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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It's not chic, it's not trendy, and it's no place to camp out waiting for a glimpse of Arnold or Demi. Monte's is located out in the San Fernando Valley, and it's a big, homey, slap-you-on-the-back sort of place, with great steaks, a friendly bar, a huge TV for watching sports and a faithful clientele that wouldn't be caught dead drinking a white wine spritzer or a kir royal. Monte's is Robert Davi's neighborhood hangout, and it's definitely his kind of place.
"Ho, sorry I'm late," Davi says, rushing in for lunch. "We worked all night, until 7:30 this morning, and I slept right through my alarm clock."
Davi looks as though he's just rolled out of bed. He's dressed in rumpled khaki shorts and a silky shirt of electric blue. His hair's still wet, straight out of the shower, and pulled down over it is a baseball-style cap, bill to the rear. The insignia on the cap: Cigar Aficionado. To emphasize the point, Davi has arrived for lunch armed to the teeth: in his fist he's clutching a half-dozen fine cigars.
Davi is not a casual cigar smoker; he's a passionate devotee and has been since long before cigars became high chic in the Hollywood of the 1990s. In his work in movies and television, Davi also likes to have a cigar in hand, to help him add a distinctive flair to his many memorable characterizations of heavies and bad guys. In the James Bond film License to Kill, he played Franz Sanchez, a ruthless Colombian drug lord with a taste for sadism and Dunhills. He has also played an array of gangsters, a Palestinian terrorist, a Mexican bandito and, in the first Die Hard, a hard-edged FBI agent in Los Angeles.
Now, though, Davi is enjoying an exciting departure and a major career opportunity as a good guy. In the new NBC series "Profiler," he's starring as Bailey Malone, the head of an elite FBI anti-crime unit. At Davi's urging, Malone has been written as a tough but warmhearted FBI pro--with a taste for whisky and, of course, fine cigars.
"Malone is an aficionado," Davi says, settling in for what will be his breakfast. "As an FBI agent, he's a man who seeks the truth. And he's also a man who, even from a distance, can distinguish a Cohiba from a Montecristo No. 2."
As a wake-me-up, Davi now orders a monster coffee--a big mug of American coffee with a jolt of espresso jiggered in. In a few moments, he has ordered a breakfast of fried zucchini with cheese melted over the top and a huge filet mignon, one of Monte's specialties. Now he's ready to properly start the day, with a Hoyo de Monterrey Double Corona.
Davi is a bit bleary this afternoon, and with good reason. With "Profiler" in its infancy, Davi has been working around the clock and under enormous stress. He co-stars with Ally Walker, who plays Dr. Sam Waters, a brilliant forensic psychologist with an unusual gift for visualizing the way a crime has taken place and "profiling" the perpetrator. Davi and Walker, with their writers and producers, are still feeling their way, trying to hone their characters and establish the right chemistry between them. As with any start-up venture, there have been frustrations and growing pains. But all the effort feels good to him; at long last, Robert Davi has arrived.
"Unless you're a pretty boy with uncommon appeal--immediate leading man appeal--the normal progression in an acting career is from bad guy to good guy," Davi says. "And it's a progression that happens little by little. It's been hard, but now I'm there."
With a single glance you can see why Davi has so often been typecast as a heavy or a bad guy. The 6-foot, 185-pound actor cuts an imposing figure, with broad shoulders, muscular forearms, and a bearing of strong, almost menacing authority. His face is rugged and distinctive, with prominent cheekbones and folds and creases that suggest a man of character, with hard-earned knowledge of the darker side of the human psyche. Even his voice is edgy, especially when his New York accent is coming through loud and clear.
In conversation, though, a very different man comes to the fore. Davi is funny, light-hearted, a perpetual prankster, and a serious husband and father. And as his fancy for Monte's suggests, there is something refreshingly un-Hollywood about him. He couldn't give a fig about pomp or pretense or putting on airs. Indeed, as he smokes his double corona and talks about his upbringing and early training in theater and music, you can easily see that behind Robert Davi's fearsome gangster's face there beats the heart of a puppy dog, most likely a playful, slobbery Lab.
"I was born in Queens, in Astoria, in a big Italian family," Davi says. The year was 1953. His father, Sal, was born in southern Italy, and though his mother, Mary, was born in America, her family came from southern Italy as well. His maternal grandfather, Stefano Rullo, was a colorful character who had a big impact on Robert as he grew up. Stefano worked for a while laying railroad track in the coal mining regions of Pennsylvania. According to Robert, his grandfather also worked for a while as a bootlegger. When Robert was five, the family--including Grandpa Stefano and his wife, Michelina--moved out of Queens to a two-story brick house on a rural patch of Long Island. With three generations living under the same roof, the common language at the table was frequently Italian.
"I spoke Italian as a kid," says Davi. "I also grew up with red wine. Mucho red wine. Grandpa Stefano would make and barrel red wine in the garage, often with me at his side. I have vivid memories of the smell of fermentation and of the wooden barrels we stored in the garage."
He also grew up with cigars prevalent in the house. Stefano smoked the little Italian cigars known as Toscanos, and Uncle Mike, Stefano's son, loved cigars as well. "I probably had my first cigar when I was 13 or 14," Davi recalls.
Still, his upbringing was hardly freewheeling. He went to Catholic primary schools on Long Island and then to Seton Hall, a Catholic high school. "I had a good education, a very respectful education." And, he adds, he grew up in a racially tolerant family, community and school: "I didn't grow up with any prejudice."
For a long time, sports were Davi's grand passion in life, and he was a school standout in football and baseball. Always big for his age, he played defensive tackle and sometimes offensive end. "I was a lefty, and in baseball I played first base and was a pretty good hitter." The way Davi describes it, his was very much an All-American youth, albeit with an Italian accent. His friends had names such as Sal De Rosa and Joey Lamingino.
While he shone in sports at school, at home he was exposed to a different sort of calling: music. Opera and classical music filled the Davi house, with Puccini being a family favorite. His grandmother sang, while his grandfather had an old windup record player he loved to crank up, except when Robert's mother was drilling him in his lessons. At school young Robert gravitated toward classes in drama and oratory. He loved Jerry Lewis, and at home he often played the family clown. Davi says he began acting formally in the ninth grade, and one of his first roles was in a school production of Macbeth.
His move into music came soon thereafter. The story goes that one day one of the nuns at Seton Hall overheard Robert singing in the locker room shower and she called Robert's mother on the phone. "Your son has a beautiful voice," she said. "Please encourage him to join our glee club."
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.
But this was not a happy period for Davi. Between 1977 and 1979, his parents, his sister and two of his grandparents died. Davi says dealing with the family tragedies was profoundly painful. One day at 20th Century Fox, he recalls, he met an attractive woman and they rushed into a relationship and marriage. In 1980 she gave birth to their son, Sean-Christian. Davi now describes that marriage as a kind of escape. "I couldn't face death; I wanted to create life," he says. The marriage did not last.
Though his roles during this period and into the 1980s were not stupendous, Davi honed his acting and developed a flair for foreign accents. His gift for music was a definite asset in this regard and so was his childhood facility with Italian. To prepare for a role with a foreign accent, Davi starts by immersing himself in the music of his character's country of origin. "The music gives you a blood rhythm; you have to feel the language, not just get the words right."
In 1988, ready for a major role, Davi landed the part of a Palestinian terrorist, drawn along the lines of the notorious terrorist Abu Nidal, in the TV movie Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami. The project was the brainchild of the highly respected producer George Englund, who has made such movies as The Ugly American and Shoes of a Fisherman and who has worked with Brando and Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward.
"Bob prepared extremely well for that part," Englund recalls. "He gave a very successful, very weighty reading. And he came in with a good accent, which is something he has a knack for." To prepare that accent, Davi met with many Arabs and Palestinians, trying to absorb their music, culture, mind-sets and, finally, the intonations and nuances of their languages. The result, Englund says, was a very convincing performance in a very difficult role: "It was a delicate thing because the Arab community at that time was getting very volatile about the way Arabs were being portrayed in the movies. So Bob had to be believable. That was key."
As convincing as Davi was, the role was still that of a bad guy; there was just no breaking Hollywood's typecasting, which Englund says is regrettable. "As an actor, Bob's well-schooled, well-prepared and with a very strong background. He has a very singular appearance, and that's the good news and the bad news. He fits perfectly into what would be called heavies. People making movies want his face. The last thing they want is for him to show interesting facets. I've often told him, 'Robert, you're always going to have to win it on sheer merit. You just don't have the looks of Troy Donahue or Tom Cruise.'"
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.
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