First love: actor Robert Davi revisits his musical past with the jazz festival performance Davi Sings Sinatra. Photo: Supplied
"Oh, that guy." It's a phrase Robert Davi is accustomed to hearing. The actor and singer (and sometime director) has appeared in more than 140 films since the 1970s, among them as a Bond baddie in Licence to Kill, as one of the crooks in The Goonies, an FBI agent in Die Hard, and as a sleazy club owner in Showgirls, to name just a few. Aside from his leading role in the late '90s series Profiler, Davi has generally played a bad guy, with an instantly recognisable face, even if his name doesn't immediately ring a bell.
Now, at 60, Davi has embarked on a new career as a crooner.
The New York native had originally trained as an opera singer, but fell into acting (although he's sung in many of his on-screen roles, including famously as hapless criminal Jake Fratelli in The Goonies) and has since worked with every big Hollywood name imaginable. "Except de Niro," he says. "But there's still time!"
Davi gets inspiration from the American Songbook. Photo: Supplied
Davi, who appears at next month's Melbourne International Jazz Festival with his Frank Sinatra tribute show, says he felt the need to start expressing himself through song.
"I enjoy and love the acting, of course, but after a while...you're confined to the character in the movie you're playing and with the music you're using all of yourself. Especially since that was one of my first loves. I feel like I've been let out of prison!"
When he was 15, Davi won first place in the prestigious New York State School Music Association Solo Competition, and as a young adult, he studied under several top vocal teachers, including composer Dan Farrow and Italian baritone Tito Gobbi at New York's prestigious Juilliard School.
"I always wanted to be an opera singer but I did sing [Sinatra's] songs back then. The thing for me was, there was Sinatra, there was no need to tackle the American Songbook for me - I felt that voice was filled."
Davi had always been a huge Sinatra fan - "I'm Italian-American and in an Italian family, there are two big figures: the Pope and Frank Sinatra, and not necessarily in that order," he jokes. So when he landed his first film role, starring alongside Sinatra in the 1977 movie Contract on Cherry Street, he was understandably thrilled.
"I'd done hundreds of performances on stage - musicals, Chekhov, Ibsen and Shakespeare - but this was amazing," he says.
"Growing up, Sinatra represented for me, not just his contribution to music but what he did for the immigrant population - he gave the Italian-American an identity they didn't have before."
Sinatra was the first immigrant celebrity back in the day.
"You had Rudolph Valentino who did silent films but Sinatra was the guy that did it all - music, film, radio and he was a leading man. It took the immigrant aspect of the Italian-American to a new level," says Davi.
And for his immigrant parents for course, it was the ultimate validation of their son's career choice.
"First off they're nervous about you wanting to go into the arts because that's like, not something you can support yourself with because it's a big dream, and then when I got this film with Sinatra...but it was bittersweet - the same week I got it my mom was diagnosed with lung cancer and she died by the time we finished filming. But she saw her son do a film with somebody that meant so much to her."
Davi, who became friends with Sinatra, continued with the acting, but kept up singing in his own time, and in 2011 decided to launch a new career path, releasing his debut album, Davi Sings Sinatra - On The Road To Romance, which went to No.6 on the Billboard jazz charts.
"I always had in the back of my mind, at a certain point, to go back to the singing, in whatever form it took. I did a film I directed with myself, Miriam Margolyes, and Chazz Palminteri, a very cute film, The Dukes. In it, the last thing I do is I sing a song, kind of testing the waters, and the response from everyone was 'hey, why don't you do that!' I had a real deep need to want to communicate through the music now," he says.
"I started prepping and training with a guy named Gary Catona, the most amazing voice-builder today in the world. He taught Whitney Houston among others. I started working with him daily and got the muscles all in tune and shape and then started putting the music together."
Crooning in the style of Sinatra, and singing classics from the Great American Songbook, had always been something Davi had wanted. But while he sings - and banters - in Sinatra's classic entertainer style, Davi is no impersonator.
"That would be a disservice," he says. "I don't do the karaoke version."
His take on Sinatra's classic hits has been described as "unabashed passion for the finer details behind Sinatra's craft", with legendary producer Quincy Jones describing Davi as "bringing back the essence and soul of Ol Blue Eyes himself".
"It's very jazzy, but I do the full spectrum - you're going to swing and you're going to get a heartbreak," Davi says of his show.
"I give people anecdotes about my career, my friendship with Sinatra, some real deep insights into him, that people haven't heard, and also the songbook. You know The American Songbook is the Shakespeare of America. It was a golden age of American music - it's what made the world fall in love with America."
Much of today's music, says Davi, pales next to the timelessness of such classics.
"I don't know how it is culturally in Australia, but the…incivility in some of the arts, the crudeness! When you think about in 1957, the song that won Best Oscar was a song by Jimmy Van Heusen, called All The Way, from a movie Sinatra did called The Joker Is Wild. Cut to 2007 and the song that wins Best Oscar is It's Hard Out There For A Pimp. In 50 years, will that be on the repertoire? No. I don't think so," he says.
"I'm no prude, but I think this music has a timeless quality and it was a romantic time. It was a time when men respected women and women respected men - it was a gentler time. I like the romance of the whole thing."
Robert Davi performs Davi Sings Sinatra at the Palais Theatre, Saturday June 7, melbournejazz.com
His album Davi Sings Sinatra - On The Road To Romance is out now.