“Stanislavsky said there are no small parts, only small actors”. Harvey Keitel proved this when he took the ‘unadvertised lead’ with a few lines and made it into a memorable one as ‘a pimp standing in the doorway’ in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver. Scorsese had wanted him to be the campaign worker, but he took his cue from years of living in Hell’s Kitchen amongst the drug traffickers and sex workers of the area. Spending two weeks learning to be the pimp after having first playing the girl during rehearsals the words of the real life pimp still send chills down his body: “Remember. You love her”
Later with Jody he made up the moves they danced together, and he accidentally met his father in the street while dressed in drag to see if his outfit passed muster. His father’s only comment was: “Actor smacktor – get yourself a job so you can have two weeks holiday in Coney Island”.
Well known as a long term friend and collaborator of Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro, Harvey Keitel was born across the river from the city in Brooklyn in 1939. Noted for his roles in arthouse fare such as Jane Campion’s The Piano, Ridley Scott’s The Duellists and Bertrand Tavernier’s Earth Watch as well as his appearances in hard-boiled US thrillers: Reservoir Dogs, Mean Streets and Bad Lieutenant, he has always tried to avoid commercial directors but has never won an Oscar despite many nominations and 27 screen awards for some 160 films he has starred in.
Harvey Keitel first realised that acting was to be his career when he started to work off Broadway in Greenwich Village, where he was advised to move from Brooklyn from the City. His father had advised him to ‘get a proper job’ but his goal was to make money from his craft and the desire to act eventually came after three years of being in the Marines and feeling an aimlessness when he returned to Coney Island.
Martin Scorsese was the first director he made a film with. They both share the same objective and have got on like a house on fire since meeting when Scorsese was at the NYU. At the time Keitel was looking to get into acting and Scorsese was also just starting out and looking for actors to join him in his TV series Who’s That Knocking at My Door, so Keitel went along for an audition. Although no one was getting paid, he was keen on the experience and was short-listed for the lead role. Desperately needing the part, he was ushered into a small room where a guy at desk asked him to sit down. There were no introductions and eventually, Harvey, objecting to the man’s total lack of politeness told him: “Fuck you”. A fight then developed and Marty was forced to break it up. Naturally he got the part for entering into the spirit at the audition. “When you’re doing an improvisation with an actor, it’s a good idea to let him know that”, Keitel remarked later. The two then became life-long buddies in a career that would span over 60 years, their latest film together is The Irishman.
Another actor who had a great influence on him at the start of his career Anthony Manino who invited him to count all the coat hangers in a room where he went for an audition. Finding this a bizarre and fruitless idea, Keitel simple skimmed over the hangers and gave a nominal answer to Manino’s question. The response has remained with him every since and he always relays it to young actors he meets practising their craft at the Lee Strasberg’s Actors’ Studio starting out on their career: “Acting is doing things truthfully, with a purpose”.
When asked what he expects from a director, Keitel claims he just likes them: “to shut the fuck up and turn the camera on”. And although he told his agent he didn’t want to work for a commercial director he did go on eventually to collaborate successfully with Ridley Scott on The Duellists in 1977.
Robert De Niro became another close friend when the two met at the Actors’ Studio and intuitively knew they would get on before they even spoke to each other. The went on to star together in Mean Streets, and Taxi Driver. His most difficult experience on these two movies was ‘not getting paid, and trying to get paid’, although he did get a minimal fee for Mean Streets. Keitel actually approached De Niro on behalf of Scorsese to get the two together, and Johnny Boy was the result for De Niro. The three of them now often eat together, corn beef sandwiches on rye.
But Europe would beckon and Bertrand Tavernier would become a close collaborator and a friend. In his early thirties he went to see Tavernier’s The Watchmaker of St Paul (1974) and was amazed when the director offered him a part in Death Watch (1980) several years later. It was a prescient film that still resonates today with its themes of fake news and old age isolation. Keitel is still so moved by his role as a man who becomes blind after falling for Romy Schneider’s tragic central character, he is unable to even talk about it.
Playing Judas in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ made him discover his own journey with God and he was emotionally moved by the suffering of the other characters, and particularly Nikos Kasantzakis who was actually ex-communicated for writing the book from which the film gets its inspiration, Paul Schrader adapting the script. It was also his first experience in Morocco and the cast and crew lived in a rambling mountain village, infested with insects, another element that added grist to Keitel’s performance.
Abel Ferrara invited him to play his first lead in his film Bad Lieutenant in 1992. But because the script was so threadbare, Keitel first chucked it in the bin, then decided to give it a chance, and went on to win Best Male Lead at the Independent Spirit Awards.
Then came Quentin Tarantino who had studied acting but had never directed a roll of film when he approached Keitel to work on Reservoir Dogs in the same year. Keitel claimed he had a strange feeling when reading the script but the film overreached his expectations, the two working perfectly together and sharing the same acting background. He particularly admired the way Tarantino does his own sound effects during filming, and edits on the trot.
The same weird feeling came when Jane Campion asked him to star as his first romantic lead in The Piano a year later. When asked how it felt to play the romantic lead and become the object of desire for the first time in his life he replied: “I already have, in my acting class”. He adds: “Jane Campion could film a chaise longue and it would become an object of desire”. But his best memory of that film was Holly Hunter playing her own piano. “It was a fantasy” MT
IN CONVERSATION | Harvey Keitel | Marrakech Film Festival 2019
Just Noise (2020) Harvey Keitel stars in David Ferrario’s historical drama.