If you ever have the opportunity to chat with Harvey Keitel, be prepared to laugh. Recently, I was given that opportunity. It was a great pleasure to learn more about his incredible life. He and his backstories are hysterically funny, serious, and thought provoking.
Harvey is multi-faceted, open-minded, fiercely loyal, truthful, and respectful—both as an actor and a friend. He is the ultimate human being, and a true American. One might pass Harvey on the street without recognizing him. He is unpretentious and doesn’t go out of his way to attract attention. When he appears on stage or on the big screen, be assured that he has morphed into his character. One doesn’t say, “Oh, there’s Harvey Keitel.” One sees the character. He gives his best friends loyalty, love, and respect. To those he doesn’t know—his theater fans—he gives the best performance possible with truthfulness and reality. Here, he gives us an honest discussion about his life and his work—very candid, very Harvey.
Chuck Pfeifer: What did you do for fun growing up in Brighton Beach?
Harvey Keitel: One answer would take all our time. However, I wasn’t bad at stealing pigeons from other people’s coops, or trying to steal cars. One night, a friend and I were sitting “chickie” (slang for lookout) for two friends who were going to steal a car. They managed to get behind the wheel of a car and start it up. Before my buddy and I could jump in, they took off without us, and got arrested. I guess I got lucky that night.
CP: Where did you attend high school?
HK: Abraham Lincoln High School, but I was asked to leave, primarily because of truancy. A couple of buddies and I had a special club called the “Night Owls.” We frequented poolrooms and walked down the boardwalk singing, “Here come the night owls, whoo, whoo, whoo. Going our merry way, whoo, whoo, whoo.” We were 16. The Pittsburgh Pirates were in last place that season, and one of my friends was nicknamed “Pittsburgh” because he was always last in whatever he did. Pittsburgh is still a great friend. One of my friend’s brothers was a Marine, and that was attractive to me. At 17, I enlisted in the Marines and was sent to Camp Lejeune as a member of the 2nd Marine Division, but later moved on to the 6th Division. Shipping out to Lebanon, I arrived in time for Operation Blue Bat, which lasted from July to October 1958. Operation Blue Bat was authorized by President Eisenhower, and was meant to bolster the pro-Western Lebanese government against internal opposition and threats from Syria and the United Arab Republic. My platoon leader sent four others and me into the pitch-dark and lonely desert, to watch for the Arab League Army that was supposed to be headed our way. I thought, What the hell am I doing? There’s nobody here. The army never showed. I always say that I defeated the entire Arab League Army single-handedly.
The Marine Corps was my college. There, I learned my life’s lessons and found the identity I was seeking. It taught me values, like “one for all, and all for one.” And its motto—semper fidelis (“always faithful” or “always loyal”)—stuck with me. I’m disturbed by today’s rhetoric. I hear, “Oh, he’s liberal, he’s conservative, he’s a football player, what district are you from,” or this and that. I want to tell everyone that I was raised in Brighton Beach, went to Abraham Lincoln High School, spent three years in the marines and we all—every one of us—served together. We were all citizens. I want people to stand up and say that.
CP: What did you do for a living after your return from the marines?
HK: I worked as a shoe salesman for survival money before becoming a court stenographer.
CP: Why did you decide to become an actor?
HK: Being a court stenographer. Seriously, though, in retrospect, I suppose it was my early life, the struggles, and the Marine Corps—everything. It was all these things. I was looking for something else. I felt lost and wanted some excitement. A friend asked if I wanted to go for some acting lessons. Yeah, I said, and that was the beginning. I did summer stock in Nantucket when I was 25. Most other students were 15 or 16. In New York, I studied with Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg, two of the best acting coaches.
CP: Do you owe your success to those teachers or to your own ambition?
HK: In some ways, of course, I owe my success to them and to my other teachers. However, I have met wonderful, magical actors, great teachers—such as Frank Corsaro and Elizabeth Kent—and a whole host of others who’ve inspired me. One teacher, whose last name I can’t recall, but his first name was Anthony, was one of my greatest teachers ever. His office was in a dreary building that seemed on the verge of collapse. I ascended the rickety stairs up to his office, thinking, What the heck? Who is this jerk? On my first visit, one of the first things he said to me was, “See that clothing rack over there?” Yeah, I answered. “Go count the hangers on the rack.” I told him there must be a 100. “Did you count them?” he asked. Of course I hadn’t. “Go back and count every one. Acting is reality. It is doing things with truthfulness and purpose.” That lesson has remained with me.
CP: You got your first role in Who’s That Knocking at My Door, directed by Scorsese. How did that happen?
HK: I was still working as a court stenographer, and I read an ad in a trade magazine that he was holding auditions. When I got to the auditions, there must have been 70 actors vying for a role in what was the first, or close to the first, 35-mm. film ever made. I made it to the final three. One of Marty’s assistants said, “See that room down the hallway?” Yeah, I said. “Go down there and wait for Marty.” The room was dark, but with enough light to see that it was a classroom and that a guy was sitting at a desk. “Sit down,’” he called. What are you talking about? I asked. Again, the man said, “Sit down.” Screw you, I responded, and the man got up and started toward me. I was ready to fight. About that time, I heard Marty’s voice from the back of the room. “Harvey, Harvey, stop. No, no, no, he’s an actor.” I later told Marty that the next time he wanted me to do improv, it might be a good idea to let me know. I got the role, and the movie was shot at NYU on weekends over a semester. Four years later, it was distributed as a feature film. For that movie, Marty wrote a dream scene for me in which I was with five gorgeous girls of ill repute. The great actor, dancer, and choreographer Zina Bethune was my leading lady. As a side note, Zina was killed sometime later in a hit and run accident in L.A. when she stopped her car to help an injured possum in the road. I was so sorry about that.
I got an agent from this movie, and five years later, Scorsese directed me in Mean Streets, set in Little Italy, in New York City.
CP: How was it working with Richard Pryor and Jack Nicholson?
HK: I worked with Richard Pryor in Blue Collar. I didn’t find him particularly funny off-screen, but he was a very funny and brilliant comic. The script for Blue Collar was wonderful. The film—in which I played Jerry Bartowski—was directed by Paul Schrader, who was well known for his work on the screenplay for Taxi Driver.
Most people assume I knew Jack Nicholson when I started my career, but I didn’t. We met in 1982 while acting in The Border. Jack was going to direct The Two Jakes, a very big film with lots of money involved, and he offered me a role. The studio didn’t want me; they wanted a bigger-name star. Before shooting began, I heard rumors I was going to be fired. I asked Jack about it. “You’re not going to be fired,” he said. We were in his trailer the first day of shooting, and I noticed a huge bowl of fruit on his table. I said, jokingly, that it made me feel bad because I didn’t have any fruit. The next day there was a big bowl of fruit waiting for me. Jack always does the right thing.
CP: Tell me about De Niro.
HK: I met Robert De Niro at the Actor’s Studio. He was doing a scene with the great Sally Kirkland. Afterwards, Mary Anese, another actor, introduced us: “Bob, Harvey; Harvey, Bob.” We didn’t even say hello, but that’s how we met. It was that simple, and our friendship has endured. I respect him greatly. There were so many great actors at the Actor’s Studio that no one ever heard of and never will. That’s the nature of the acting business. Some make it and some don’t, and there seems to be no explanation for that.
CP: You did nude scenes in a couple of movies . . .
HK: Stop there. Actors don’t do scenes. Instead, actors create events that make a story. Actors must be truthful, and go as far as their talent allows and enables them. They do it with discretion. I go to the extreme of my ability, my own reality, and that of my character. It’s not a matter of being dressed or undressed. The two go together—ability and truth.
CP: You’ve earned a number of awards. Tell us about those.
HK: First of all, I haven’t received enough awards. No actor ever does. You are making me too big a star. I did receive the Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts Award, the equivalent of an Academy Award, for my work in The Piano. Bad Lieutenant earned me a nomination for best lead actor, and I was nominated for an Oscar for Bugsy.
CP: Do you have a double?
HK: Tyrone Power is dead.
CP: How do you feel about today’s shoot-’em-up movies, as compared to the more serious ones?
HK: First, I like a good laugh as much as anyone. However, we now live in the most serious of times ever, and people have to pay attention to what’s happening and be responsible. Greed is a sin, and, in my opinion, is a crime as well. Values are sacrificed because of greed. Granted, we have to make a living to maintain a lifestyle we enjoy, but when values are lost, we need to pay attention. Art itself is value, and theater is designed to bring to the screen or stage what’s happening around us.
CP: How do you feel about actors being so public with their opinions?
HK: I think everyone should stand up anywhere, anytime—even on street corners if they want. I remember protestors during the Vietnam War. I cursed at them, wondering what the hell these people were thinking. In my ignorance, I didn’t understand. One night at a New York City nightclub, a friend asked, “Harvey, How can you support this war?” I said, “Oh, please. Give me a break.” Then I read the book The Arrogance of Power: The Secret World of Richard Nixon, by Anthony Summers, and my whole perspective changed. It turned me around, and I began to demonstrate against the war. I don’t mean to denigrate those who served. That wasn’t their choice to make. Scorsese and a bunch of us went to D.C. in 1970 where a lot of demonstrations against the Vietnam War were taking place. We were filming a documentary, titled Street Scenes 1970, and some guys were waving the North Vietnam flag. I was trying to put a group of men together to fight them because they were so disrespectful. The D.C. demonstration was reasonably peaceful, but the ones in New York City turned violent. It is my feeling that one can agree or disagree, but it must be done with respect. Street Scenes 1970 was shown at the Tribeca Film Festival in 1971. You will see me in it.
CP: So many stars are chased by screaming fans. How do you handle that?
HK: It depends on how pretty they are.
CP: What is your favorite thing to do?
HK: I have a great wife, who loves the arts—theater, dance, and music—and we go often, and that keeps us busy. We also have a 12-and-a-half-year-old son, Roman. He’s a good kid, loves to dance, make films, and play basketball, his favorite sport. More importantly, I’m trying to teach him to be human.
CP: What do you want god to say to you when you enter heaven?
HK: “Well done, Harvey. You were human.”
CP: If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done? What is your passion?
HK: I would have studied liberal arts, and particularly literature. That wasn’t initially true, but I came to love literature.
CP: What are your favorite curse words?
HK: Lots of them. I guess it would be f___.
CP: Do you play an instrument?
HK: No, but I love all kinds of music—jazz, Nashville, and classical. I love the network Classic Arts Showcase. It’s wonderful.
CP: Last but no less important, how did you meet your wife, Daphna? I understand she is a Canadian film and TV actress, screenwriter, and film director.
HK: That’s right. She is very talented, and I suppose that’s what drew me to her in the first place. The first time we met was at a De Niro birthday party in Rome. We had two dates, but unknown to me, she already had a boyfriend. We went our separate ways, and met again 17 years later—you guessed it—at a De Niro birthday party in L.A. We stayed together and married in Jerusalem, Israel, in 2001. The night of Roman’s birth in August 2004, I called De Niro. He was somewhere out of town. “Where are you?” he asked. In the hospital, I replied. Daphna has just given birth. What is today, Robert? After a reflective moment, he replied, “My birthday.”