Interview: Robert DaviOctober 3, 2018
Recently we had the chance to talk to Robert Davi, who not only has over 150 acting credits to his name but is a very accomplished jazz singer as well. He talked about his acting, singing and recent documentary “Davi’s Way”, an attempt to re-create Frank Sinatra’s famous ‘Main Event’ concert at Madison Square Garden on Sinatra’s 100th birthday.
When you first started out in the entertainment world why did you choose acting over singing, because singing seems to be your true love?
Robert: Well, a few things had happened. I loved the acting as well, I was studying with Stella Adler, currently, I was working on the voice and I loved the opera. What I didn’t like was the stilted acting in the opera world, so one of these things in the back of my mind was being so obsessed with the voice I would lose the subtlety of acting because I love film. Then also, I was a baritone with the heart of a tenor and some baritones have been transformed into tenors but again, all the great romantic arias were in the tenor repertoire in the opera, so I was sometimes singing that and I oversang and had a vocal strain. So there was a period of time where I had to rest my voice for a while and during that time I just focused more on the acting, went to the Acting Studio, did my first film and things took off.
You’ve played what most would describe as the heavy or bad guy in your career. Was that enjoyable and did you find it hard to branch out and do different things?
Robert: Well you know, we didn’t call it the bad guy so much, it was the tough guy, and I analyzed the careers of Charles Bronson, Humphrey Bogart, Robert Mitchum, even James Cagney and a lot of the really strong actors starting out playing the bad guy and then transformed into playing the tough guy. Stella Adler had told me early on this was going to happen and you’re going to make that transition, which is what happened. I then did a couple of films where I was the hero and then I did a TV series for NBC called Profiler, where I was the leading man, head of the FBI and we did one hundred episodes. That kind of reiterated the frustration initially of being cast as the bad guy.
You’re motion picture debut, Contract on Cherry Street, you shared screen time with Frank Sinatra. What was that like for you, both personally and professionally?
Robert: When you think about Sinatra, he was a figure that was transformative in terms of the Italian/American immigrant. He was the first singer and actor who gave a different perception, they were gangsters and thugs, and now all of a sudden Sinatra becomes this iconic figure, first in music then in film, and he gave inspiration to guys like myself who wanted to sing and act and also to the whole community. At the same time, he was a man who was against bigotry of any kind, he was very socially conscious, he wouldn’t perform at a venue if a black artist wasn’t respected in it, and this was in the early forties and fifties, so he was a huge influence.
I recognize you, as a lot of people do, from movies like The Goonies and Die Hard but when you did the James Bond movie License to Kill, did you think that was going to be your big break and open doors for you?
Robert: You know a Bond film, even when I was a kid on Long Island, I’d go to a Bond film and the name Albert R. Broccoli would come on the screen and then the theme song, it was exciting. I mean, as kids you would pretend to live out the Bond fantasies, the girls wanted to be Bond girls and the guys wanted to be either Bond or the villain. When I got to Hollywood it was the same thing, all the producers and directors, actors and actresses, they all wanted to be part of the Bond films. I thought yeah, this film is going to give me international success and it did, it was even more successful overseas than it was in the States.
Ok, so let’s talk about the documentary “Davi’s Way”. Where did the idea come from to recreate the ‘Main Event’ at Madison Square Garden?
Robert: The idea came from me wanting to pay tribute to Sinatra’s 100th anniversary. The ‘Main Event’, I remember as a kid in 1974, the excitement around him coming to Madison Square Garden, there was something very exciting about that whole thing so I wanted to try and recreate that moment. Now the idea for the documentary, that came from Danny A., we did The Iceman together, great cast, great film and we became good friends because of that. He came to my show in Long Island, saw me perform to almost fifteen thousand people and I had written a script about a guy who wanted to sing and I gave it to him because Danny was producing and he said you know what, I’ll produce a documentary. We then got the team together and the rest is what you see in “Davi’s Way”.
When I was watching the documentary, and seeing all the setbacks that were happening, how stressful was that? Was there ever a time that you thought this might not actually happen?
Robert: You mean quit? No, I’m not a quitter. The other thing was I didn’t want to sanitize anything, I didn’t want to do a fluff piece where I come across all sweet and wonderful. After all these years I know a little bit about what it takes to be theatrical and it was fun, very scary, but fun to play around with it and nothing was scripted, it was all improv.
What would you like viewers to come away with after watching this?
Robert: Well, I would like them to of course appreciate my music and want to learn more about what I’m doing in terms of singing and to appreciate my persistence and passion. My parents, they didn’t know anyone in the industry but they gave me love and support, always supported me in what I wanted to do and my daughter, who sang in the documentary, I tried to do the same for her. I would say hey, get a concert together, do some stuff, be self-motivated, no one is going to give something without you being self-motivated so I wanted her to understand that nothing is handed to you on a silver platter.
Did you find that hard, as both a father and a singer, when it came to giving your daughter advice about singing?
Robert: No, because I had given her plenty of advice over the years about all of that. She would try and guilt me into it with, dad, why won’t you help me, and I was helping her but she wasn’t listening to my advice. One of the first cars she got was an expensive car, my first car was a Honda Civic. I didn’t care about a car payment or what car I was driving, I cared about my voice lessons, my acting lessons, I cared about that hunger. I told her in the documentary, do a concert, then I will invite the right people, but put together your show.
What is it about singing that gives you such joy, makes you so happy?
Robert: The channeling of music, just the vibration of music, it just lifts the spirit, doesn’t it? Music is a sub-textual experience in a way because it releases a different energy. This music, the great American Songbook, besides having wonderful stories in terms of either the elation of love or heartbreak or social statement, whatever it may be, it also has the depth of lyric and the poetry of lyric. All good music gives you that experience but for me, I grew up with this, the genre I like, jazz and the American Songbook but had I grown up today, who knows what would have inspired me? It was also Sinatra’s voice that inspired me because there was something in his vocal production, his interpretation of the song that was personalized, I called him the first method singer. The songs were the diary of his life, he gave you that experience and that’s hopefully what I do in my shows with the audience, so you’ll able to lose all of yourself in the music. You’re up there on stage in front of people, whether it’s five hundred or five thousand or fifteen thousand, it’s just an amazing feeling to communicate, in communion with them, with the music.
Now that the documentary is finished, looking back, how do you feel about the whole process and the finished product?
Robert: Well because it’s so raw and I didn’t want it sanitized, sometimes it’s painful and embarrassing. I put myself out there and sometimes it was frustrating because there are aspects that are not explained in there but the way they edited it made it feel irrational. For instance, the night of the show I said I had a set list of thirty-five songs and they said I had to be out of there at a certain time. Usually, when they film a performance it will be three nights or a week, so they have a lot to work with, different songs, different takes on the same song, all of that. I knew we had one night and had five cameras to cover that one night, I wanted to sing as much as I could to get enough coverage to work with. When you’re creating, you’re not thinking about time, you’re thinking about doing the best you can for the show you’re filming, so that really wasn’t explained.
The other thing was, when Stevie came to me and wanted me to do his script, that could have been explained, because the character he wanted me to do was a guy who liked gay bashing, a clichéd mob guy in a way and I found that offensive, I didn’t want to portray that. He subsequently re-wrote the script and made the characters gay, which then took that shit off of it, you know what I mean? So I helped him with it but that’s not really explained. Also, with the venues, I had everything set up with the boxing ring, either at Eisenhower Park at Long Island in the outdoors or at Foxwoods Casino. Then all of a sudden they moved the date of the performance up to May and in March and April I’m touring the world doing my show so how can I get the people I need to put together that show? That’s not really explained either but the way it’s edited it does capture the essence of the frustration, but that’s just me wanting to have justification for being the asshole I was in some places.
Do you like mixing up your singing career and your acting roles or would you like to focus on just one thing?
Robert: I love mixing it up, I love it. I think of the life Sinatra had, he went from film to acting to concerts and I mean how fortunate am I? There are not many singers that have had the film career I’ve had and I kind of like that.
So what projects do you have coming up next, both in acting and singing?
Robert: I have a concert in Italy coming up for Lamborghini in Bologna, I’ll be in Marbella filming a movie in October, in South Beach I have a series called Paper Empire that I’m the star of, I play Lawrence Finch, who’s a financial genius at cryptocurrency and I just finished a movie in New York called Apalachin where I play Vito Genovese, a true story from 1957.
I want to thank Robert for taking the time to talk with us.
The documentary “Davi’s Way” is now available on iTunes and Amazon worldwide.