By ANGELA DAWSON
Front Row Features
HOLLYWOOD—One of Bug Hall’s earliest memories is clutching onto the gas tank of his dad’s motorcycle as they scooted around Texas. At 14, Hall was given his own two-wheeler. To this day, the actor insists he prefers motorcycles to cars. Although he’s wrecked quite a few and gotten a few bumps and bruises along the way, he insists there is nothing more liberating and exciting than motorcycle riding.
So when he received the offer to portray Arthur Davidson, one of the co-founders of Wisconsin-based motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson, he couldn’t say “yes,” fast enough.
The 31-year-old has been in show business for most of his life. Notably, he played Alfalfa in the 1994 big screen adaptation of “The Little Rascals.” Since then, he has appeared mostly on TV series in guest-starring roles. Eager to take control of his career, the young actor started a development company a few of years ago, and he has been busy working on TV and movie projects of his choosing.
In “Harley and the Davidsons,” a three-part miniseries airing on the Discovery channel over three consecutive nights starting Monday, Sept. 5, he plays Arthur, the ambitious son of machine shop operator. Together with older brothers, Walter and William, and his design-oriented best friend Bill Harley, he co-founded what was to become one of America’s most iconic brands. The series, filmed in Bucharest, Romania, standing in for rural Wisconsin, spans three decades of the company’s growth and the brothers’ lives starting in 1903, from their humble beginnings converting conventional bicycles into motorized bikes, to racing and building a fleet of vehicles for the government used in both World Wars to stem off bankruptcy and cutthroat competitors.
Newly engaged, the charming Hall explained by phone why he recently turned in his bike for a car, how he landed a golden opportunity to play a visionary transportation pioneer and his “Little Rascals” memories.
Q: There’s not a lot about the Davidsons on the Internet. What was the main thing you were able to find about Arthur? Were you able to talk to the Davidson relatives?
Hall: We spent some time at the factory. I spent a lot of time with the curator at the (Harley-Davidson) Museum. We got to spend time with Willy G. Davidson, who was very influential in the company for a very long time. Discovery and the writer spent a lot of time researching this so we got a lot from them.
As far as my personal work, a lot of it was just finding personality tidbits. Things that people said about (Arthur Davidson). I was really working with the story they had on the page, trusting in their efforts. Once I had my footing, then it was a matter of developing the character historically. He was a really fair guy. Very honest. Very family oriented. He also was very tenacious and had this never-say-die, golden tongue—that’s what was so fascinating to me. There seemed to be this dichotomy about him. He was a very humble, very grounded country boy and yet quick spoken and able to sell you anything. He knew how to adapt.
Q: He never went to college. He was self-taught in marketing.
Hall: All the founders were country boys. The first Harley-Davidson that they built was so they could get to their fishing hole quicker and make it back home by supper.
Q: In real life you ride. What’s your passion for motorcycles? Is there a particular brand that you ride?
Hall: I don’t. I’m not a brand-guy in regards to what bikes I ride. I like anything with two wheels that moves fast and gets you where you’re going. Some of my earliest memories are when I was a baby holding onto my dad’s gas tank. He would put me on the seat in front of him and I’d hold onto the gas tank while he would cruise around. So I literally grew up on a bike. I got my first bike when I was 14. My dad gave it to me and I learned how to ride on that bike. I never drove a car. That was my stubborn thing. I was a biker and I was going to remain a biker until the day I die. I road across the country 10 times. I’ve wrecked nine or 10 bikes. I lose track. I’ve broken 20-something bones. My whole life was motorcycles. Winters started to make it hard and the rain, so I eventually bought a car. After I got engaged, I figured it was a good time to hang up the bikes. Right around that time, this project came along and it fit so well. It was such a nice cap to my life as a biker.
Q: Did you tell your fiancé, “Well, I have to do it for work?”
Hall: I know. I said, “Sorry, I gotta go ride bikes. I know I said I wasn’t going to do it but I have to one more time.”
Q: I’m sure some of the appeal was getting the chance to ride these vintage bikes. Did they recreate them?
Hall: Our engineer was our own personal Bill Harley, a guy named Alex Wheeler, built all the bikes. He and his team built more than 80 motorcycles for the show. Some of them they didn’t have any information on other than these old, grainy photos. They had to backwards engineer these things. Because none of these engines exist anymore, they actually built the engines from scratch. They took raw chunks of aluminum and machined them out to fit the specs from these photos and the little amount of information that got from Harley-Davidson about the bikes and then the public information that was available on the more popular bikes, like the VL and the Knucklehead. Some of these things were like Frankenstein’s monster. They had to figure it out only from the photographs.
Q: Michiel Huisman (who plays Walter Davidson), gets to do a lot of the riding of these vintage bikes. Were you jealous? Did you get to ride them?
Hall: I did ride some of these bikes. I wrecked one of them. I broke my collarbone. This is the problem: I don’t know how to go slow. But I had a blast. They were excited to let me get on one and practice with the guys. And I wanted to see what they could do. I’d seen pictures of these things and black and white videos of people racing these things on motordromes. I was excited to push it to the limit and see how hard I could push these bikes. I’ll tell you what—it was amazing what these things could do. No brakes, no gears, most of them were slip-belt attention systems and funky suicide shifting. They were crazy bikes.
Q: Did you become gearheads and compete offscreen with each other?
Hall: Yeah. Discovery’s push in this thing was for authenticity. They wanted us to know things inside and out. They wanted to do the founders proud. They actually put us through mechanic classes. We all learned how to take these bikes apart and put them back together—every nut and bolt, every spring. So we really sort of challenged each other. We learned the lingo and quizzed each other and really bonded over these motorcycles.
Q: Did you get to keep one of them?
Hall: One of them might have disappeared. There was a lot of talk of which one we wanted to take.
Q: As Arthur, you age 36 years. What was that like for you as an actor?
Hall: As an actor, putting the biker guy aside, that was the most appealing part for me. It’s kind of a once in a lifetime opportunity for an actor to age that far and consistently. Usually, when you age in a project, it’s either a flash-forward or a cap scene on a story. But to carry the age of a 55-year-old man for two hours straight is such a rare thing. My approach to it was really focusing on young Arthur, and really aging him down and giving him as much pep and gumption as possible so the aging process, from an acting perspective, could be as natural as possible. It was fun to backwards engineer the character. There was some part of me that had to accept the fact that I was playing kind of different characters, with a bit of the core still remaining but so much about the man changes over that period of time.
Q: How long was the shoot? How was it shooting in Romania?
Hall: Development was years and pre-production was quite a long time. I got there about a month early. We shot for about three and a half months. It was a long process. It’s funny creating an authentic iconic American story in Eastern Europe. And yet our goal was to be as authentic and historically accurate as possible. There just isn’t anywhere in the U.S. that hasn’t developed, that hasn’t moved on into the future. Whereas Romania had turn-of the-century buildings. You could still find functioning motordromes that would be illegal here because they’re so dangerous. That was really the big deciding factor for Discovery. In a bit of an ironic twist, in aiming for authenticity we ended up in Eastern Europe because that was the most authentic place we could shot the thing.
Q: You’ve been in show business for over 20 years and you’re probably sick of being reminded of how cute you were as Alfalfa in “The Little Rascals” movie.
Hall: I’m not, actually. I’m so grateful for that movie.
Q: You had an interesting co-star in that with Donald Trump who plays the father of one of the kids. What do you remember about him?
Hall: Oh yeah. That’s right. I did work with Mr. Trump. All I remember about him is that he was really friendly and kind. I’ve seen him over the years and obviously a lot recently onscreen and this big personality but that’s not my memory of him at all. I just remember him as a very kind-hearted guy. The running gag I have with Blake Ewing, who played Waldo in that film is I tease him with, “Oh, your dad’s going to become President.”
Q: “Harley and the Davidsons” ends in the mid-1930s. Is there a sequel possible?
Hall: It’s such a broad story and there’s so much story to tell. First of all, condensing 36 years or so into the span of six hours, that was one of the things that were most impressive to me.
I write and I have a development company so I know what that process is like. I was floored with the way they were able to condense that story into this timeframe. There’s still more story to tell. There is still so much more that the founders went through but the Knucklehead was such a great cap and such a great victory, especially at a time when everyone was expecting them to disappear like so many other companies did during the Great Depression but they managed to survive and that was a good place to end it.
Q: It touches upon the social and political changes of the time such as when Arthur grants Johnson the first black-owned motorcycle dealership and that sort of thing and the introduction of Harley-Davidson’s outlaw image.
Hall: That’s right. Just the foundation of biker culture and where it stemmed from was really exciting to me. Seeing how it evolved was a really important part of the show. And because it’s so many slices of Americana—you’ve got World War I and the Depression and civil rights stuff that was just starting to blossom at the time—it was a great opportunity to weave all that together.
Q: And there were the fun facts like the introduction of the hog nickname.
Hall: That’s right. Fun stuff, huh?
Q: You had a great chemistry with Michiel Huisman, who plays Walter Davidson and Robert Aramayo who plays Bill Harley.
Hall: Thanks. I’ll be friends with Michiel and Rob for the rest of my life. Those guys are just incredible men.
Q: You have to get them to get you on “Game of Thrones.”
Hall: (He laughs.) I don’t know.
Q: What’s next for you?
Hall: I’m back to developing. Previous to this project, I’d taken a couple of years off (from acting) to start a development company. We have a couple of really cool projects we’re excited about. We’ve sold a few shows now. The cool thing about developing is that you can be patient and decide what you want to put yourself in instead of looking for other people’s projects. That’s really where my focus is. But I’m a strong believer in following opportunities and I’m just looking for what’s good.
Q: Kind of like Arthur Davidson?
Hall: Minus the charisma. (He laughs.)
Q: Have you set a date for your wedding?
Hall: February 11. It’s perfect timing