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Playing the Heavy

Actor Robert Davi has made a career of playing tough guys with a signature cigar.
Paul Chutkow
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96

(continued from page 2)

Davi says he resisted the idea, but his mother was persuasive: "What have you got to lose?" she asked him. The clincher, he says, was his own youthful hormones: "All the pretty Irish girls were in the glee club," he says with a laugh, stabbing a piece of zucchini.

In high school, Davi began entering local competitions for dramatic interpretation--and he began winning prizes. "We had some sort of competition every week," he says. "It was like getting an Oscar almost every week."

Robert's mother was a strong influence on his interest in music and theater. The way Davi describes her, she was a warm Italian momma who loved music and old movies. And she had a true gift for motivating her children. "I had a TV in my room, which was sort of the family den," Davi recalls. "My mother would sit with me in there and we'd watch old movies. 'This is Spencer Tracy,' she'd say, or 'This is Humphrey Bogart.'"

When he was 16, Robert contracted a mysterious illness. He had severe pain in his right arm and joints, combined with bad congestion and inflammation in his chest and lungs. He lost 40 pounds, dropping from his football playing weight of 220 to 230 down to 180. Davi says there was no definitive diagnosis. When he failed to improve, his family--his mother in particular--sought help through prayer and even from faith healers. Robert's own religious faith remained strong, he says, and when the strange illness lifted, some of the doctors treating him declared, "This is a miracle."

The illness plunged Robert into introspection and metaphysics and, he says, it ultimately gave his life a clearer sense of purpose and direction. He dropped out of sports ("I just didn't have the will to play") and he plunged headlong into theater arts. He got into Hofstra University on a drama scholarship and began working with its famous Shakespeare program, which includes a campus replica of Shakespeare's Globe Theater. After a time, though, Robert lost interest in school. Instead, he held a larger ambition: to work with the great Stella Adler, mentor to Marlon Brando and so many other talented actors.

"I was frustrated at Hofstra, 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."

Davi worked with Adler for three years and also studied with Lee Strasberg. During his apprenticeship, he acted in a rich variety of plays, from Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard and The Seagull to Shakespeare's Much Ado About Nothing and Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. He also got involved in a start-up opera company on Long Island. "I sang baritone, but I had the heart of a tenor," Davi recalls with a laugh, now tearing into his filet mignon, done perfectly and served with a mountain of French fries.

In 1978, when Davi was 24 and still looking for his breakthrough role, he heard about an audition for an NBC movie starring Frank Sinatra, the Italian kid from Hoboken who was his family's hero and his mother's heartthrob. "As soon as I heard about the casting call, I went to the production offices on Fifth Avenue in search of an audition," Davi says. Told to come back the next day with a photo and résumé, Davi instead raced home, got the photo and résumé and came right back. The tactic worked; he was assigned an audition time immediately. And here there's another lovely family story, even if it sounds a bit apocryphal.

"My mother was diagnosed with lung cancer that same week," Davi says. "One night, Frank Sinatra appeared on television and my mother purportedly pleaded to his image on the small screen, 'Frank, help my son!' " Davi got the part, of course, went to Los Angeles and played the role of Mickey Sinardos in Contract on Cherry Street, with Sinatra in the lead.

Davi never moved back to New York. He began working regularly, in the TV miniseries "From Here to Eternity" and "The Gangster Chronicles," about the beginnings of the mob. He also had small roles in a number of eminently forgettable feature films, including Goonies, Wild Things and Raw Deal.

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