He may be best known for his tough guy roles in (Licence to Kill and Showgirls), but as Robert Davi put it, when it comes to singing, he’s “not just your grandmother’s Oldsmobile.”
This is an interview that almost wasn’t. Within hours of posting word that Robert Davi is going to perform an evening of Sinatra tunes Saturday, May 7, from aboard the USS Midway, we learned that Mr. Davi was not amused with my use of the term “tough monkey” as a descriptor. I lifted it from From Here to Eternity — the film that earned Sinatra an Oscar —and thought surely Davi would get the joke.
“Yeah, I got it,” he said on the phone a few days later, “but it wasn’t that. What I really took from the article was I’m a nice actor and all that, but what about the singing? Why not something like, ‘As Maggio would say, he’s not just a tough monkey, he’s a tough monkey who can sing.’”
Robert Davi Performs
Allow me to correct the oversight. 5000 Estonians can’t be wrong. That’s how many turned out to see him performed in Tallinn. Audiences in Australia, Sweden, Budapest, Latvia, Italy, and China have lined up to hear his music. The United Nations chose Davi to head their Transformative Power of Music concert last June. (He was the only jazz singer in the General Assembly.) His first album climbed to No. 6 on Billboard Jazz.
Perhaps his biggest badge of honor is this quote from Quincy Jones: “As FS would say, 'Koo, Koo.' Wow! I have never heard anyone come this close to Sinatra's sound — and still be himself. Many try, but Robert Davi has the voice, tone, the flavor and the swagger. What a surprise.”
Proceeds for Saturday night's event benefit the Rosie Network and Support the Enlisted Project (STEP), providing emergency financial education and support to active duty junior enlisted military and recently discharged veteran families.
Scott Marks: This is not your first time that you’ll be serenading audiences with Sinatra tunes. Tell me a bit about the gestation of the show.
Robert Davi: First off, the gestation of my musical life was I was first place New York State’s New Music Association solo competition as a kid. I love the opera. And I love the [Great American] Songbook. I would listen to Caruso and Sinatra and all those great singers on one of those wind-up record players that my grandfather had in the basement. I was invited to go to Florence, Italy by Tito Gobbi, who was the Marlon Brando of the opera world. I studied under Samuel Margolis who taught Robert Merrill and even gave Sinatra workshops.
Sinatra was the first singer to apply the Bel Canto techniques to popular music. Most singers would listen to those songs and croon along. And that’s where it ends. They’ll take something from them, but not the deep vocal prowess that Sinatra had. I understood that vocally, and that’s why I responded to his voice. There’s something about Sinatra’s purity of tone, his portamento, his vowels, singing on the consonants, everything else that I understood.
SM: You made your screen debut opposite Sinatra in Contract on Cherry Street.
Contract on Cherry Street
RD: I didn’t want to go into the opera world because I felt that it would be a long road. I wanted to do something with the music that was more cinematic. Once my success as an actor came along, I was very nervous about the singing. In 2008, I directed my first film (The Dukes) with myself, Chazz Palminteri, Peter Bogdanovich, and Miriam Margolyes. It was about a doo-wop group, and I did one song in the thing. That got me to thinking. I always knew in the back of my mind that I wanted to go back to the music, but I didn’t know in what incarnation.
Sinatra had passed in 1998. There was nobody alive…there were great singers, but for me, other than Tony Bennett, no one was giving that experience. There were a lot of guys that replicate and do this and do that, but nobody had the film career nor that stage presence, the sense of whatever it was, that complexity that Sinatra had.
SM: Talk to me about the importance of these songs.
RD: The Great American Songbook is the Shakespeare of America. It’s the Golden Age of American music. And no one was framing the music the way that I was in terms of speaking about it. It’s the amalgam of the American experience from the black jazz and jump blues artists to the Scotch, Welsh, Irish, English, Native American, Lebanese…people who have been here since the revolutionary war. A large portion came from the sons and daughters of Jewish immigrants. You can almost say, without the Jews, there would be no Great American Songbook. Now you needed the Italian to sing it, of course. (Laughing.)
That music got our parents and grandparents through World Wars and a Depression. The romance of it, the lyrics, the respect for women even in heartbreak. That’s why the album was called On the Road to Romance. I wanted to romance our nation back to a certain cohesive understanding through the music. Kathleen Parker, who writes for the Washington Post, heard what I had talked about and did a whole thing for me when my album came out. She’s a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and she framed my message very interestingly.
Sinatra was the first singer to come out against anti-Semitism and racial bigotry.
SM: Sure. The Academy Award-winning short, The House I Live In.
The House I Live In
RD: Which I will sing on the USS Midway. It came out in 1946. Even prior to that he was always…my grandparents and his parents came from that era when the Italian immigrant was looked at as nothing. He gave the Italian immigrant population a strong dignity. He inspired a lot of people. I went from being thugs in movies and stuff to now being a major singing star. [Bing] Crosby was the Irish version. He was already doing it. But there weren’t a lot of Italians doing it. You had Russ Colombo, who Sinatra liked, but he died very early on and some others. Taking all that into account, I started wanting to do this Songbook thing. That was the genesis of it.
SM: Of all the venues you’ve played, there can’t be one more unique than the USS Midway.
RD: I’m very thrilled. First off, my father’s father enlisted in the US Infantry when he came from Sicily. Recently I went to my father’s home town. When I did the Italian version of The Voice, I had talked in Italian there and said that my mother’s family was from Naples and my father’s family came from Torretta. The phone of the Mayor of Torretta rang off the hook. Subsequently they made me an honorary citizen.
When I went there, 3000 people in this village up in the mountains greeted me with a marching band. It was very emotional. My grandfather fought in the infantry; he was critically wounded twice. My father was a gunner on a merchant marine ship after Pearl Harbor. His ship was torpedoed, he was in the water. He got a Purple Heart. My uncle Lou on my mother’s side was in the Battle of Midway. How old is the USS Midway?
SM: I would assume it dates back to the mid-forties. [Ed. note: 1945 to be exact.]
RD: My uncle was on that carrier. That blows me away. That’s going to be very emotional when I tell that story.
After Christopher Lee, there isn’t a better post-Connery Bond villain than Davi’s Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill
SM: Let’s talk a little bit about your movies. A friend tells me, and correct me if I’m wrong, that when you played Franz Sanchez in Licence to Kill, you wanted so much to nail the Colombian dialect that you had your dialogue translated to Spanish and then back to English.
RD: Yeah. Just to give myself more a feeling of the authenticity of it. They didn’t want a heavy accent…I did it for myself just to get a feeling for the guy, what his essence would be. I met [Pablo] Escobar later on, you know. It’s a very interesting story.
SM: Do tell.
RD: Sean Penn wrote about his meeting with El Chapo, but I never did a thing on this. I was in Brazil doing another picture, and Licence to Kill had just come out over there. I did a film called Amazon with this Finnish director, Mika Kaurismäki.
SM: I didn’t know you worked with the Kaurismäkis.
RD: There’s two: Aki and Mika. Aki is the more artistic. Mika did Helsinki-Naples All Night Long with [Roberto] Benigni. It’s an interesting film. You should see it. It’s kind of like a cross between Where the Green Ants Dream and something else. (Laughing.) You remember that movie?
SM: Yeah. The [Werner] Herzog documentary.
RD: I presented him with an award several years ago. He’s always been a favorite filmmaker of mine. Remember Burden of the Heart? The one on the making of Fitzcarraldo.
SM: Burden of Dreams, the Les Blank film.
RD: That’s it! So here I am presenting him with an award and I say, “You know, Werner Herzog’s a very interesting character. In the opening of Burden of Dreams he says [going into a dead-on impersonation of the German director], ‘I love the jungle. The jungle gives you energy. It gives you life. It gives you such an incredible creative spirit.’” And I go on and on in this German accent, and then I say by the end of the film he’s, like, “I curse the jungle! It sucks your blood! It’s the worst thing for you!” (Laughing.) I fucking love the dichotomy of that.
So, I’m in Manaus, the Hotel Tropicale. I had already been filming now for six weeks with old monkeys and a Finnish film crew that was just drinking vodka. There were no interesting girls to look at. Nothing! It was killing me. Worse than prison! I was so depressed, but it was good for the film.
So we finally go to the Hotel Tropicale. These old robber barons built this posh thing in the middle of the jungle. I’m in the dining room when two gentlemen come up to me and they say, “Robert Davi. We saw the [Bond] film. A friend of ours loved the performance and what you did, and he’d like to invite you to supper.” I figure we can meet later, but no. “You don’t understand,” the guy continues. “Our friend is very interesting. You’ll find it interesting to come and meet him.”
My interest is piqued, because they intimated that the character I played was very similar to the one that wanted to meet me. I had me Escobar’s architect in Los Angeles prior to the filming when I was doing research and shit.
SM: A stranger approaches you and says a guy who resembles a character, easily one of the scummiest in the Bond canon, wants to meet for dinner. Didn’t that scare you?
RD: No. I never thought of Sanchez as that kind of guy. (Laughter.) I never played Sanchez like that. (Dropping into character.) “Loyalty is more important to me than money.” So they drive me through the rainforest in a jeep. Little banana streets…primitive…and all of a sudden the jungle trees become a gate that opens up. It’s like a movie set. There’s a small single-lane road that went for what seemed like ten miles. We pull into a circular driveway and a villa filled with people. I’m introduced, and it’s him. We sit and we chatted a little bit. He loved the film. Long story short, I meet Escobar and he gives me a couple of emeralds.
Do you know Licence to Kill was found in Saddam Hussein’s fucking VCR?
RD: It was reported that when they stormed the palace it was in his VCR.
SM: Wow. What an honor!
RD (Laughing): Please! No! No! No! [Slipping into Franz.] I am very honored. Thank you. (Laughing.) I wonder if Gaddafi had a copy, too. El Chupo or El Chapo is watching it now.
SM: Did you do any socializing with Mr. Sinatra during the making of Contract on Cherry Street?
A couple of swells.
RD: Sinatra gave me my first Jack Daniels. It’s 2 o’clock in the morning in a Social Club in Little Italy. Here I am, this young Italian-American actor doing his first film with Frank Sinatra. I’m standing off to the corner, and at the bar is Sinatra, Martin Gabel, great actor who was married to Arlene Francis, Marty Balsam, Harry Guardino, Jilly Rizzo, and some others guys. He sees me, does a double-take and goes “Robert. Have a drink.”
“Oh, I don’t drink, Mr. Sinatra.”
“You don’t drink, you’re fired!”
“I’ll have what you’re having.”
He pours me two-fingers of Jack in a bucket glass with ice cubes and water. He goes, “Here. This’ll be your drink. It’ll get you where you want to go without gettin’ you hurt.” I’ve been drinking Jack ever since.