Commentary: After 70 films as actor Robert Davi directs his first

Wanted to direct since watching Italian classics as child

"Dukes" director: We tend to think of first-time directors as being kids fresh out of film school or, perhaps, with a few years of experience shooting music videos, but that's not always the case.

Consider, for instance, Robert Davi, who makes his directorial debut with the comedy drama "The Dukes" from Sun Lion Films and Doo Wop Productions, opening via CAVU Pictures Nov. 14 in New York and nationally Nov. 21. A veteran actor with over 70 films to his credit, Davi played the lead villain in the 1989 James Bond adventure "License to Kill." When Davi was promoting "License" I was hosting a talk show on the Movietime cable channel (which later evolved into E! Entertainment) and had the pleasure of interviewing him on the program.

After learning that Davi has now directed his first film, I was happy to find he's made a movie I like very much. "Dukes" is the story of a Doo Wop band from the early days of rock 'n roll. They were a great success in the '60s, but The Dukes are struggling to make ends meet today. Davi, who co-wrote the film's screenplay with James Andronica, stars with Chazz Palminteri, Peter Bogdanovich, Miriam Margolyes, Elya Baskin and the late Frank D'Amico.

Produced by Davi, Don Dunn and James Cypherd, the film was co-produced by Palminteri. It's a caper tale in which the down on their luck pals set out to crack a safe they're certain is filled with the gold they need to turn their Italian restaurant into a Doo Wop nightclub to relaunch their singing careers.

"The genesis of it all is from a very young age," Davi explained when I asked why he wanted to make "Dukes." "My grandparents being Italian immigrants -- I was born in New York -- used to take me to the cinema there. I would see all these Italian neo-realist films (by directors like) DeSica, Fellini, Rossellini, Antonioni, Ettore Scola, Pasolini -- the whole gamut of these giants of Italian cinema. When I looked at those films, I didn't look at them just for the acting. I looked at them in terms of the authorship and I would get excited as a kid. That was the genesis of my knowing that at one point I may want to direct. My journey for that was to learn as much about acting and theater as I could. I'd done 700 performances on stage before I stepped in front of a camera."

His studies took him to Hofstra University on a drama scholarship and later to study acting with Stella Adler for three years and to become a member of the Actors Studio. "All the while, I loved art films," he explained. "I would go to those cinemas in New York watching foreign films knowing one day I wanted to direct."

How did he come up with "Dukes" for his directorial debut? "When I was studying with Stella in the '70s I was reading in the newspapers about steelworkers that were getting laid off and how people who had done something once in their life could no longer do that. A couple of years later my father got laid off. Around the same time, I was reading a book by Alvin Toffler called 'The Third Wave' about the industrial age and the technological age and how we were moving through that and how in between that transition America was going to look different and jobs are going to fall through the cracks and we're going to have to redefine who we are."

Davi wanted to tell this story, but in a light manner with a message of hope at the end: "So the Doo Wop group angle (came to mind) because the same thing happened to them in the '60s with their music. These guys that were on top of the world, all of a sudden times changed and they could no longer do what they had once done. I met James Andronica when we did 'Gangster Chronicles' as actors and became friends. (In that 1981 Richard Sarafian crime drama Andronica played Frank Costello and Davi played Vito Genovese.) I wrote the first 80 pages of ('Dukes') and showed it to him and said let's collaborate on writing the script."

He points out that although the film's roots go back to the mid-'80s, it has strong relevance to today's troubled economic times with its story "hitting this issue of people struggling for financial survival, trying to redefine who they are in today's society."

"Dukes" played last year at the Rome Film Festival. "I was in the Premiere Section with Francis Ford Coppola, Sean Penn, Robert Redford, Sidney Lumet, Gavin Hood, Julie Traynor, and a couple of other big European directors," he said. "Piera Detassis, who had seen the film, is the editor of the major film magazine of Italy called CIAK. She was the head of the Premiere Section of the Rome Film Festival and she fell in love with the film and called me and said (she wanted) to put it into the Premiere Section. I said, 'But my budget's a twentieth of any of those films that are in there.' She said, 'But it has a relevancy (to our times)' and she took a shot. (When) the critics screened our film in Rome, I was there with Peter Bogdanovich.

"We weren't in the screening, but that afternoon we had our press conference and they came to me and said the critics had burst into applause (at the screening). They picked up on, first off, the references to the (films from directors like) Mario Monicelli and Ettore Scola and also the message in the film in terms of being able to pick yourself up and get back in the game. They'd been seeing so many anti-American films that this (gave them) a sense of hope and was done with a very light unpretentious touch."

Davi also took "Dukes" to the Monte-Carlo Festival of Comedy. "They had seen the film in Rome," he noted. "(The festival's) artistic director is Mario Monicelli, who's the father of Italian comedy (including the classic 1958 caper film 'Big Deal on Madonna Street'). Ettore Scola (whose first film was the 1964 comedy 'Let's Talk About Women') was the president of the jury and Claude Zidi was on the jury. They gave me the best first time director award and best screenplay award. That was a thrill because I've been a fan of Scola's and Monicelli's and of Claude Zidi, who did 'My New Partner,' the Philippe Noiret (1984 comedy)."

Davi and Andronica wrote their first draft of "Dukes" back in 1986, but "left it in the drawer over the years," he said. "At some point we knew this would be the first thing I would direct when I was ready to direct."

Asked about the project's journey from the drawer to the screen, he told me, "My next door neighbor, Larry Logsdon, who was a history teacher, said I should meet this guy named Frank Visco. He said to me, 'You guys would get along.' I met Frank Visco and his family and our families (became friendly). Frank was in my kitchen one day and he was telling me about Vegas. He's a player in Vegas at times. So I jokingly said, 'Frank, why don't you invest in the film I want to direct?' He looked at me and said, 'That sounds interesting. Let's have dinner about it.' We did the next week. I told him the story. I told him I had the script in the drawer and wanted to rewrite it and that I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it. And he said, 'Okay. I'll raise the money.'"

When it came time to cast the film, Davi had the advantage not only of being able to play one of the lead roles himself but also of having relationships with actors who were perfect to play other key parts. "Chazz Palminteri and I had done (the 1987 television series) 'Wiseguy' together. We're friends since the '80s," he said. "I always knew that I wanted Chazz to play my cousin in this piece. That's (like) our relationship in real life. We're very funny when you hang out with us. So I said to Chazz, 'I want you to do this picture' and he said, 'I'm in.'"

Davi originally met Peter Bogdanovich, he recalled, "because he also studied with Stella Adler, but I (also) met him at a screening when he did (the 1979 drama) "Saint Jack" years ago with Ben Gazzara. I loved that film. Peter has such a great pathos and that comedic look about him. He can be very funny. I thought he would be interesting to play this character, the (group's) manager, because he also has the dignity (the role requires).

"I got a casting director, Valerie McCaffrey, who's very good and she liked the script. We sent the script to Peter's people and he loved (it) and said he was in. Aunt Vee (the role Miriam Margolyes plays) was really an Uncle Joe (but when it came time to direct the film) I wanted to put a (different) spin on this (character). And through a casting session Miriam Margolyes was mentioned to me. I didn't want to go with the usual suspects for that character. We had a meeting and Miriam liked the script and she came in as the character (and) was a perfect foil for Chazz and myself."

Another member of the group is a Russian character named Murph Sinitsky, but Davi explained, that role wasn't originally written that way: "But I met Elya Baskin and he had the emotional qualities there and the comedic ability that I wanted for Murph so I cast him. (Baskin has played over 60 parts in films, including opposite Robin Williams in 'Moscow on the Hudson.') Frank D'Amico who plays Armond in the wheelchair (the group's lookout while they're cracking the safe) was actually a stand-up comedian from New York who I met at a Fourth of July party. Someone brought him to my home. When I met him I said, 'This is the kind of guy I want for Armond. He'll flesh out this character for me.'"

The only problem was that D'Amico's acting style, Davi continued, was "too broad. So prior to shooting the film I basically took my video camera and gave him acting lessons in the backyard. I did a small film called 'Hitters' (a 2002 crime thriller) just as an actor and I made sure he was cast in it to get him ready to play Armond here. He does a terrific job. He actually had diabetes and his foot was in jeopardy with gangrene so I rewrote that aspect (of the character) and put my house up because he couldn't be insured. I had promised him the character and it would have broken his heart. He passed away in June. He was so thrilled (with the film). He got to see it on the big screen and being a stand-up comedian he said, 'This is going to be my legacy.'"

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