By Paul Serran
Right at first glance you realize you know this guy. That face – he’s almost like a family member. You’ve seen him in dozens of movies.
You know he is great – and you know he’s tough, with that killing smile.
Tell you what – let’s put a name to that face, bask in the excellence of Robert Davi’s work, and maybe even rediscover an old song in his powerful voice.
Because if he can make it there, man – he can make it anywhere.
Robert John Davi was born in 1951, in Astoria, Queens, New York. He is an award-winning actor, screenwriter, director, producer and singer. He’s a badass.
With a formation in the Stanislavsky method of acting, and classical training as a singer, Davi is a complete entertainer, one of those master craftsmen that make excellence seem effortless.
He is one of the film industry’s most recognized tough guys. But, known for his depth of characterization, he was never one to fall into the trap of type-casting – having created iconic characters that prove that a villain with a smile feels that much more deadly.
In over 140 film and TV appearances, Davi took his brush into all the colors of the audience’s emotional palette; from fear to romance, from tears to laughter.
AMAZINGLY, he has also, of late, revealed himself to be one of the top jazz vocalists of our day, interpreting the Great American Songbook to enthusiastic reviews.
Robert Davi knows that the journey of the artist is not unlike that of the mythical of fictional hero – and there, together with his complete dominion of the craft, lies his recipe for greatness.
“Great storytellers in the past would go to an unknown land and return to tell the stories they’ve found. Those were also journeys into their inner psyches and that’s still true today. An actor, a writer, does that as if saying, ‘Here’s what I’ve discovered about myself and about the world I’m in. I would like to share this with you.’ It’s an act of giving.”
Here you have a quick medley of some of his most iconic movies, to warm us up.
Robert was born from immigrant parents originating from southern Italy, and spoke Italian during his childhood, a language in which he is still fluent.
In high school, Davi was “praised for his singing”, and even auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. He got classical training with top vocal coaches such as Samuel Margolis and Daniel Ferro from Juilliard, as well as opera tenor Tito Gobbi.
Davi reportedly ended up damaging his voice, having later explained that “he was a baritone with the heart of a tenor”, and that he “had pushed too hard, too early.”
It used to be in the olden days that directors like Alfred Hitchcock would say “actors are like cattle”. But the method actors of Davi’s generation came equipped to make substantial, meaningful contributions to the art of movie-making.
The “method” came to the forefront in an era when films mattered, when cinematic storytelling was at its apex and was the truest expression of American Culture.
After attending Hofstra University on a drama scholarship, Robert Davi took on a larger ambition: work with the legendary Stela Adler.
“I was frustrated at Hofstra [University], so I moved to Manhattan, worked as a waiter and at a fruit-and-vegetable stand. I lived in a cheap railroad flat on East 171st Street, took classes at Juilliard and finally worked my way into Stella Adler’s Actors Studio. And that made all the difference. This woman was like getting a flame inside you, she was so inspirational.” – Robert Davi
In the book Acting: Onstage and Off, Robert Barton wrote: “More than anyone else, Stella Adler brought into public awareness all the close careful attention to text and analysis Stanislavski endorsed.”
Robert Davi studied with Adler for three years, and also with Lee Strasberg, having become a lifetime member of the Actors Studio.
Davi made his motion picture debut in a TV movie called Contract On Cherry Street, in which he shared the screen with mythical entertainer Frank Sinatra.
SPOILER ALERT: this relationship was far from over.
Few movies have deserved the long time cult status that 1985’s The Goonies has.
It is also a good example of the impact that a actor-storyteller like Davi can have in a film.
“All right, we’ve got eight kids in this, and this big set and the pirate thing. Now what am I going to bring to this character that’s unique and unusual?”
One of his mentor Adler’s most basic directives was: “don’t be boring.”
A scene was written in which Davi´s Jake Fratelli is feeding the disfigured character Sloth in the basement.
“It was written that I’d just put the food down and when Sloth went to reach for it, I’d move it away sadistically with my foot, and then I would bring it closer and move it away a little more.”
Davi felt it to be too disgusting. “I wanted to create a character that you could also laugh at and have sympathy for, in a certain way.”
A solution presented itself that gave him the key to the whole character. Davi told Richard Donner and Steven Spielberg his idea for Jake Fratelli: “he was a frustrated opera singer, and no one would listen to him”.
“So, the only time he had a chance to express himself was when he was feeding Sloth. I introduced the opera-singing there, and when Sloth just starts to scream over my singing, it hurts my feelings, because now he’s not even listening to me.”
To have the villain, the antagonist strike chords of sympathy with the audience lends much that more depth to the comedy persona.
THAT, Mr. Hitchcock, is not cattle. That is a capable performer and storyteller adding yet another layer of meaning to the story.
Jake Fratelli singing here amplifies the terror of the child character, which is made much more memorable by the humor and levity that Davi brings to the scene. ‘Scary funny’ is a winning movie-making proposition.
Robert Davi brought his by-now recognizable brand of tough guy to yet another classic blockbuster for the ages, playing Vietnam veteran and FBI Special Agent Johnson in Die Hard (1988).
[you can see the scene here]
When James Bond producer Albert R. Broccoli cast Italian-American Davi as Colombian drug lord and lead villain Franz Sanchez in the 1989 Bond film “Licence to Kill”, there was no politically correct crowd to cry “cultural appropriation”.
Davi had no trouble impersonating a Hispanic villain in a fictional Caribbean Island – and more, he did it in an iconic way.
Davi was always well aware of the dangers of typecasting, of producers tying him to a certain role for all his career. “If you look at the careers of people like Anthony Quinn, James Cagney, even Tommy Lee Jones, they all were cast as villains.”
“There comes a certain point in your life, in your late 30s, early 40s, when suddenly that can change. Maybe a director sees a glimpse of something else within you along the way. I played comedy in The Goonies, which showed something else was going on. Even when I played the Bond villain in Licence to Kill, there were some people who were rooting for that character ahead of the traditional hero.”
That Robert Davi could make Franz Sanchez be sympathetic was a feat, since the drug lord crippled character Felix Leiter (Bond’s friend) by feeding his legs to a Great White Shark, and also killed Felix’s wife on their wedding night!
In 1995, Davi had the opportunity to take his craft to the outer edge in his role as strip club manager Al Torres in Showgirls (1995).
“With “Showgirls”, I hadn’t really done anything with a real edge, not playing a character that had formalities, and wanting to, then, bring something different to that character.”
“For instance, I didn’t want to be the guy that had the typical three-piece suit, jacket and tie, running a strip joint. So I asked [director] Paul Verhoeven, “Could I be a little more predatory? Could I pick out a leopard-skin pattern for the shirt?”
“And the little dance I did there with Elizabeth Berkley when she’s gonna be the star, unfortunately it comes back to bite me on the ass a little bit. People that don’t tend to know my whole body of work – I can’t tell you the community of people that loved the picture. It used to play like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’.”
From 1996 to 2000, Robert Davi did cross over to the “good guys” as the FBI agent Bailey Malone in “Profiler.” In no less than 82 episodes of the four-season series, Davi plays a former Marine and head of the Violent Crimes Task Force.
His character is a mentor and old friend to Dr. Sam Waters, and very protective of the female co-lead.
Having spent a lifetime in this trade, and countless hours in a movie set, storyteller Robert Davi was well qualified to successfully venture into playing a more prominent role in the making of a film.
In 2007, Davi produced, directed, co-wrote, and starred in “The Dukes,” the story of a once-successful Doo Wop group who fall on hard times and turn criminals.
In this heist movie-dark comedy with a heart, he pays a nice homage to his own movie persona, and plays a character at once a singer and a robber – but in a comedy setting.
In the body of work of 140 film and TV credits, there are, of course, many productions that didn’t quite withstand the test of time. Some are so bad that they’re kinda cool.
Here, it’s fun to see how committed Davi is to this TV episode of “Traxx”, and how this clip ends with arguably one of the longest farts in cinematic history.
Davi began to focus again on singing, and worked with voice coach Gary Catona as he prepared to record his first album.
Produced by Phil Ramone, the album “Davi Sings Sinatra – On The Road To Romance” was released on October 24, 2011.
Featuring a thirty-piece orchestra, the album was recorded at the legendary Capitol Records Building in Hollywood, where Frank Sinatra recorded on many occasions.
Jazztimes called the album “uniformly impressive”.
Within weeks of its highly anticipated release, the album soared onto Billboard Magazine’s Jazz Chart, taking the number 6 spot for several weeks.
Jazz legend Quincy Jones had rare praise for the album: “As FS would say, ‘Koo, Koo.’ I have never heard anyone come this close to Sinatra’s sound — and still be himself. Many try, but Robert Davi has the voice, tone, the flavor and the swagger. What a surprise. He absolutely touched me down to my soul and brought back the essence and sound of ‘Old Blue Eyes’ himself.”
Lord only knows how hard it is to get a thumbs up from Quincy – let alone a raving, emotional review like this.
His singing credentials are not insignificant:
- Robert Davi was chosen by the United Nations to celebrate the Transformative Power of Music at the General Assembly in New York in June 2015
- and again for the 70 Anniversary Celebration of the UN in September.
- He was chosen to tribute SINATRA’s 100th birthday for the July 4th PBS SPECIAL.; 500,000 people outside the Capitol Building in DC and 15 million viewers.
- He was the guest singer on the Italian version of the Voice.
- Last January for the FRIARS club he performed along with Dionne Warwick and Wayne Newton and Deanna Martin for their special celebration to Sinatra.
- He received a World Artist award at the Ischia Film and Music Festival last July along with Andrea Bocelli, Helen Mirren, Antonio Banderas and Jimmy Kimmel.
- Performed a legendary concert in Italy at the PESCARA JAZZ festival last summer.
- Robert toured Australia, Sweden, Latvia, Budapest, Cologne, Italy to sold out crowds and standing ovations.
“NEW YORK, NEW YORK” – hearing it is believing it.
The songs from the Great American Songbook are great, and many seemingly immortal, even. But they need an artist with a clear vision and an aesthetic understanding of that greatness to tackle them to perfection.
Nothing annoys this writer more than hearing, for example, U2’s Bono Vox destroying “I’ve got you under my skin”. There is not, in the Irishman’s musak attempt, a drop of first-hand knowledge of the big-band era, or of the jazz-popular music amalgamations going on in the 40’s that informed the song.
But when it comes to Robert Davi, it’s a whole different ball-game. Legend has it that Sinatra bought him his first drink – and be it as it may, ever since then, he has apparently imbibed right from the fountain.
“New York, New York” is that kind of song that usually I can’t stand anymore. One too many classic versions and covers. It’s like ‘Yesterday’ – great song, but tired to the max.
But when Davi does it, somehow this does not apply. There is a truth to it that’s very compelling. His singing is the real deal, not a drop of dilettantism or phony virtuoso tricks in his professional delivery.
It’s also not a reimagining of Sinatra’s classic repertoire. He is using the same kind of orchestra, with new arrangements that pretty much pay homage to the originals. In this setup, anything other than a Sinatra-like quality of crooning and communicating with the audience would be a catastrophe.
And yet, Davi pulls it off with great style and – as Quincy ventured – swagger.
His sense of rhythmic division is top notch, meaning he can change some of the phrasings from Frank’s version without sounding ‘wrong’.
His vocal range is also impressive, he can dominate the very low notes with perfect control, and when the melody goes climbing for the upper register, he becomes even more pleasant to listen to.
Near the end of “New York, New York” there is a break where he sings “And find I’m A, number one/top of the list/King of the hill/A number one…” – Robert Davi extends the last note with an ease and a technique that has the audience (and me) howling with approval.
And when he rolls down from the top of his vocal reach in a killer glissando back to a very low note, you can’t help but see – this guy is a real pro.
But it’s not only about singing great – it’s about making the repertoire come alive. Fact is, a few minutes into the song, and you feel that “these vagabond shoes are longing to stray” – BIG TIME.
You want to wake up in the city that never sleeps. You are sent again in an emotional journey to the mythical Big Apple, where days are golden and dreams come true. That’s no mean feat in dystopian 2020.
Robert Davi is not a relic from an ancient era, but rather a living, pulsating sign of how great thing can be again, if we only have the competence and swagger to pull it off.
Davi is a devout Roman Catholic and also an outspoken political conservative, which is one of the toughest things to do in the entertainment industry today.
Once you discover who is the owner of that face, you realize that Robert Davi is really great and he is really tough.
With that killing smile.
I will leave you with Davi’s new song, “The House I live In”, first released by “Old blue eyes” in 1945, and which grew again in popularity after the 9/11 attacks.
Robert Davi manages to harness all the energy of this hymn of love, appreciation and patriotism, showing that these feelings are still very much alive, today.
“The children on the playground/The faces that I see/All races and religions/That’s America to me.”