we got along great. He loved gay people and made me feel very relaxed around him.”

Wanting to know more about what he thought making “Savannah Smiles;” the film that I thought had a gay subtext, I pushed further, trying to get an answer about why I would feel the way I did.

“Family is family, held together by love,” he said. “Where there is no love there is no family. Sacrifice is one of the definitions of love and an important one. We must all compromise in order for love to grow we do not want to change the person we fell in love with but we want to allow ourselves to change as our love grows.”

Unfortunately the girl who played Savannah, Brigette Andersen, may have fallen victim to the perils of being a child actor passed away in 1997, she was only 21.

Scott remembers his time with her during filming being a memorable one.

“She was great to work with, very uninhibited and could improvise with the best of them,” Scott recalls. “I brought her a lot of Disney VHS's and we would watch them together on the weekends. ‘Song of the South’ not available on the market at the time was one of her favorites and I procured a copy before I left LA for the filming.” 

“Savannah Smiles,” could have had a sequel or a remake, but after several meetings the idea was scrapped.

Scott has moved on to become the “Santa of Hollywood” to coin a phrase. He has been cast as the jolly elf in over 50 roles, “I love the character of Santa and what he stands for; magic and innocence,” he says.

He is also hard at work in his improv group out of the ACME theaters in Los Angeles, and continues to write and pitch ideas, “I am writing a Santa Script for TV,” he said. “I seem to keep busy.”

You may not know Donovan Scott by name, but you certainly have seen him in some of your favorite films over the years. 

Although he doesn't make it a point to outwardly express a sexuality, if any through his characters, he has made a successful career for himself in Hollywood for nearly 40 years. 

It appears that his confidence is fed from within and he dismisses those who wish to challenge that peace-of-mind. 

"There are plenty of people i would like to spend time with and don't need to waste my time on someone who doesn't get me," he said. "Some people call that an ego, I call it healthy living. Know who you are and make no excuses to anyone, gay straight or otherwise."