You may not know his name but you definitely know his face and probably love a particular film he’s starred in. Robert Davi boasts over 118 roles in both film, television, and video games spanning all the way back to the late 1970s. Davi’s played the opera loving Jake Frattelli in The Goonies, the slimy stripclub owner in Showgirls, and Bond villain Franz Sanchez in License to Kill. Recently I published a review of the 1991 television movie White Hot that attracted Davi’s attention and he was gracious enough to sit down for an interview with me. Read after the jump to hear Davi discuss music, his favorite classic films, and a multitude of other things!
Let me begin with saying that appearances are deceiving. Despite playing gritty gangsters and the like Robert Davi is a nice guy. I told him before we started that I was incredibly nervous (being in two of my favorite movies makes him as big as Brad Pitt to me!) and after that it was smooth sailing, despite my cell phone causing problems! Next time I’ll be using a landline!
As mentioned above Robert Davi has a prolific career and is still going strong with roles in two upcoming films, The Iceman (a film I’m excited for) and the unsanctioned remake to Raging Bull now retitled The Bronx Bull. When he’s not working with films Davi indulges his love of music, recently embarking on a tour promoting his CD Davi Sings Sinatra. Davi says that singing is his “passion” and that while acting focuses on how an actor portrays a character, being on-stage “you see the totality of who I am. I feel I’ve been let out of prison in a certain way with music and I’d like the audience to feel that.” With such a diverse blend of projects and abilities Davi compares it all to being a tight rope walker, an analogy used by Al Pacino, “In film the high wire is planted in the ground, with a live performance you jump in the air.” I highly recommend checking out Davi’s songs courtesy of Davi Sings Sinatra. I will admit my knowledge of Sinatra music tends to be the overabundance of “cool” covers in films but these are great and you’ll be singing all day!
Moving on to Davi’s films is a different story as there are so many movies that you’ll say “Oh yeah he was in that.” In a perfect world I’d have loved to discuss each of Davi’s well-known films and characters but that would comprise a book (which I’d read in a heartbeat). Davi himself is nonchalant about his numerous roles. While he is able to look back at particular roles and say “hey that’s cool” there’s no one role that he feels should be placed on a pedestal as there’s still so much he wants to do in his career. He does mention it’s amazing being on the list of top Bond villains “as their the most successful series of films” but that each movie takes on its own “cult status.” One film he does make time to mention is the 1988 made for television movie Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami. For 1988 Davi says it tackles a subject “before the issue became nationally known….that was a powerful piece that had a lot of overtones to it.” Sadly quite a few of Davi’s made-for-television and smaller work is hard to find on DVD or other outlets…someone should get on that!
The film that propelled Davi into talking with me was the aforementioned White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd where I praised Davi highly for his portrayal of gangster Lucky Luciano. Clicking the title will take you to my original review. I asked Davi if he had any stories behind the making-of that film and portraying Luciano. Davi says he “always likes to do extensive research” when he plays any character “to find out as much as you can.” For Luciano he made sure to depict the gangster in both temperament and appearance even down to wearing glasses, a Luciano trait. Davi has played gangsters before in several films and before White Hot he had played Vito Genovese in the television series The Gangster Chronicles so he knew about Luciano already, “the folklore of the character.” I mentioned to Davi that it’s hard not to play a gangster like the stock, stereotypical figures that are too often seen in films. Davi responded by telling a story that happened after filming White Hot in which a 90-year-old man who knew Luciano “gave me a tremendous compliment in terms of the portrayal” and found Davi’s performance entirely authentic to the real man.
Another White Hot anecdote involves Thelma Todd star Loni Anderson. If you haven’t seen the film (and you should for its campy sensibilities alone), there’s a passionate kiss between Thelma and Luciano. “Loni was very sweet about that scene. She wanted a very kind of romantic kiss of the time not this tongue-down-the-throat, back of your neck kiss.” Davi also calls Anderson and director Paul Wendkos (the director of Gidget! Damn I should have mentioned that to Davi, wonder what his reaction would have been) as “a lot of fun to work with.”
A fun director and star are one thing, but what else about a project (in any genre) is enough to grasp Davi’s attention? For him it boils down to “character and the people involved…if I think I can do something with it [the character] and the project overall.” It’s all about the character and how complex it is and while he’s known for villains he’s also played men with good motivations, reiterating the point that regardless of context, it’s what the character can be that cements Davi’s support.
One film to seek out soon is The Iceman, the story of true-life contract killer Richard Kuklinski (played by Michael Shannon) directed by up and coming director Ariel Vromen. It’s received rave reviews out of the festivals its hit already and Davi has nothing but praise for it, calling star Michael Shannon “a brilliant young actor” (it’s true!) and that the film includes “a strong ensemble cast.” Davi plays Leo Marks, a character based on a member of the Gambino crime family. I’ve heard the film boasts shades of Goodfellas and The Godfather which is a high pedigree already. Davi says, “I think the film is very powerful…The acting is all fantastic.” Included in the cast is Chris Evans, Winona Ryder, Ray Liotta, and James Franco and while it doesn’t have a release date yet both Davi and I are excited to see it hit theaters.
With all these roles, both past, present and future, there’s no denying that Davi is still relevant and known on some level. I asked my entire family and a few friends if they knew who Robert Davi was and while sadly they didn’t recognize the name, once I started listing titles and characters everyone knew! Davi himself takes the words out of my mouth when he says “everyone knows my face, not a lot of people know my name.” He does do numerous things catering to a variety of audiences, whether they know it or not. He’s done voice work for the Halo video game series, the Scarface video game, and Grand Theft Auto, one of the best ways to find new audiences. Davi found that providing the voice for the Halo series made him popular with his 11-year-old son and his friends. “The youth market on those games is so huge…you become appreciated by a younger generation.” He finds that “all roads lead to Rome in terms of you being appreciated or discovered by the public.” It’s a sentiment mimicked in his work on The Goonies, another entertainment venue that has “such a wide range in kids and adults” who love it and admire it. Davi also has to admit, that voice acting is easier than filming since “you can go in[to the studio] in a pair of Bermuda shorts and a Hawaiian t-shirt and do the voice.”
Since Journeys in Classic Film caters to the classic film market I had to ask Davi about his own classic film interests. The actor has been fortunate enough to appear opposite the titans of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Frank Sinatra and Marlon Brando. In fact Davi’s first role as an actor, at the age of twenty, was in the 1977 television movie Contract on Cherry Street starring Sinatra! Davi appeared opposite Brando in the 1992 film Christopher Columbus: The Discovery. When I asked Davi if there were any actors he wished he could work with and he mentioned it was difficult to answer “when you have my kind of appetite and eclectic sensibility.” It’s such an all-encompassing question and yet Davi did mention how “it would have been nice to work with Bogart or Spencer Tracy.” Interesting considering Davi and Bogart have played “heavy’s” and other similar gritty characters. Davi also enjoys classic films, especially foreign ones (which I had to admit to him I haven’t had nearly enough study of) “like the early Fellini, Rossellini, de Sica.” Favorite foreign films include La Dolce Vita, The Shoeshine Boy, and Pickpocket. That’s not to ignore the greats which Davi also enjoys such as Citizen Kane, Casablanca, and The Searchers all the way to The Godfather and other modern-day films. Davi was also awesome enough to recommend a movie, the 1948 film Force of Evil starring John Garfield. According to Davi “it’s a terrific film” and I’m definitely going to watch that!
There’s no denying that Davi’s name will be listed as one of the great character actors of our time eventually. He’s definitely staying on my favorite actors list and I thank him for being amazing enough to praise a young blogger’s work, who knew I’d actually get to talk to an actor I’ve loved in films?! Thanks again to Robert for taking time out of his day to talk to me, it is appreciated believe me!
A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.