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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 3)

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.

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.

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