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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 1)

"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."

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