The Mother Brain Files Underrated Actors Special: Robert Davi
By Mother Brain
Continuing my streak of famous on-screen baddies, this next guyâ€™s name you may not know. But his face is instantly recognizable. Whether you grew up on 80s kids movies or 80s action thrillers, Robert Davi seems to often be good luck considering his amazing track record of supporting roles. The Queens-born actor/opera singer has forever cemented his place as an Italian-American badass in films like The Goonies, Die Hard, License to Kill, Showgirls, etc. Yet, thereâ€™s far more to the man than most people know.
Davi was born in the Astoria section of Queens, NY in 1953. When he reached 8th grade, Davi trained to be a professional opera singer until he pushed his voice too hard and damaged his vocals. His love for cinema and actors such as Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy among others drew him towards an acting career. Davi studied at Hofstra University due to its Shakespearean round theater which was also the alma mater of another future James Bond villain, Christopher Walken. Soon he lost interest in school and decided to study under Stella Adler for three years followed by Lee Strasberg.
After working in a number of plays, Davi made his on-screen debut on television with the made for TV movie, Contract on Cherry Street, in 1977. The movie starred Frank Sinatra in his first acting role in seven years and Davi won the role of â€œMickey Sinardosâ€ by sneaking into the NY offices of Columbia Pictures to aggressively pursue the filmâ€™s producers. He immediately relocated to Hollywood where he appeared in guest starring roles on hit television shows such as Charlieâ€™s Angels, Incredible Hulk, Hill Street Blues, The A-Team, and countless others. By this time, Davi was earning a reputation of being typecast as thugs and hoodlums.
Then came the â€˜iconicâ€™ role of Jake Fratelli in The Goonies. For Davi, he struck gold with Steven Spielberg as producer, Chris Columbus as screenwriter, and Richard Donner as director. The story about seven Oregon kids seeking pirate treasure would become one of the most beloved movies of the 80s not just because of the Gooniesâ€™ performances but also the villainous performances of Davi, Joe Pantoliano as his brother Jake, and the late Anne Ramsey as Ma Fratelli. As Jake, Davi relished in poking fun of his bad guy image. He worked closely with Donner and Spielberg in crafting the character as a frustrated opera singer who couldnâ€™t get anyone to listen to him except his disfigured brother Sloth, making Jake laughable but slightly unsympathetic. The film was also noted for the real life tensions between Davi and Pantoliano whose sibling rivalry in the film was not far different from the dislike they shared on set.
Davi quickly became a favorite for producers to cast against big name action stars such as Clint Eastwood (City Heat), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Raw Deal), and Carl Weathers (Action Jackson). He even won the title role as the terrorist Salim Ajami in the made for TV movie Terrorist on Trial; however, those roles paled in comparison to his brief role as FBI Agent Johnson (â€œBigâ€ Johnson) in the surprise 1988 smash hit, Die Hard. The two FBI roles played by Davi and actor Grand L. Bush added to the absurd chaos of the action spectacle starring Bruce Willis in his first outing as John McClane. They were not only acting like the over the top cowboys pushing authority aside to save the day, but they also shared one of the filmâ€™s most memorable lines:
Perhaps the one role that Davi is known for worldwide came in 1989 as Columbian drug lord/arms dealer Franz Sanchez in the James Bond film, License to Kill. The 2nd and final outing for Timothy Dalton in the 007 role took a darker direction than the previous films with Davi pushing Bond to the edge. As Sanchez, Davi gets to torture Bondâ€™s American friend Felix Leiter with sharks, kills Leiterâ€™s wife, cuts out his girlfriendâ€™s loverâ€™s heart, blow up a traitor in a hyperbaric chamber, runs stinger missiles out of Mexico alongside a then-unknown Benicio del Toro, and gets one of the coolest death scenes in the Bond series. Davi was not only the youngest villain in the franchise at that time but he was also the one villain that audiences rooted for over Bond. Although it was not a financial success in the U.S., License to Kill gave Davi greater visibility in Hollywood.
Growing comfortable playing villains, Davi worked steadily in the 1990s from a recurring role as mobster Albert Cerrico on CBSâ€™ Wiseguy, Danny Gloverâ€™s boss in Predator 2, and a unique heroic turn as Det. Sean McKinney in the popular Maniac Cop sequels. The rest were forgettable direct to cable features. But his next notable role was in one of Hollywoodâ€™s most notorious films: Showgirls. Under the direction of Paul Verehoeven and the screenplay by Joe Eszterhas, Davi played strip club manager Al Torres who offers the first job to the heroine of the film played by Elizabeth Berkley. Davi was creatively involved in the role, choosing to wear a leopard-skin pattern shirt that the Rolling Stones later adapted at their shows. While Showgirls gained lots of fans on the video shelf, it was a major disaster theatrically in 1995 and helped sink its studio, Carolco Pictures. But Davi was just happy to work with Verehoeven.
From 1996-2000, Davi played another rare good guy role as Agent Bailey Malone, the mentor of Sam Waters on NBCâ€™s The Profiler. Later, he played the recurring role of Commander Acastus Kolya on Stargate: Atlantis. Davi also found a new career doing voiceover work for video games In 2002, he played the voice of Colonel Cortez in the smash hit, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, followed by the SpecOps Leader in Halo 2. Then in 2006, Davi played the voice of Alejandro Sosa in Scarface: The World is Yours, taking over the role originated by the late Paul Shenar in the classic 1983 film.
While continuing to work in independent films like Kill the Irishman with Ray Stevenson and Game of Death with Wesley Snipes, Davi made the transition to the directorâ€™s chair in 2007. In his first film, The Dukes, Davi stars opposite Chazz Palminteri as part of a Doo Wop group hit hard by the recession only to make desperate measures by pulling off a heist. In 2010, he followed up with Magic, the story about a dog from Heaven sent to heal a broken family.
Even with a string of hits and working tirelessly into the new decade, Davi was still able to get back in touch with his roots as a singer. He released his first album, Davi Sings Sinatra – On the Road to Romance, in 2011. The album was produced by the legendary Phil Ramone and recorded at the Capitol Records Building. Since then, Davi has toured regularly. Looks as if Jake Fratelli found his audience after all.