The actor: Robert Davi, a veteran character actor best known for playing bad guys, heavies, and dirtbags in movies like 1985's The Goonies, 1995's Showgirls, and the 1989 James Bond film Licence To Kill. He's also played his share of lawmen in movies like Die Hard and the '90s television show The Profiler. Davi makes the transition from actor to writer-producer-director with The Dukes, a genial comedy/drama/heist film that again casts him as a small-time criminal, though this time, he's also the hero. Davi is also an outspoken conservative who recently appeared in David Zucker's An American Carol and a commercial for Minnesota Senator Norm Coleman, alongside fellow Republican entertainers Stephen Baldwin, John Ratzenberger, Victoria Jackson, and Pat Boone.
The Dukes (2008)—"Danny"
Robert Davi: Well, people that know me say that's probably the closest role to who I am. Danny is an absolute character, but it's not me playing an FBI guy. I mean, I've sung. I've had kids. He's a lot closer to me in terms of just being a regular guy who's more like who I am than a lot of the characters I've played, for good, bad, or indifferent.
I grew up watching Italian neorealist films with my Italian immigrant grandparents. So I always looked at those films, I'm talking about [Vittorio] De Sica, [Roberto] Rossellini, [Luchino] Visconti, and [Federico] Fellini—all these greats. I always looked at these films not for performance as a young boy. I was interested in the guys telling the story, the whole auteur aspect of it. So I had that impulse back then. I've always written to some extent. When you're playing a character, you write down tons of information about the character. I've always worked on the scripts for roles I've played. Even movies like Goonies, the opera singing was not part of Chris Columbus' script. Then in the '70s, when I was studying with Stella Adler—
AVC: How old was Stella Adler at that point?
RD: Oh, Stella was in her early 60s, late 50s. She was really at the top of her game. She was absolutely astounding, Stella, at that time, because she was just a magnificent person. She wanted to impart. She had the knowledge of all her life's experience and technique, and she really wanted to give it to the students. So she was just so impassioned. I remain very close to her. But anyway, I read an article about steel workers getting laid off, and people doing something in their lives and then no longer being able to do that. It was kind of a shift in me. Kind of made me aware that not everything is secure. Then my dad got laid off, and then I read a book by Alvin Toffler called The Third Wave, where he talked about the Industrial Age and the Technological Age, and how in the transition, there was going to be a whole shift in the economy, people and jobs and workforce. Then I did a film, Contract On Cherry Street, and I met Jay Black, who was a part of Jay And The Americans. I then said "You know what would be interesting? To tell a story about this, people losing what they've held onto, but tell it with a sense of fun, a sense of lightness and unpretentiousness, and use a doo-wop group as a backdrop." I wrote the first draft in 1986. I wrote about 80 pages with scenes and character descriptions. Then I met my friend, a guy who's collaborated with me since then, James Andronica. We wrote the first draft in 1986.
AVC: So this is something you've been carrying around for decades?
RD: Yeah, I have. Then I got the financing a couple of years ago. My cousin who ran two big hedge funds—one's for 11 billion, the other is for 9 billion—graduated number one at Columbia University and has his Ph.D. in political science, and he basically told me the economy was going to tank. He said something was going to happen and be pretty devastating economically, and he knew about The Dukes. When I got the financing for the film, I did one more draft with the cast and everybody, and also with the economy being difficult. So it has a timely message.
Charlie's Angels (1978)—"Richie"
RD: My God.
AVC: What do you remember about that?
RD: Giving Farrah Fawcett a foot massage. We were just sitting down waiting—you know, Tommy Lee Jones did a Charlie's Angels. When I found out that he did it, I said, "Okay, absolutely." It was the one where there was a reunion and all four girls were there, you know what I mean? So it was a big thing and we're sitting there with Farrah and just chatting, and I kind of think toes are cute, and one thing led to another, and we were on the set, and I gave her a foot massage. I remember that, and I remember getting dunked in the Marina del Ray, where the boats are. Farrah was the thing back then. She was the "it" girl.
AVC: What can you say about your character?
RD: Beyond being a bad guy, I couldn't tell you much about Richie. I don't have a strong recollection of Richie. What I remember mostly was giving Farrah that foot massage.
The Incredible Hulk (1979)—"Rader"
RD: Rader? Was he a guard? He was a guard. He was a guard of a prison. I put somebody in a hot box. I remember that. I remember wearing some kind of uniform. I remember doing some kind of subtle Southern accent on the character, making him a kind of good ol' boy.
AVC: When you're doing that sort of role, are you concerned with making it as memorable as possible?
RD: Well, there's two different trains of thought on that. One is "Let's make something memorable," but that doesn't necessarily service the piece. I try to play a character as truthfully as possible. That's why some roles, you remember it and they stand out, and other roles, they don't. Also, it's how they're written and positioned. You did it for exposure. You did it to make money, to make a living. You put everything you could creatively into them, but they weren't things that you necessarily invested a lot of yourself into.
The Gangster Chronicles (1981)—"Vito Genovese"
RD: Yes, that was a series we did: about 13 episodes. That was a real character based on historical fact, and that was very interesting to me.
AVC: Did you do a lot of research?
RD: I did a tremendous amount of research on it with whatever I could find. The Internet was not accessible at that time, but I read all the books and did all the research and spoke to all the people that I could about Genovese and about the time period. Over the years, I've met people that have seen that, and they still remember that performance. People loved that show. I was told Meyer Lansky used to tape the show and watch it on his Sunday afternoon. It got back to me that he liked my performance very much.
City Heat (1984)—"Nino"
RD: What I remember there was, initially, I was hired by Blake Edwards—who I then worked for, years later, alongside [Roberto] Benigni. But initially, Blake Edwards had seen The Gangster Chronicles in Europe. He was in Switzerland. I got a phone call from my agent. It says, "Blake Edwards wants to meet you." I go to meet Blake Edwards, and Blake Edwards says, "I'm sitting in Switzerland with Julie and your face comes on the TV set. I want you to do my next picture, Kansas City Jazz, with Clint Eastwood and Burt Reynolds. You're going to play the bad guy." I say, "Terrific. Absolutely." So we made the deal. During the interim, Blake was a terrific guy and Clint was a terrific guy, but they didn't get along. They didn't see eye-to-eye for whatever reasons. I don't know what happened there. Blake left the project. Clint took it over. They got Joe Stinson, who I became friends with from there, who wrote "Go ahead. Make my day." Remember that line in Sudden Impact? Joe Stinson had written Sudden Impact, and he was now rewriting this picture. The character that I had was initially much bigger and was the bad guy. They then rewrote it. Made it two older guys to play the bad guys, and I was then delegated to a smaller character throughout the whole picture, playing this character Nino. My agent said, "Look, you got to pay or play. You can take the money and not do the part, or you can do the part and it's Warner Bros. and Eastwood and everybody, and it may be very beneficial in terms of contacts." So I took the part.
The creative, fun part that you'll find is that there's a scene in there when I get pulled by my tie. In the script, the Clint Eastwood character, who is a detective, comes over to the car and he motions for me to roll down the window. Then I roll it down and he grabs me by the tie and ties it to the outdoor mirror, to kind of disable me and take me by surprise. Well, I felt that that moment had two things. Clint Eastwood has such a huge mythical presence for the moviegoing audience. Also, him being a detective in the circumstance we were at in this picture, City Heat, we would have known about his reputation. So I said to the director, Richard Benjamin, who had taken over the picture over as director, "I want to try something." He said "We're going to try it to see what Clint does," and that was a big step, because he was Clint Eastwood, but I'm the guy who did my first movie with Frank Sinatra, so I'm not too intimidated. I'm respectful, but not intimidated.
So Clint comes to the door, and he motions [In Eastwood's rasp.] "Roll down the window." And I didn't roll it down all the way. I only rolled down an inch and a half. [Chuckles.] And he gives me that Clint Eastwood look. He goes [Eastwood rasp.] "Roll it down some more," which is in the picture. So I roll it down all the way, and then he grabs me by the thing, and he ties my thing up to the thing, and I'm there choking. And the other thing was, if I was going to humiliate myself that much, or if I was going to be that humiliated, then what was going to be a challenge was making the director and the crew think I was actually choking to death at a certain point. So as the car drove away, they were all getting panicky and yelling, "Cut! Cut!" because they actually thought I was choking to death. So that's my recollection from that. There's a ton of stories, but that's enough there.
AVC: You'd imagine having Eastwood and Reynolds in the same movie together in 1984 would mean an automatic blockbuster.
RD: Yeah, it wasn't.
AVC: Why do you think it fell flat?
RD: You know, you never know in that kind of thing. I think that the idea of… Richard Benjamin was a terrific guy and a terrific director, but I think what maybe Blake Edwards had in mind might have been an interesting… Who knows what would have happened? It's hard to say. Blake at that time was still very vibrant, and it really could have struck gold. I don't know all of the inner workings there. I liked the Kansas City Jazz script. I even like the title Kansas City Jazz, so I assume it would have had a different atmosphere and different tonality, and for whatever reason it became what it is. So to analyze the needs of those two stars at the time, I couldn't really. One of the things I think is, they should have kept the bad guys younger, because that would have made the nemeses more lethal. Who knows?
The Goonies (1985)—"Jake Fratelli"
RD: I had a great time. Dick Donner, fantastic. Steven Spielberg, absolutely terrific to work with. He did the second-unit shooting for three and a half, five months. And Frank Marshall did the third-unit shooting. So you had three great talents filming it all, and you went from one set to another sometimes, because of all the effects and things we didn't have CGI stuff for. The thing I remember mostly—there were a few things, but again, me wanting to create Jake Fratelli in this. And also Chris Columbus wrote the screenplay. But I remember saying, "All right, we've got eight kids in this," or six kids, or whatever it was, "and this big set and the pirate thing. Now what am I going to bring to this character that's unique and unusual?" And the scene when I feed Sloth his food in the basement gave me the key to my whole character. It was written that I'd just put the food down and when Sloth went to reach for it, I'd move it away sadistically with my foot, and then I would bring it closer and move it away a little more. I felt that it was totally unsympathetic. And I wanted to create a character that you could also laugh [at] and have sympathy for in a certain way. So what I did was, I told Steven Spielberg—not told, I asked—Dick Donner and Steven Spielberg that I had an idea about Jake Fratelli, and that was that he was a frustrated opera singer and no one would listen to him. His brother Francis, his mother would never listen to him. But the only time he had a chance to express himself was when he was feeding Sloth. So, "Sing for your supper?" Listen to me for your supper. [Laughs.] So I introduced the opera-singing there, and when Sloth just starts to scream over my singing, it hurts my feelings, because now he's not even listening to me. And then I'm able to say, "Here, you want your food? Here's your food. You don't listen to me! Nobody listens to me." And then having Anne Ramsey, I used to say to her, "I want you to slap me whenever you can."
AVC: There's the old maxim that you should never work opposite animals or children. Did you find that to be true?
RD: No, no. It was a lot of fun. One or two of them may say that I scared them a little bit. Even the thing when we're putting Chunk's hand in the blender, I played it that I didn't want his hand in the blender. Remember the line, "I'm beginning to like this kid"? That was in the script, and that cued me off to saying I didn't want his hand to go into the blender. That one line made me understand that, for me, Jake Fratelli was a little bit different. Also, the opening sequence when I break out of prison and we're opening the doors and I'm trying to get inside and the doors are locked and I go in through the roof—that was something I improvised. I said to them, "You know, so many times when you're trying to open a door, somebody's trying to open it from the inside, [and you're] trying to get in from the outside, and your timing is screwed up. You continue to struggle with it." But there were a lot of moments like that when Joey [Pantoliano] and I improvised on ideas that I had.
Action Jackson (1988)—"Tony Moretti"
RD: Joel Silver, a great producer, asked me as a favor and I did it. I again played that character that my archetype, so to speak, normally wouldn't play—that weak, sniveling kind of guy hiding out, paranoid, over the top. Not much to say there. I did say that I would want the windows blacked out. There was a moment there when I thought if I were so paranoid, I would have the windows blacked out with just a little peephole. But that was nothing.
Die Hard (1988)—"FBI Special Agent Big Johnson"
RD: Yes, that was again a thing that I never thought it would be. Joel Silver called me and said, "Hey, I've got this character. I think you're going to like this character." And it was Big Johnson. That was a lot of fun, and it became a huge hit and kind of in the classic realm.
AVC: Its screenplay is held up as a model of its kind.
RD: That's a talented [group]—[director John] McTiernan and Joel Silver. You know, at the time, Bruce Willis wasn't really—if this film didn't work, it wasn't going to be good for him. And it just defied everyone's—McTiernan had done a film, Nomads, so there was a huge buzz on him in the first Predator. And it was a huge, just a huge surprise. Didn't know.
Terrorist On Trial: The United States Vs. Salim Ajami (1988)—"Salim Ajami"
Licence To Kill (1989)—"Frank Sanchez"
RD: That was a three-hour movie special where I played a Palestinian kidnapped by the United States government to stand trial for terrorism. But the interesting aspect of that—it was that last script from Levinson-Link, who are the top television writers of all time. George Englund, who was Marlon Brando's partner, was a producer, and it was so ahead of its time. And the story on that is, Richard Maibaum, who had written all the Bond films, was watching it—and I had gotten tremendous reviews on that from all the papers all over the place, I got a really good response on that. But Richard Maibaum was watching it and said to the Bond producers, "Put on Channel 2 right away. That's the next Bond villain."
That led me to the Bond picture, which Sanchez was a terrific part in. Richard Maibaum and Michael Wilson wrote this screenplay with me in mind. There's a line I put in the film, that I suggested, which was, "Loyalty is more important to me than money." Because that was the Achilles heel for Sanchez. If you analyze all the action in the film, Sanchez doesn't really draw first blood. He's in reaction to what's being done to him. And it was a very interesting thing. Timothy [Dalton] and I got along great. We were, like Casino Royale, an attempt to change the franchise with a much grittier film, which was ahead of its time. And people looking at the film now in retrospect have a different opinion of it. I remember as a kid going to the first Bond picture. I remember seeing that world in the books. To be in a Bond film was a really… But I think they're great films. They're fun entertainment films, and they age very well. You know you can have your favorites, like anything you do, with how many there have been. And to maintain consistency as Barbara Broccoli and Michael Wilson have done in terms of keeping James Bond going is terrific, and I am a fan of Daniel Craig.
Showgirls (1995)—"Al Torres"
RD: I love Paul Verhoeven's work in Soldier Of Orange, and his films. The films he's getting back to making now, you know what I'm saying? I saw those films when they first came out, and I just always wanted to work with him. I almost did Total Recall. I didn't, because I didn't want to play the bad guy in that film. But later on with Showgirls, I hadn't really done anything with a real edge. So wanting to work with Verhoeven was the absolute main reason I did the picture, and also not playing a character that had formalities, and wanting to then bring something different to that character. For instance, I didn't want to be the guy that had the typical three-piece suit, jacket, and tie, running a strip joint. So I asked Paul Verhoeven, "Could I be a little more predatory? Could I pick out a leopard-skin pattern for the shirt?" And I did. After that film, even The Rolling Stones, I think Keith Richards—the pattern of that shirt I had in Showgirls started to be seen a bit. And the little dance I did there with Nomi [Elizabeth Berkley] when she's gonna be the star, unfortunately it comes back to bite me on the ass a little bit, because people that don't tend to know my whole body of work… I can't tell you the community of people that loved the picture. It used to play like The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
AVC: Are there any lines that stick out for you from the film?
RD: I think the whole style of the piece, in terms of its campiness, its fun. There's several lines, but I don't want to quote them, because recently they've been used a little bit. It has that tongue-in-cheek thing. It's a great film. I mean a fun film. That's one of the things when you have a difficult… I remember there was one very harsh line where I say to her… I forget what it was, but it was pretty difficult, and I said to Paul, "It's kind of harsh to be right in-camera with this." He said, "You're right. Let's do it from your back." So I say the line calling out to her, and it works quite effectively. And it's funny.
Spring Break '83 (2009)—"Dean Whittier"
RD: Well, Mars Callahan became a friend of mine. [He] did Poolhall Junkies, and I loved that picture. I thought he did a great job. And he called me up and asked, would I do a cameo in this film? And I did. I play this professor who has a riding crop at a college university that tries to keep these Marx brothers kind of guys in line. And it's just a cameo. If you saw the thing, I put on that blonde wig so I look like a distorted Andy Warhol.
Profiler (1996-2000)—"Agent Bailey Malone"
RD: That was on for four years, and I played the head of the FBI who created profiling. And that was hugely popular. And from 1996 to 2000, it changed the face of crime drama in a couple of different ways. I went to Quantico [Virginia, where Profiler took place] for three weeks and I found out about the profiling, and I spoke with Bill Hagmire, who was the head of the child-abduction and serial-killing units there. I then was involved with getting the technical advisor for NBC and for the show, and the FBI seal of approval, that was because of me, through a friend of mine, Jim Greenleaf, who was the number-three guy, who's retired now.
The idea of profiling had not been in anyone's consciousness at the time. It was peripherally known. It was an obscure thing, people didn't know exactly about it. I sensed from the O.J. Simpson trial that people were interested in the procedural aspect of what was happening at a crime scene, when they were talking about blood splatterings and the whole thing. Now right after [the O.J. Simpson trial], Profiler came on the air, and it was one of the first shows that dealt with, in an in-depth way, the crime-scene analysis, victimology, and all the steps of profiling, which are aspects to someone solving a crime. At the same time, the style of the piece, with the flashbacks and the quick cuttings and the very interesting mood, that was a new stylistic approach to TV series that you hadn't had at the time. After Profiler was canceled, CBS put out CSI. The dictum was, "Let's create Profiler kind of shows," because on a Saturday night, we were doing tremendous ratings, albeit less than when we initially started. When we were taken off the air, we were still pulling in very good numbers. The lead character in Profiler was Bailey Malone, the lead female was Samantha Waters. In Without A Trace, the lead character is Jack Malone, the lead female is Samantha Spade. Even recently, CSI had an episode last week that was absolutely a Profiler episode in terms of someone who created death as an art form. The reason why I remember it so well is because I recommended it to our writers to do a show on someone who created death like it was an art form, and so he used works of art on his crime scenes. There were a lot of different films that took off on Profiler episodes.
Son Of The Pink Panther (1993)—"Hans Zarba"
RD: Yes. This was after earlier on, almost working with Blake Edwards, he called up my agent and said, "I'd like you to do this picture." As you know from earlier, I'm a huge fan of Italian films. So from Johnny Stecchino, I knew about the voice of Benigni. I love Benigni's work, and to be able to go to the south of France three months, and then Pinewood Studios and then to Jordan, it was… I had my subtle kind of German accent. Hans Zarba. I just remember having a very good time filming that.
AVC: Were you worried that people wouldn't accept Roberto Benigni as Inspector Clouseau?
RD: I really didn't. I was surprised that it wasn't successful—just knowing Benigni's work, absolutely I think he was a perfect choice for it.
An American Carol (2008)—"Aziz"
RD: It's a spoof, a political satire. David Zucker called me up three years ago saying they're gonna do this picture. And he has this character in mind, him and Myrna Sokoloff. Then December of last year, they said, "We're gonna shoot the film. Will you play Aziz?" They sent me the script, and I thought it was funny. And I wanted to be in an alternative; I wanted to be in something that was satire on Michael Moore, and a different point of view.
AVC: You're known as a Hollywood Republican. Did that play a role in you getting that part?
RD: I don't know if it did or not. I think for that, they needed an actor that could be able to give a sense of humor and a sense of threat at the same time. It's very difficult. A terrorist is still a threat in a comedy, so you needed someone with the gravity and the weight, who could also be funny. I think it was more so that, because there's tons of guys you could use for political reasons to do a film. I think it's a crucial time right now, not getting into politics, but I'm a very pro-Israeli guy, that's just who I am, and I've spoken to a lot of rabbis about this whole struggle over the years. In 1988, Terrorist On Trial was prior to everything that has happened. That gave me a different understanding of the world we live in, back then. I started researching, and I even went to Jordan. I spoke to sheiks there, because Terrorist On Trial was shown throughout the Middle East, so I was accepted as a voice for the Palestinians, and I had very open conversations with them. A lot of times it was, "The Israelis will kiss the bottoms of our feet, we will push them into the sea." And you had some other guys saying, "No, no, we don't think like that, don't listen to him," but I observed that firsthand. I just have a very, very different worldview.
AVC: You recently appeared in a commercial, along with some other celebrities, for Norm Coleman. How did that come about?
RD: I went to college with Norman Coleman. Norman Coleman is a friend of mine. And Norman is a good guy. I just know the kind of person he is, and the commitment he has. I supported Norman Coleman. Nothing against Al Franken. The line I really wanted to use was, I wrote a line that said, "Al, you're a terrific, unpredictable comedian, we need you in Hollywood writing jokes, not your legislation." And that to me was more of a thing. So I was asked to do this thing for Norman Coleman, and I absolutely would help a friend.
AVC: Is it difficult being a conservative in Hollywood? There's this impression, probably deserved, that it's a very liberal community.
RD: Hollywood is a very liberal community, for the most part. There are a lot of guys that are also conservative that are frightened or fearful of being able to come out. I've been a little more outspoken than most, but the fear of it is that you get marginalized, or let's say a poker game that you had gone to before, you may or may not be invited back. And there's also the alternative. I'm one of the few conservatives that are involved with the Creative Coalition. But there's no [partisanship animosity], seemingly, with their functions, it's a different organization. It's trying to propagate the arts in schools and education, and a lot of things I believe in. It's a bipartisan thing, but when there is this strong partisanship… The other thing is, I'm pro-life, that's absolute, but I'm for live and let live. I'm an entertainer, I don't believe in stopping anyone's freedoms of lifestyle.