Not many actors can claim that their first shot at success was working opposite Frank Sinatra. Fewer can credit Ol' Blue Eyes with giving them their first shot of Jack Daniel's.
"It was 2 o'clock in the morning and we were at a social club in Little Italy. We were filming 'Contract on Cherry Street' and were on a break," recalls actor Robert Davi about his screen debut in a 1977 TV drama starring Sinatra. "I was being very respectful and quiet in the corner. Sinatra looked over at me and said, 'Robert, have a drink.' I said, 'I don't drink, Mr. Sinatra,' and he said, 'You don't drink? You're fired.' So I said, 'I'll have what you're having.' "
It's a story that Davi, who grew up in Dix Hills, includes between songs in his show "Davi Sings Sinatra," which comes to The Paramount in Huntington Nov. 23.
"There were two figures growing up in an Italian household -- the pope and Sinatra, and not necessarily in that order," jokes Davi, 61, by phone from Los Angeles, where he now lives. "So besides his Picasso-esque contribution to American popular music, the social significance of Sinatra is epic. I wanted to shed light on this, all leading to his 100th anniversary, which is next year. The American Songbook is what made the world fall in love with our country and I want to remind folks of the exceptionalism of America. This is what compelled me to put my show together."
Davi says the show pays tribute to the crooner, but he's not trying to imitate Sinatra. "What I do is put my life experience to these songs," he says. "My ability to act and connect to the lyrics of these songs is what gets the audience listening."
Though Davi has been singing since his days as a member of the high school glee club at Seton Hall, a private Catholic school in Patchogue, music has become the primary focus of his career in the past three years. Moviegoers know him better for playing an assortment of tough guys, including a baddie who belts out arias in "The Goonies" (1985), FBI special agent Big Johnson in the 1988 box office smash "Die Hard" and a Colombian drug baron in the 1989 James Bond flick "Licence to Kill." But he always had a passion for singing, with a special love for opera and standards.
"I look tough," he says, "but I'm a romantic at heart."
Davi's family moved to Dix Hills from Astoria when he was 5. Music was always playing in their home, and Davi especially loved listening to Enrico Caruso and Mario Lanza records on an old windup phonograph. He soon started imitating their voices.
It was at Seton Hall where Davi's musical ability was first discovered: He was singing in the shower after playing football when a nun heard him.
"She heard me in the hallway and sent someone in to find out who was singing. When we talked, she said, 'You have a beautiful voice and I want you to join the glee club.' I told her I was too busy, but she was insistent."
The nun then called Davi's mother, who told him to give it a try. Davi was hooked immediately and was chosen by the New York State School Music Association to audition for the Metropolitan Opera. After that, he began studying in Bayport with vocal coach Michael Signorelli, who had been a tenor with the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
"I was a baritone with the heart of a tenor," says Davi, who yearned to play the romantic roles usually reserved for tenors, rather than villains. "I was pushing myself into the tenor repertoire before I should have."
As a result, he strained his voice and wrote to famed baritone Tito Gobbi, who performed at La Scala in Milan as well as the Rome Opera. To Davi, he was "the Marlon Brando of the opera world." After hearing Davi sing, Gobbi asked Davi to attend his vocal master class in Florence, Italy, in the mid-70s, and then arranged for Davi to study with Samuel Margolis, who taught opera great Robert Merrill. Even after all that training, Davi felt like he was missing something vocally.
It wasn't until 2008, when he began working with vocal trainer Gary Catona, whose star pupils had included Whitney Houston, Lionel Richie and Liza Minnelli, that Davi felt he had finally achieved the tonality he was looking for.
A passion for drama
Davi had been reluctant to join Seton Hall's glee club because he was involved in many theater productions at the school. When it came time for college, he wanted to pursue acting and applied only to Hofstra University, which offered him a drama scholarship.
"When I was in high school, they took us to the Shakespeare festival at Hofstra, which was done in a replica of the Globe Theater," Davi says. "I remember being enchanted by that festival, and Hofstra's drama department was on a level with Yale."
Davi says Hofstra gave him the tools he needed to learn his craft, which he fine-tuned after studying in Manhattan with famed acting teacher Stella Adler and at The Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg.
His training paid off with his first role in "Contract on Cherry Street" opposite Sinatra and a compliment from the star after seeing initial footage of Davi's scenes. "He said, 'I saw your dailies. Terrific stuff,' " says Davi. "He paid me a compliment so I felt really good. It's another whole thing when that's the first thing he says to you."
Working with Steven Spielberg, who wrote and produced the cult favorite "The Goonies," was also a great experience for Davi, who suggested that his villainous character be a frustrated opera singer. "Steven and Richard Donner [the director] were very open to my suggestions," Davi says.
Over the next 20 years, he appeared in more than 130 films and television shows. He also formed friendships with celebrities, from Arnold Schwarzenegger to Mickey Rourke, who introduced Davi to his wife, Christine Bolster. (Davi was married twice before; he and Bolster are now separated.)
Davi's re-emphasis on music began in 2007, when he produced, directed, co-wrote and starred in "The Dukes," a film about a music group that fell on hard times. Near the end of the film, Davi sang "So Much in Love," and friends began encouraging him to work on an album. He contacted Bob Cavallo, chairman of the Disney Music Group, who suggested he work with Catona.
After training for three years with Catona, the result was the 2011 album "Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance." It reached the Top 10 on Billboard's jazz chart and garnered raves.
"I was very impressed with how he was able to duplicate Sinatra's phrasing," says pianist-arranger Randy Waldman. "Sinatra set a style and Robert was cluing into that."
At the same time, Davi still brought his own individuality to the songs, Waldman says. "Sometimes we would change the tempos, or do some different back phrasing that's unique to him, but still honors the Sinatra legacy," he says.
Vibraphonist Emil Richards, who will be performing with Davi at The Paramount, shares Waldman's admiration for Davi's way with a song. "He admired Frank, but I don't think he tries to copy Frank at all," says Richards. "His quality is a very polished, well-rehearsed voice. I was very surprised and excited hearing him sing."
Since the album came out, Davi has been touring worldwide, collecting applause from Las Vegas to Australia; but he hasn't forgotten Long Island. For the past two summers, he's brought his concert to Eisenhower Park.
He's now gearing up for next year, which will mark Sinatra's centennial birthday. Davi says he will be back on Long Island in 2015 with a special show to mark the occasion.
"These songs are the Shakespeare of America," he says. "I don't want to reinvent the wheel. . . . I just want to pay tribute to Sinatra, these songs and the great songwriters, and the purity of what they intended."
DAVI SINGS SINATRA
Singer Robert Davi performs the music of Frank Sinatra and more great American standards.
WHERE The Paramount, Huntington
WHEN Nov. 23 at 8 p.m.
INFO 800-745-3000 or ticketmaster.com