Playing the Heavy
Actor Robert Davi has made a career of playing tough guys with a signature cigar.
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96
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His performance in Terrorist impressed the producers of the James Bond series, and they cast him in the high-profile role of Franz Sanchez in License to Kill. To prepare, Davi immersed himself in Colombian music and culture, and in search of authenticity and feel he even met with the architect of the home of the fabled drug kingpin Pablo Escobar. The research and hard work paid off; he gave a convincing--and chilling--portrayal of Sanchez. The role also gave Davi a taste of the international big time; he was on the road promoting the movie worldwide for 4 1/2 months.
In the late 1980s, at a party at Mickey Rourke's house, Davi met supermodel Christine Bolster, the original model for Guess Jeans. Later, at a photo shoot for GQ magazine, he bumped into her again, and a romance blossomed. They married, and the couple now has two young girls, ages 4 and 6. While he's a devoted husband and father, Davi does not really think of himself as a family man. "I'm more of a loner," he says. "There's a conflict between being an actor and being a husband. Part of you wants both, but both sides are always fighting each other. You're always trying to find that balance between home and career."
To decompress from work and family, Davi tools around on either of his two Harley-Davidson motorcycles, works out at the gym and sometimes hangs out at the Grand Havana Room, the smart-set cigar club in Beverly Hills. But because of "Profiler" and a flurry of movies Davi has made over the past few years, he hasn't had much time for Grand Havana of late. But he says it is a great comfort knowing it's there, should his work pace slow down: "I used to say there's nothing better than to be out of work and hang around the Grand Havana smoking a great cigar."
When he's working on the set, Davi loves a cigar break, but he also has a smoke-free way of unwinding: joking around and pulling pranks. Tom Berenger and Davi became friends during the making of the 1995 low-budget movie An Occasional Hell, and Berenger says working with Davi was always uproarious: "He's pretty funny. Really funny. I'd do scenes with him and it was everything I could do to not crack up. One morning on the set I caught him singing 'Old MacDonald.' He said, 'It keeps me out of that New York accent.' "
Knowing Davi's lighter side, Berenger says it's too bad that the viewing public has come to associate Davi almost exclusively with tough guys. "He's kind of a puppy dog in some ways," Berenger says. "Bob really should do a lot more comedy, but you don't have much control over those kinds of things." Berenger often refers to himself as a "soldat du cinéma," a soldier of cinema, meaning a grunt who takes orders, not a big star who can give orders. Davi surely fits the same description.
That could change, though, with "Profiler." With the series in its infancy, Davi and co-star Ally Walker have been working closely with the writers and producers to flesh out and establish the characters. To make their characters realistic, Davi and Walker worked with a retired FBI agent, and they have been deeply involved in the creative process.
"A project like this is a living, breathing thing," Davi says, resting up for dessert. "The artists--meaning the actors and writers--are the ones going into the pit, journeying into another world, and we know when something is working and when it isn't. If it's not working, we go back to the writers. It's not about ego; it's about quality work."
It's also about expanding your skills. "I get frustrated if I don't have the creative process, I get frustrated just being a monkey," Davi says. "Even Shakespeare had collaboration." Because he likes to be so involved in the process, Davi can easily envision himself directing or producing one day. In fact, he has a story in the works now that he wants to direct.
But at this stage, Davi's focus remains on acting and turning "Profiler" into a major success. He is thoroughly enjoying the impact and visibility of doing a weekly TV series. "The reach and power of TV are incredible," he says. Each week, "Profiler" reaches a viewing public that is larger than a feature film that grosses $200 million, Davi says. How is that possible? Because the week after a "Profiler" segment is shown in the United States, that same segment is shown in 44 countries around the world, thanks to advanced technology and a vast network of foreign distribution.
The pace of the show is grueling. In essence, the "Profiler" team is turning out a small feature movie every eight days. With that kind of daily grind and pressure, Ally Walker says it's good to have a veteran like Davi playing opposite her and keeping things loose. To keep her relaxed and somewhat off-balance, she says Davi constantly slips into rollicking imitations of Bogart or Italian gangsters.
"I love Robert," says Walker. "I think he's one of the funniest people I've ever met. And we're trying to inject some of that into the show. Because that's how intelligent people are; they relieve stress with humor." Walker knows what she's talking about. Her father's a scientist, her mother an attorney, and Ally studied biology and chemistry in college and worked for a time as a researcher in genetic engineering.
Beside intelligence and humor, Davi and Walker have another basis for a lasting friendship: cigars. Walker grew up among cigar smokers in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When she was trying to quit smoking cigarettes, she would often light up a small Montecristo instead. She still enjoys Montecristos on occasion and she also likes a fine Romeo y Julieta. Still, as a cigar lover, she will never be a match for Robert Davi.
"Sometimes I start early, sometimes with a robusto at 9 a.m., before the gym," says Davi. "I average about three cigars a day, but I can get up to six or eight cigars a day when I'm smoking heavily. Why do I love cigars? I could say the obvious, that it's comparable to opening a great bottle of Champagne, or seeing a great boxing match, or having a great red wine at dinner, that sort of thing. But it's not that. I get a certain craving, a certain idea."
In "Profiler," Bailey Malone often gets that same craving, and the script writers have learned that they'd better keep their cigar intelligence up to snuff: Davi is a stickler for cigar accuracy. During the shooting of one early segment, Bailey Malone was meeting with a shadowy informant and the dialogue called for him to say, "Ah, a Cohiba." The problem was that the prop involved was a Montecristo No. 2, not a Cohiba, and Davi kicked up a ruckus. "Bailey would obviously know a Cohiba from a Montecristo," he says. "So I made the writers change the dialogue."
By this stage of the lunch, Davi has knocked back his filet, a mountain of fries, a big salad and even a tasty biscotti or two. Sated, refreshed and ready to go home for a nap, Robert Davi seems a happy man. And why not? Here's a guy starring in a big TV series, he has the original Guess Jeans model waiting for him at home, and Monte's and the Grand Havana Room treat him like a king of the realm. And besides, as he heads out into the bright L.A. afternoon, what is this man cradling in his hand? A long, lush Fuente Fuente Opus X, just begging for a match.
Yes, Robert Davi, you have arrived.
Paul Chutkow, a freelance writer based in northern California, is the author of Depardieu, a biography of French actor Gerard Depardieu.
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