Interview: Robert Davi of The Dukes

Disc Dish caught up with actor/filmmaker Robert Davi to talk about The Dukes (Entertainment One, DVD $24.98, Blu-ray $24.98, released on May 4, 2010; click for our review), which he produced, director, co-wrote and stars in.

The comedy movie concerns a pair of aging singers (Davi and co-star Chazz Palminteri) from the early 1960s who get involved in a gold heist in an attempt to make good on their humble later-in-life dreams of opening a doo-wop-themed restaurant.

The Dukes was obviously a very personal film for Davi, who was only too happy to talk about the film’s production and subsequent release around the world. We also managed to wangle a few choice tidbits from him on some of the other movies for which he is best known, not to mention a couple of others that we weren’t even sure he had heard of!

DD: It’s great to be speaking with you—we’re big fans!

Davi: Well, then it’s great to be talking to you!

DD: We know that The Dukes was a very personal project for you. Are you satisfied with your overall experience of making the film, getting it distributed theatrically and seeing its DVD release?

Davi: You know when you have something that you’ve wanted to do and you have that feeling that it’s uncompleted? That was The Dukes for me, until it happened. Having it get airborne was very satisfying. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for a while, and it was very meaningful. I’ll admit that I wish it had gotten a bigger theatrical release. In retrospect, you learn certain things about the process as it’s going on, and that’s what happened here. And maybe there’re few things about the filming process — I could have changed this or that or done something different with the story at this point and all that — but it’s definitely the film I wanted to make.

DD: Tell us about being on the set and directing your own script–you, an actor who has been working for more that 30 years–with such veterans as Chazz Palminteri and Miriam Margolyes and a seasoned filmmaker like Peter Bogdanovich.

Davi: It was a great experience. Chazz and I have been close for many years. When you’re close to a friend, you don’t mind hearing what they have to say. A few times on the set, Chazz would say something like, ‘I really think you should do it this way,” while I would want to do it another way. Chazz would look to Peter to support him and then Peter would look over to Chazz with that deadpan face of his and say, ‘Robert is right, Chazz.’ So that was funny. Peter trusted me from the first day of shooting, and so did Miriam. There was a rhythm I was looking for — a rhythm with the dialog and with the shots — and I think I got it.

DD: The whole ‘East Coasters who’ve been living on the West Coast for many years’ angle worked really well.

Davi: You know, we were in a handful of European festivals, and the audiences there really picked up on those subtleties — more so than audiences here. Everything doesn’t need to be in the audience’s face. I traveled with the film and watched it with thousands of people; it was a pleasure to see their reaction to everything, especially the little things.

DD: You’ve appeared in so many projects that we’ve enjoyed over the years. Would you mind if we named a handful of titles and perhaps you could just say the first thing that comes to your mind about them?

Davi: Fire away.

DD: Your first film, Contact on Cherry Street (1977) with Frank Sinatra.

Davi: It was overwhelming. Sinatra was absolutely tremendous — I was friends with him. He was so gracious on the set, very complimentary and warm. The guy who plays my brother in that is Jay Black from the group Jay and the Americans. And knowing him is what got me thinking about The Dukes. Hearing stories about how Jay was successful at one time and then he was not — which was what happened with all those doo-wop groups — stuck with me. It all came full circle with The Dukes.

DD: The James Bond film License to Kill (1989), probably the movie you’re most recognized for, where you play drug lord Franz Sanchez.

Davi: I loved [late Bond producer] Cubby Broccoli and [License to Kill director] John Glen. It was such a great experience. I’ve done big films, and there’s no machine like the production of a Bond film when Cubby Broccoli was there. He was my champion. He saw me do a film for CBS with Sam Waterston and Ron Leibman called Terrorist on Trial: The United States vs. Salim Ajami. I was Salim in this movie, which was way ahead of its time. So the night that it was on, Cubby got a phone call from [License to Kill screenwriter] Richard Maibaum, who says, ‘Cubby, put on channel 2.’ Cubby says, ‘I have it on,’ and Maibaum says, ‘That’s our next Bond villain,’ and Cubby says, ‘I think so, too.’ And they called me in the next day, and that’s how it happened.

DD: Okay, how about Amazon (1990), a strange little film directed by Finnish filmmaker Mika Kaurismaki, shot in the Brazilian rain forest and featuring an American cast.

Davi: We slept in tents, and the Finns were having a fun time drinking Kirschwasser every night while my entertainment was knife-throwing in the jungle. We also filmed in small towns and villages deep in Brazil, which were like wild west towns with seedy bars, dirt floors and pool tables. There were shootings every night in those places!

DD: Alright, how about the sexploitation thriller Illicit Behavior (1992)?

Davi: Oh boy, I remember Joan Severance and the big scene we had in that one. It was…lovely.

DD: Last one: Showgirls (1995).

Davi: It’s funny — so many people quote lines from Showgirls to me. Jack Nicholson, so many others… Friggin’ lines from Showgirls! Who knew? But it was a blast, a lot of fun, and I loved working with Paul Verhoeven. And Elizabeth Berkley was so sweet and charming. Really. [DD note, Showgirls is coming out on DVD and Blu-ray in a 15th Anniversary Sinsational Edition in June.

About Laurence

Founder and editor Laurence Lerman saw Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest when he was 13 years old and that’s all it took. He has been writing about film and video for more than a quarter of a century for magazines, anthologies, websites and most recently, Video Business magazine, where he served as the Reviews Editor for 15 years.