“I don’t really like to fight,” said Robert Davi, laughing. “I have this persona of a tough guy, but I didn’t want to make a film that had that. I wanted to make something that had humor, heart and song.”
This from the man known for scores of hard-bitten cop and scary-scumbag roles in the likes of “License to Kill,” “Profiler” and “Showgirls.” But for his directing and co-writing debut, “The Dukes,” Davi chose a gentle comedy modeled after the commedia all’italiana movies (Italian comedies) he admired in his youth. In it, a couple of former singing stars and their friends who have collectively fallen on tough times scheme to pull off a heist -- unfortunately, there’s not an experienced criminal in the bunch. Davi stars as Danny, who, surrounded by eccentric friends and relatives, turns out to be the sanest person in the piece.
“Isn’t that a joke,” he said, laughing some more over the phone from New York. “No, what’s funny is that people who know me and who’ve seen the film say that of all the characters I’ve played, Danny is the closest to who I am. There’s that aspect of typecasting in Hollywood that we hear about. And there’s that old saying, ‘You can’t judge a book by its cover.’ So now, writing and directing, it enables me to open that book and show more of who I am and more of what I want to portray.”
The idea for “The Dukes” germinated in the ‘70s, before Davi came to Hollywood (for the 1977 TV movie “Contract on Cherry Street” with Frank Sinatra), as he watched local steelworkers losing their jobs.
“They had done something their whole life and could no longer do that. That was a terrifying thought to me as a young man. Then my own father got laid off,” he said. “So how do you deal with that issue and it still be funny? I framed it in terms of this doo-wop group where Chazz [Palminteri] and I play cousins; we were on top of the world, more famous than Sinatra in ’63 or just as relevant, to now, not relevant any longer. And how do you survive that? How do you reinvent who you are?”
Davi grew up in Astoria, Queens, steeped in Italian American culture and received formal training in opera. Raised as he was during the early years of rock ‘n’ roll, his non-contemporary musical tastes brought him some grief from friends.
“Let me put it this way: I loved the doo-wop music but I didn’t listen to a lot of rock ‘n’ roll. I was obsessive with the Italian canzone popolare and the opera. And people would make fun of me,” he said. “I played football in college and I would sing in the shower, these operatic [pieces] -- because the shower would echo. They would make fun of me, the coach and stuff; I didn’t care. So I’m lucky enough to get to do some singing now in ‘The Dukes.’ ”
A first-time filmmaker, Davi has carefully considered his cinematic choices. In the opening scene with the main characters in a restaurant, the camera rotates restlessly like a turntable, (“The circular motion is because of records, there’s a lot of reference to that musical element there”). Then a newspaper one of them is reading suddenly catches fire (“The newspaper is the ‘help wanted’ ads that get lit on fire: There are no more jobs.”).
And though it’s a story of a particular group of people in a particular time and place, Davi’s theme is much broader. Sure, it’s about a heist, he said, but: “There’s the gold not being worth what it’s [supposed to be] worth, like homes aren’t or the value of stocks, and on and on until what do we do as a nation? What we do is band together in some way and bring light to the world,” he said, noting an image of a candle late in the film. “So, there’s a message in my ravioli. There’s a Bolognese going on.”
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Where you’ve seen him
Robert Davi has compiled more than 100 film and television credits since 1977. Among them: “The Goonies” (1985), the James Bond movie “Licence to Kill” (1989), the original “Die Hard” (1988), and TV’s “Profiler” (1996-2000) and “Stargate: Atlantis” (2004-2006). He faces off against Nick Jonas in a high-stakes game of mah-jongg in the 2008 Jonas Brothers music video “Burnin’ Up.” And he had perhaps the most memorable -- if unprintable -- line in “Showgirls” (1995). “That’s a tough line to say, but a lot of people have quoted” it back to him, he said with a laugh, knowing instantly the good-naturedly obscene utterance in question.
-- Michael Ordona