Robert Davi turns in a killer performance in Ariel Vromen’s crime thriller, The Iceman, portraying Leo Marks, a character inspired by Anthony Gaggi, the captain of the Gambino crime family. Opening in theaters on May 3rd, The Iceman chronicles the life of notorious hitman Richard Kuklinski and stars Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans and Ray Liotta. In powerful roles that range from a James Bond villain to an FBI profiler, Davi has made a career out of playing tough guys both on the big screen and on television, and he’s worked with some of the most respected actors in Hollywood.
At a highly entertaining roundtable interview, Davi discussed his character, the appeal of the genre, getting his start in the business with Frank Sinatra in Contract on Cherry Street, the enduring ties between show business and organized crime, rubbing elbows with made men at Café Roma, and winding up on the cover of the LA Times Magazine in a feature article entitled “The Mob Goes to Hollywood.” He also talked about launching his professional singing career, headlining The Venetian in Las Vegas, his new album Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance, and the script he recently finished writing. Hit the jump to read more.
Robert Davi: Let’s get out the cards and the chips and let’s play. Now that’s a round table! That’s how they should do these damn things. Wouldn’t that be good? Play some cards, at least have a couple of rounds, see how everybody is, ask the questions. Next time I’m going to think of that.
Question: We could bring in a humidor and some cigars.
Davi: Cigars might bother some people, especially now that I’m singing. I’m laying off those cigars.
What would be your game of choice? Trade up, hold ‘em?
Davi: I like that. Yeah. I like river and the flop and all that. It’s more fun because you have more chance to play around.
But then we’ve got to check and see who’s packing.
Davi: Well, they might do that at the door.
What do you think is the appeal of this genre for the masses?
Davi: Since the first Scarface, Public Enemy and Angels with Dirty Faces, it’s had that appeal. You either go to outer space or you go to the underworld. You know what I mean? There’s some aspect to what the hell’s going on in that lifestyle that people find fascinating. I know, for me, those characters were larger than life. They were on the edge. The difference is, and we will discuss that briefly, as violent as it was, back then there was a code of honor and the streets were different. I’ve seen, as I think all of us have, a kind of dissipation and much more of a violent, less kind world where the hierarchy of random acts of violence is no longer controlled as much as it was. Even with The Iceman, those things were controlled in a certain way by my character who was really Anthony Gaggi, the captain of the Gambino crime family, and then you had Roy Demeo. So even though there was a lot of violence going on and being perpetrated, certain things had to be given the okay. The analogy is much like what’s happening in the world. The Mafia started out in San Giuseppi, a little city in Sicily. If you were getting married, the feudal lords would take the woman and impregnate her before the groom was able to, and that’s where it first started out in Sicily as a protection against that. It was called The Night of the First Right. These guys were trying to protect against having their brides violated by the powers that be. And then, the substructure of the whole world started and it morphed and became many different things. They found the government at the time oppressive so there was this shadow world where the common man was able to [go to have his grievance heard], and I think they understood that the legal process sometimes had its downfalls. In New York, if there was a grievance, a bunch of guys like Gaggi and everybody else would sit down and they’d discuss something, and then a verdict would be done. It’s exposing that kind of thing over the years in films like I said, those early ones and then The Godfather, of course, and subsequently, Goodfellas. This is more like Godfather II in terms of the psychological aspect and the performance that Michael Shannon gives. It’s more than a Godfather I film because it delves into the psychological workings of things.
Davi: Look at my face. Do I look like I never…? (laughs) You gotta realize. Do you know who I did my first film with? I’m gonna show you a picture. When I was 20 years old, I did my first film with this gentleman in 1977.
What was the film?
Davi: Contract on Cherry Street. That’s when I was a baby. Shit! Boy, that’s the one thing about film. You see yourself go downhill. Hey, you know what? I’m holding up pretty good. I grew up in New York. My grandfather was a bootlegger on my mother’s side, but his partners were Joseph Kennedy and Marshall Field, believe it or not. My mother was born in South Hampton. They used to store their liquor at Marshall Field’s house. And then, in the 90’s, I was doing a film with Hemdale. We were putting it together, bringing it to Cannes, and somebody introduced me to this Café Roma in Beverly Hills. There was a shady guy with a beard. He kept saying, “Robert Davi. C’mon over here, Robert. How are you? Blah, blah, blah.” There was something about him, something that I didn’t want to engage. Finally, he has now three girls around him. “Robert, I want you to meet Angela…” and this and that, and they’re out to here with these hairdos and it still was not my thing. And now, eight months pass, and he goes, “Robert, we’re starting a film finance company. If you ever have a project…” I go, “What?” Now he’s got my attention. Bingo. I said, “Film finance. Okay.”
It’s like Get Shorty.
Davi: This is where I think that came from. I’ll tell you why. Now what happens is this thing all happens and I meet the guy. He says, “My friend’s coming out from Boston. He’s a teamster. He just did a film with Danny Aiello and Griffin Dunne and blah, blah, blah. And we’re going to do this in the Fireman’s Fund.” “Oh great.” I got this project with Cathy Moriarty which was like my Marty. It was a beautiful little script called The Shark about a loan shark and this Vegas showgirl, and Cathy and I were going to do it, and it could have been a terrific little picture with a first time director. So, this guy comes out. I introduce him. The upshot of it is, I meet this guy and two years later I’m doing Wild Orchid II with Zalman King, and I get a phone call from my wife at the time saying, “Two people just came to the door. They want to talk to you.” “Where are they from?” “The DA’s Office.” I’m going, “What the hell could this be about?” I’m thinking the only thing could be maybe a paternity suit from an ex-girlfriend way back. That could be the only craziness that could happen, but otherwise it wouldn’t be anything else. Cut to: I have to go before the Grand Jury because of this guy, Cadillac Frank. This hung around for two or three years later. I told them the story that I’d met this guy. They said, “Did you know this guy that you met at Café Roma was a plant for the FBI.” “No, I never knew that.” “Did you know that Frank Salemmi Jr.’s father was Albert Salemmi, the godfather of Boston?” “No, I didn’t know that.” “Okay.” “All I did was I introduced him.” You tell an actor about a film finance thing, you’re going to listen. And I introduced him to the director and his girlfriend who was the producer, Michael Anderson’s ex-wife (Vera Anderson). Cut to: A couple years later, I’m in Malta doing Christopher Columbus and my publicist calls me up and says, “They want to talk to you” and all this other shit. And when I finally got back, I talked to the guy, and the guy says the reporter wants to talk to me. I didn’t want to talk to him. I said, “I don’t want to get involved with that.” “Here, listen to this. I want to tell you something. Did you know that Robert Franchi guy was wire tapped?” I go, “No, I didn’t know that.” “Let me read you some of the transcript.” This is now the LA Times reporter wanting to have me engage in conversation. “If Robert Davi doesn’t get me Danny Aiello, I’m gonna effin break his legs. Doesn’t he effin know who the hell he’s talking to? Who does he think he is? Effin James Bond?” And there was all this other stuff going on with this guy. In the back of Café Roma, in the alleyway, this guy is talking to this guy. I said, “What?! I never said anything about Danny Aiello or made any promises.” And then, he went on and on. I said, “Look, here’s the story.” I tell the guy the story. Two months later on the cover of the LA Times Magazine section, “The Mob Goes to Hollywood,” and there I am on the cover with a picture. Now, I was close friends with Cubby Broccoli because of the Bond film. He was also from Astoria. I did my first film with Sinatra. I also was friends with Sydney Korshak who they should make a movie about sometime. So, did the mob get involved in the Hollywood thing? You know the Robert Evans story about The Godfather and how he got Al Pacino. Do you know about it?
Is that in his documentary?
Davi: Yes, he talks about it so it’s common knowledge. He wanted Al Pacino. But James Aubrey, who was the head of MGM who I knew – I did a TV series with him later on — he was called The Smiling Cobra, and he didn’t want Al Pacino out of a contract that MGM had for The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. And Evans is trying to convince him, “Do The Godfather. It’s a big hit film. Do that first and then we’ll go into this. And then, your film will be much more…” And Aubrey says, “FU” and hangs up on him. He calls up Sydney Korshak. Sydney says, “What’s up?” He says, “I need a favor.” “What’s the favor?” He says, “We got this actor they want to use.” “What’s his name?” “Al Pacino.” “Who?” “Al Pacino.” “Al Pacimo?” “No, no. Pacino. N-O.” “Who the hell is he?” “You don’t know who he is.” “Then why do you want to use him?” “Well he’s very talented, blah, blah, blah.” Cut to: “I’ll get back to you.” Five minutes later, Aubrey calls up Evans cursing him out, “You SOB.” Sidney calls up Bob Evans and says, “I gotcha your Pacino.” He says, “I figured that out.” He goes, “How?” “Because I just got off with Aubrey. He just cursed me out. What did you say to him? How did you get him?” “I called up Kirk. I said, ‘You know that casino you’re building in the desert? What decade would you like it finished?’” Kirk was the Kirk Kerkorian who owned MGM at the time. So it was always the ties. There’ve always been the ties. Pat DiCicco, who was an agent, brought Lucky Luciano out. I did that story. The reason I know so much is not because I lived it. I only lived it because I played Lucky Luciano in that Thelma Todd story with Loni Anderson, White Hot: The Mysterious Murder of Thelma Todd. But then, doing my research and all this, a lot of ends tie in. And then, I did Gangster Chronicles in 1980 which was ahead of its time before Boardwalk Empire and all these other shows where I played Vito Genovese. So, having to do the researching, and then over the years when you play these characters, you get phone calls from people in Florida saying, “Meyer Lansky’s watching your show. He loves it.” So what can I tell you?
Did you know about Richard Kuklinski?
Davi: Yeah. I knew people that knew Roy Demeo as well. So I knew a lot about the story. I knew a lot about the relationships. One of the key things is my character is based on Anthony Gaggi who was the captain of the Gambino crime family. Now he didn’t die the way he died and that’s why we call him Leo Marks. One of the things that I mentioned to Ariel (Vromen), who’s a terrific director and very open, I said, “Hey, you know there are certain things here.” I knew about the relationship between Roy Demeo and David Schwimmer’s character, Josh Rosenthal. Between him and that character, there’s a very special relationship. And I knew about that relationship from friends of mine that knew Roy Demeo. They were lovers. So, in that scene that I have with Ray (Liotta) and he talks about the father-son thing, that’s the subtext of my understanding, and I never brought it up to Ray directly. I told Ariel that I wanted to play this and to make sure he captured that ambiguity that I’m giving into that storyline. That was an interesting thing for me to know about that I would not necessarily have because it’s not in very many books. But guys that sat with Roy Demeo and knew him knew of that relationship.
You’ve got to give us a Sinatra story.
Davi: I’ll give you a great Sinatra story. I tell a bunch of them in my show. I’ll tell you this one then. I had just gotten fired for being a waiter in New York at Fiorello’s which was at Lincoln Center. At that time, in my early 20s, I was able to work three days a week, three nights a week, make my nut for my railroad apartment on East 72th St. between First and Second that was $175 a month and pay for my Stella Adler acting classes and the singing classes. I was free to do that. I got fired and that was a real hit. And then, I heard about this Cherry Street movie. They told me it was all cast and Sinatra was using all his friends. I won’t tell you how I got involved and all of that stuff, but I walked up to Columbia Pictures on my own is the whole thing. We’re filming now over the summer in Little Italy in New York City. I became friends with Harry Guardino who was one of the funniest guys around. One of the best rockin’ tours. You would cry. The stories he would tell you. He was just a dynamite guy. So here we are. We’re doing this. And I told them the story about Fiorello’s. So one night, there’s a knock on my trailer door, and I come out. It was a little cubbyhole trailer, not a big trailer, one of those two bangers that you share. He goes, “Hey, the old man wants to take us to dinner.” I said, “Oh, okay.” I go and it’s Martin Gabel. He was married to Arlene Francis. He was a terrific, old time actor who Sinatra was friends with. Sinatra loved the Bennett Cerfs and the Arlene Francises, the literary. He was a very interesting, complex guy and a great person. So we got in the car with Jilly Rizzo and another guy and Harry and myself and we’re going uptown. And then, they make a U-turn and they pull in front of Fiorello’s. And I look at Harry and I look at Frank, and Frank just looks down and has a little smile. He says, “C’mon, let’s go have dinner.” And that’s all that was said. And the place that I got fired from three months earlier, I’m now at a table with Sinatra and everybody else. And nothing was said. Harry had told them. What had happened was I don’t look innocent, but I kind of was then. Now I’m a little more tainted, but back then I was way innocent. So anyway, I wasn’t giving payola to the general manager of the restaurant, and my receipts were all very high because I wasn’t stealing. I went in one day and he said, “You didn’t turn in all your receipts.” I said, “Yes, I did.” He goes, “Check your drawer.” So I go to the drawer and there’s a receipt. Now I’m a leftie. This was so tilted to a right-handed human being, it’s not me. I go, “No, no, Frank. It’s not my thing.” His name was Frank. He goes, “I gotta let you go.” Now I didn’t know at the moment that I should’ve maybe said, “Well what’s it going to cost to keep my job.” I was just stunned and I was let go. One of the waitresses later on told me, “No. We all do payola or skim or do this or that.” I had no clue that that was the way of the world. So, the happenstance was, three and a half months later I’m sitting in a booth getting served by them and sitting there with Sinatra eating my dinner. Now that’s a good Sinatra story.
Throughout your career, you’ve worked with so many different directors, and now you’re working with some very young directors. How important is it that these young directors work with veterans like you in terms of filmmaking and storytelling?
Davi: I think the continuity of the set is part of everything. As people get better, they get less in demand sometimes. There are some great directors out there that are itching to direct that are older guys that could direct the hell out of stuff. So I think you have to continue on that tradition. It helps everybody. It helps the younger actor. It helps the younger director because now you’re coming from a story point of view, a different perspective on some things. Ariel was just terrific. I think a European director sometimes has his foot in both worlds. He has a real old world sensibility with a modern understanding and his love of actors. The process is great. It’s not all an impersonal thing. I like working with the young directors.
Do you ever get worried when you have a young director who really doesn’t know what he’s doing? Or can you judge that when you meet them before you start the movie?
Davi: Anything can happen. You have skilled directors where you go, “What? What the hell happened there?” And you have new guys where it’s the same kind of a thing. So you’re hoping that with the team that’s around everybody, which is the DP and the internal organization that’s going around, that you’ll find your way. You can, when you’re discussing with the director, absolutely understand certain things. Some guys talk a great game and you know they know nothing. You can tell that this guy’s lost. Holy shit! What am I going to do now? I’m going to help him, and then you try to help. Sometimes the focus is on the wrong thing. After working with so many different kinds of directors, and people and personalities, at the end of the day, you hope that everybody wants to do the best that they can. And you just help do that. I’m not one that’s going to be disrespectful or hurt some guy’s feelings and stuff like that. You want to empower them and help suggest things that will make them better, and they mostly understand that and want that. They want your experience and your output.
Of all the roles you’ve played, is there one that really stands out to you?
Davi: I haven’t done it yet, to be honest with you. I could say that the script that I just wrote, which is around the music, I’m really excited about it, and I think that might pull it all together. I’ve had some nice parts, but I haven’t had the thing that puts it [in the bull’s eye]. There are things that are around the bull’s eye, but not the bull’s eye. So I think this new thing could be that.
What else are you working on right now?
Davi: I’m singing now and stuff like that. I’ve been going around the country. I headlined The Venetian in Vegas. My album (Davi Sings Sinatra: On the Road to Romance) is quite good. I’m very proud of that. That’s my first love, the music. I’m so happy. I feel like I’ve been let out of prison with the music. I really have. It’s amazing. Quincy Jones calls me the best at doing this stuff.