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Thursday, Feb. 9, 2012 | 5:47 a.m.
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The villain from James Bond’s “Licence to Kill” and Steven Spielberg’s “The Goonies,” the Mafia hitman in “Kill the Irishman” and the star of 88 episodes of NBC’s “Profiler” is instantly recognizable, but you might not know his name.
Actor Robert Davi’s face has landed him numerous movie and TV roles, yet from his first film “Contract on Cherry Street” in 1977, he wanted to be a singer like Frank Sinatra, who starred in Robert’s big-screen debut. Robert still remembers drinking his first Jack Daniels with Ol’ Blue Eyes, his boyhood idol.
I had to ask him if his unique ferbissenah punim (sour face) is softened by his remarkable singing voice: “Does one wash out the other, or do you kick yourself about not going with the singing first -- have you lived a torn life your entire career?”
He told me candidly: “I’ve felt like the Phantom of the singers. I felt like I was in prison, to be honest with you, Robin, because singing and music is my first love. Growing up in an Italian household, you have two figures, Sinatra and the Pope. Sinatra had a huge singing career and a huge film career, so as a young Italian Sicilian kid, I looked to that career and had my sights on that, too.
“I had always wanted to act and sing. But the acting took over, with my very first film with Sinatra, and then I let go of the other yearning desire -- admittedly somewhat out of fear. But now I want to go back to the very beginning and start all over.”
And so for three nights starting Feb. 23, he’ll have the world on a string when he headlines at the Venetian Showroom, coincidentally on the site of the one-time Sands Hotel where Sinatra held court throughout the 1960s with the Rat Pack. Robert has recorded “Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance,” and it’s shot up iTunes.
He’s even managed to get some of Sinatra’s musicians out of retirement for his band: pianist Randy Waldman, his musical director who was with Sinatra and Barbra Streisand for 25 years; vibes player Emil Richards, with Sinatra from 1959 to 1974; and Pat Longo from the Harry James Band.
I’ve known Robert for over a decade as a good friend -- and fellow cigar smoker! The 59-year-old star with nearly 100 film and TV series to his credit took a break from orchestra rehearsals for his salute to Sinatra to talk with me.
Robin Leach: You obviously love Sinatra. You love his style, but not necessarily just as an Italian with Italian heritage, but as a guy’s guy. Tell me what was his magic, the charisma of Sinatra?
Robert Davi: I hope you can hear what he had on my album: his poetry, vulnerability and the tremendous fragility he had with romance and love that is legendary. Yet at the same time, he was one of the only guys, that if he said, “I’m going to break your legs,” you’d believe it. There was an edge to Sinatra that no other singer on the Strip or anywhere has ever had. It also came from his film career. It was something that appealed to guys and women.
The romance he had with women came from that strength and that edge -- the same for the fellas. You put that with the beautiful music and some heartbreaking poetry in those ballads, and it was an unbeatable combination. Add in his tremendous heart also, the charitable works that he did and being the first artist to come out against anti-Semitism and any kind of racial bigotry, and little wonder he was admired and loved around the world as a phenomenon.
I bring that up in my show and remind people. It’s not just me singing 25 songs with a 20-piece orchestra, but it has an element where I have a communion with the audience over those things, my perceptions, and what I learned from him.
R.L.: It’s a tribute to Sinatra, but not a lookalike and soundalike show?
R.D.: No, not at all. It’s a tribute to Sinatra and the great American Songbook and America, the great composers and arrangers that made this music … so the music is celebrated. It’s not an impersonation, it’s a tip of the hat, and because I had an operatic background, studying opera in Florence with [Tito] Gobbi, I had a commonality with Sinatra, who was the first singer to bring bel canto to popular music. I understand in terms of the depth in his voice.
R.L.: Did you ever get to see Sinatra perform on the Strip at the Sands’ Copa Lounge?
R.D.: Not on the Strip, but I saw him in New York many times. You can’t explain what he had. It was just because he was. One of the biggest tenets of his music is he didn’t ever want to lie in the music. Stella Adler, the great drama coach, was one of my mentors, and she used to say if you lie onstage, it should offend you, and she would give a seminar or several classes on Sinatra’s lyrics and the honesty of how he communicated his lyrics. The riveting aspect of the authenticity of that man on the stage when you saw him perform was that if it was just 2,000 or 20,000, you felt like he was singing directly to you.
It was that sense of intimacy and bringing people together unlike anything. … Now rock ’n’ roll concerts are a lot of fun, but you’ve got groups of people getting stoned. But with Sinatra, you never had that, yet people of all age groups just got exhilarated by his music and lyrics. You can’t get that from today’s music. I think you are going to be pleasantly surprised with my singing.
R.L.: Robert, you look back at this extraordinary acting career that you’ve had, and in a sense, there must be a joy knowing that you will always be remembered as the most evil bastard ever set on fire by James Bond. There must also be a little bit of sadness mixed with joy that you’re remembered as the spook on “Wise Guy.” You look at those two things, and obviously they stand out to everybody. Are you happy that they stand out, or is it frustrating that’s what you get remembered for?
R.D.: It’s better to be remembered than not remembered! It’s not over yet, anyway. The best is yet to come, and I think that this Sinatra song tribute will be something else I really get remembered for. To be remembered as a Bond villain -- and this is the 50th anniversary of Bond … I’m proud to be in that boat. But I also had “Goonies,” “Showgirls” and “Die Hard,” so I am happy to be part of the acting fraternity. Maybe on opening night in Vegas, I can have a reunion of all the old Bond villains.
R.L.: Going back a minute about this choice at your beginning: Was there a moment when you had to abandon training as a singer for the acting?
R.D.: In my head, there was a moment when I did that. There was always a fear I couldn’t sing, and I didn’t want to tackle opera first. I didn’t feel I could climb that hill. It was combination of my own not being fully equipped or ready to communicate through the medium of song -- and the acting brought in more financial success.
I also couldn’t do Sinatra’s music while he was alive because no one, to me, could ever compare with the best while he was alive. But right now I have so much to say through the music. Through song, any fear that I had overcomes that. I feel like there is an open field, and I can add something to it.
R.L.: There’s a moment in the beginning of one YouTube clip -- and I’m not crazy -- but seconds before you walk on from the back of the stage and the band has just hit those first signature notes and we see you somewhat in shadow and silhouette, you get this very supernatural feeling Sinatra is sort of watching over this and giving it his blessing. Have you felt anything like that?
R.D.: Absolutely, even at Capitol Records while we recorded in his same studio. And Dorothy Uhlemann, who was his secretary for over 25 years, came to a run-through performance in Thousand Oaks, and she got the same chill throughout and said that he would have just been beaming. She was just very complimentary, and most people are like that. The real Sinatra aficionado guys, and even Mickey Rourke and Dan Aykroyd, have given their blessings.
Emil Richards, who toured with Sinatra, played with him at the Sands, was absolutely over the wall when he heard me. We have a great group of players from Sinatra’s past, and they have that feeling every time we perform. There’s some kind of something from his presence when I sing. I really believe that. I really do. I just wanted the music to be as pristine and as classic as possible.
R.L.: Where do you want this to lead to since Vegas is the biggest theater for you to date with this new singing career?
R.D.: Eventually, I’d like to get a series of dates where I come back and forth to Vegas and then tour the country, and then the world. I’d like to take this on the road because I think it’s needed. People need to feel what they fell in love with America for again. People in England love this music -- they go crazy for it. So I’m ready to sing Sinatra around the world and across the country and eventually some time on Broadway.
But first Vegas. Right now, it’s something that’s just very exciting. It was when I was growing up in the ’60s and hearing about those guys having fun, and for me to now play the Venetian -- it’s the hallowed ground of the Sands. Hopefully I’ve got some surprises of a new Rat Pack coming along.
Robin Leach has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has spent the past decade giving readers the inside scoop on Las Vegas, the world’s premier platinum playground.
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