Robert Davi crooning at The Venetian


The minute he walks in the joint, you can tell he's a man of distinction ... even if he got pulled over on the drive from California, and even if he forgot his cuff links.

(That's a problem, because he never wears shirts with button sleeves, he will soon explain.)

But the overcoat ... the fedora ... that face? Peppermill diners know he's that guy. Even if they don't quite remember Robert Davi's name, the photo-posing begins.

But Davi is on a mission to communicate that he's not the guy they think he is: the movie villain who menaced "The Goonies" or James Bond in "Licence to Kill."

Davi is really a romantic at heart. He even defends the drug-lord Bond villain Sanchez as a guy who never initiates the hostilities; he merely responds when the law won't leave him alone.

Most of all, Davi is a crooner. Always has been.

"The music is more who I am than anything," he says. "That's the revelatory part of myself. I feel like I've been in prison for 30 years, and I've been finally let out of prison."

His parole resulted in "Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance," an album of standards Davi brings to life in a narrative stage show infused with his theatrical presence.

Cynics could dismiss Davi as yet another take on the Great American Songbook, getting in line behind Rod Stewart or the guy who won "America's Got Talent."

But the 58-year-old actor had formal vocal training from childhood, as well as an authentic connection to Sinatra. His first paid acting job was in Sinatra's 1977 TV movie "Contact on Cherry Street," and the two stayed in touch for the rest of the legend's life.

"We had a commonality of loving that music and the opera," Davi says. Beyond that, "who knows what made it click?"

But Sinatra could sense the young actor was sensitive about the facial scars that typecast him as a heavy.

"One time he said something to me that could have been a very personal statement. I was a bit self-conscious about my skin. And he said, 'Those scars make you who you are. Wear them and be happy about them.' "

Before he won the part in Sinatra's cop drama, Davi paid for his acting and singing lessons by waiting tables in an upscale restaurant near Lincoln Center. But he was fired when he was too slow to realize the job required a kickback to the general manager.

One night during the "Cherry Street" shoot, Davi was told, "The old man wants to take us to dinner." He hopped in a limo, and "they pull in front of the restaurant I got fired from. Sinatra looks over with just a smile: 'C'mon, let's go eat.' "

Davi figures he has something else in common with Sinatra when he draws from his bad-guy image: "Not many of the acts have edge. That sense of danger was exciting onstage. I don't think there's anybody singing today, that if he said, 'I'm gonna break your legs,' you'd believe it."

He took a cue from the work of another friend, Chazz Palminteri's "A Bronx Tale," in weaving familiar standards such as "All the Way" and "Witchcraft" into a framing narrative. "The juxtaposition of that (edge) with the romance, the poetry, gives it a whole other kind of thing I would like to bring back to Vegas."

Though Davi has a cable news presence as a political conservative -- and says his invitation to perform came directly from Las Vegas Sands Corp. CEO Sheldon Adelson, of late in the news for his Newt Gingrich super-PAC contributions -- he says standards have the power to unite, not divide.

After singing on screen in the 2008 movie "The Dukes," Davi took "the temperature of the country," and decided it's "divisive more so than I ever remembered." He decided to remind people the Great American Songbook is "the Shakespeare of American music, and it transcends more than any other music. ... It's what made the world fall in love with America."

The songs that got the country through the Depression and World War II are "filled with optimism and hope," he says. "There's a message in my wanting to do this that's motivating me."

Contact reporter Mike Weatherford at mweatherford@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0288.

 

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