FOR ROBERT DAVI, who plays Showgirls’ sleazy club owner Al Torres, it all began when the fat lady sang: In high school, the future ubiquitous video badass made his stage debut with the Lyric Opera Company on Long Island. But after improper training strained his vocal cords — ”My voice was a baritone, but I had the heart of a tenor,” he laments — Davi threw himself into acting.

Even though he doesn’t sing much these days, Davi still works with the concept of counterpoint. His resume lists 30-odd tough guys (on both sides of the law), such as FBI agent Big Johnson in Die Hard and ruthless drug baron Franz Sanchez in License to Kill. But the 41-year-old actor seeks ways to make these bruisers seem multidimensional. ”You want to shake all that up,” he says. ”It’s no big deal: Shoot a gun, have a dramatic scene, interrogate somebody in the courthouse. How do you do it the way it’s never been done?” For Showgirls, Davi says, the answer was — believe it or not — to establish a subtextual love affair between Al and feisty dancer Nomi (Elizabeth Berkley), to create ”more of a jealousy thing for her to play with me. Whether or not that’s read, it’s being transmitted.”

Davi has just finished playing a detective in An Occasional Hell, a thriller starring Tom Berenger. But before he takes on any more roles, he’ll head home to Woodland Hills, Calif., to his wife, former model Christine Bolster, and their two daughters, Ariana, 5, and Frances, 4. (He also has a 14-year-old son, Sean Christen, from an earlier marriage.)

Fittingly, Davi debuted on screen in the 1977 telepic Contract on Cherry Street with the not-too-shabby singer and Ur-tough guy Frank Sinatra. Although Davi doesn’t regret leaving opera behind, he wouldn’t mind following Sinatra’s lead. ”I do have an urge to cross over into other kinds of music. I love Sinatra’s ballads. There’s nothing better on a lonely night, walking down the street, for hours. And hell, it’s a lot less taxing.” Spoken like a true tough guy.

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