First-Time Director Robert Davi on ‘The Dukes,’ Battling James Bond, and Meeting the Jonas Brothers

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Remarkably, no one was injured in what was the worst New York City rail accident in decades. Photo: Getty Images

Robert Davi is usually playing a villain, and he’s got a face that suggests he won’t have any trouble feeding you to a man-eating shark (as he did to Felix Leiter in the James Bond film License to Kill). Fans who’ve seen him in so many action-oriented films and shows (Die Hard and Profiler among them) might find it surprising that for his directorial debut, The Dukes, which opens tonight, Davi has chosen to make a touching comedy-drama about a group of has-been doo-wop singers plotting a heist. Less Raw Deal and more Big Deal on Madonna Street, the film, which co-stars Chazz Palminteri and Peter Bogdanovich, is a tribute to the sensitively drawn Italian comedies the Queens-born Davi grew up watching. Davi and Vulture visited Papaya King this week.

So, we totally saw you two days ago standing by a hot-dog vendor, and all sorts of passersby had their pictures taken with you.
I was getting a pretzel. When I come to New York, I go to Little Italy, I go to the Bronx. I get some good Italian food. I get a cannoli. I get a hot dog and a pretzel. But the thing about a pretzel is, it has to be burnt. So I was actually waiting for the hot-dog vendor to burn my pretzel. He told me, “You gotta wait five minutes.” And as I was waiting there, people started to recognize me. So we started posing for pictures. I appreciate that. It started to get a little out of control, but I don’t like being rude to people, so I went with it. One time, I lost my seven-and-a-half-year-old son at a celebrity event in Puerto Rico. I thought he was drowning. I was rushing around, and I asked someone if they knew where the lifeguard was. They didn’t know, but then they tried to strike up a conversation with me. I was in a panic, and I was kind of terse to them. Next thing I know, I’m reading a blog post about how rude I was at this event.

You’ve been in so many movies and shows. What film do most people recognize you from?
It’s a whole variety of things. Definitely The Goonies, License to Kill, Profiler, Die Hard, Showgirls. I did a music video with the Jonas Brothers recently. They recognize me from that.

You did a Jonas Brothers video?!
They were terrific. They’re very sweet, very respectful kids. David Carradine and I did cameos in this video for them. Each one of them had their own fantasy. One wanted to be James Bond, so that was the hook for me. They were fans of The Goonies, too. I didn’t realize the immensity of who they were at first. I was on the phone, and my agent said, “They want you to do a Jonas Brothers video.” And my kids and my wife were all going crazy: “Do it! You gotta do it!”

So now you’ve got your film, The Dukes, opening against a Bond movie.
Yeah. Once again: Bond defeats Bond villain! I was so bummed when I heard our date, but then I thought, What the heck.

Had you always wanted to direct?
Yes. I’d wanted to direct since I was a kid, even before I got into acting. I grew up with a real affection for Italian neorealism and for the commedia all’Italiana, and the work of people like De Sica, Rossellini, Fellini, Pietro Germi, Ettore Scola. Those were the first films I saw as a kid, many of them with my grandparents.

Where did the idea for the story come from?
Back in the day, when I was studying with Stella Adler, one of the things she had us do was go through the newspapers and collect stories to use later. I remember reading an article about steelworkers being laid off. I was a young guy, and I came from a blue-collar family. Then my dad was laid off from his job of 25 years. I was reading a book by Alvin Toffler called The Third Way, where he talked about going from an industrial age to a technological one. Then I was also hearing stories about these doo-wop guys who used to fill up Madison Square Garden but hit rough times in the seventies and eighties. I grew up listening to doo-wop, so that was interesting to me as well. And I thought about how the change in musical tastes was mirroring in some way the change in the workforce. These guys were getting left behind by a transforming society.

You’re an outspoken conservative, having done voice-overs for videos at the RNC Convention this year. Is Hollywood a tough place to be a conservative?
First of all, I should note that I certainly understand the emotion and importance of the moment we’re living in. And I thought Obama’s speech at the DNC was really powerful. I had my own Oprah moment watching that speech: If I had false eyelashes, mine would have fallen off, too. I am a conservative fiscally and in terms of the war on terror. I’m also pro-life, but I’m socially liberal on other issues. In Hollywood, you are something of a minority, and I think some people are afraid of being marginalized. But y’know, Sean Penn is a great actor; that he says he wants to go meet with Hugo Chavez shouldn’t color his performances for me. He’s still brilliant in Milk; he’s still a great director. In that same way, I hope people’s opinion of my work isn’t affected by my conservative point of view. So I do hope that we can put partisanship aside, especially now.