From playing heavies in movies to performing the songs of Frank Sinatra, Robert Davi has done things his way
Frank Sinatra gave Robert Davi his first Jack Daniels on a film set in New Jersey in 1977. The movie they were making was Contract on Cherry Street, the young man's screen debut. The gift from his idol was one of many going forward and way back to the very hearth of his blue-collar childhood.
"When you grow up in an Italian-American household there are two figures: the Pope and Sinatra, and not necessarily in that order," says Davi, best known as the granite-faced tough guy of Diehard and License to Kill.
"There weren't a lot of Italians in the arts. So Sinatra became a voice, not only in his Picasso-esque contribution to music, but in his contribution to society; his [stance] against social injustice and bigotry. He was a guy who paved the way."
By the time the two became friends, Davi had abandoned the musical path he had dreamt of as a kid. From Charlie's Angels to The A-Team, The Goonies to Predator 2, he's never been far from a TV or movie role since.
In recent years, however, he's circled back to his first love. For his acclaimed Sinatra tribute, On the Road to Romance, he borrowed the same microphone, recording studio and legendary producer, Phil Ramone, that channelled the Chairman's classic Capitol recordings.
"There is absolutely some kind of memory in that room, some kind of vibrational, inspirational memory," Davi says, his flinty, thespian tone compelling you to believe. "Not ghostly. But you feel something special there."
Having studied classical music with the Lyric Opera of Chicago and elsewhere, Robert Davi brought a little something of his own to the project. While he makes no attempt to impersonate Sinatra, he's up to something more technical than singing covers.
"Sinatra studied with a tenor from the Metropolitan Opera for many years and he broke his technique that way, with a style called bel canto," Davi explains.
He speaks with an aficionado's precision about Sinatra's "sostenuto and the depth of the upper register... and then you have the acting ability; the ability to communicate song. Sinatra was the first method singer. That's what brought him above the fray."
Well, that and the alleged mafia connections that profoundly enhanced his presence both onstage and off. As a character actor, Davi's ruthless shadow persona is the final parallel that makes his Sinatra essential.
"The duality is a good combination," he concedes. "It creates an interesting stage presence. I know that from the response I get. Singing in and of itself has a feminine quality to it. It's good for a guy to be able to express that."