" Please mention Harvey Keitel..."
By Jeffrey Wendt.
“Of course, just because you are a character, doesn’t mean you have character.”
A working class ex-Marine from Brighton Beach, Harvey Keitel came by his art honestly, through discipline and perseverance. His approach to acting is in the spirit of inquiry, each role a fresh chance to ask new questions and pose the answers in front of our eyes on the screen.
“Everything is difficult, and everything worthwhile is difficult. A certain need, a need not unlike Mickey (Cohen) had: to know, to understand, and I had that need to understand and to know. And if you have that drive and you have whatever it takes to fulfill it, you have a chance then… to do a lot of things. Because your world will be vast, as opposed to local.”
Best known for tough-guy characters going back to his breakthrough role alongside Robert DeNiro in Scorsese’s Mean Streets and later as a pimp in Taxi Driver, Keitel has at times struggled against being typecast. His filmography is extensive, spanning almost 50 years and dozens of different roles and yet tough guy is still the shorthand tag by which he is known. So be it, Keitel has never let others define him. He spent the 1960s and early 1970s in supporting roles on tv and in theater and made the most of his first starring role in Martin Scorsese’s Who’s That Knocking at My Door. That role and the others Scorsese directed him in helped establish him as a name actor; Keitel’s performances established him as a persona. His ascent seemed assured.
“She had said one time, make a choice and do it like Hercules. So if that is all of what is being offered, the idea is to always do it like Hercules and I always followed her advise and now I’m here talking to you” c
Who’s That Knocking at My Door.
The latter half of the 1970s saw Keitel co-star with Raquel Welch and Bill Cosby in Mother, Juggs & Speed, in Ridley Scott’s fine feature film debut, The Duellists and alongside Kirk Douglas in the sci-fi bomb Saturn 3. For the duration of the 1980s Keitel would bounce between films and television, America and Europe, his career seemingly stalled in the low budget purgatory of so many actors before him. In 1988 Scorsese cast him as Judas in The Last Temptation of Christ, the role of the ultimate betrayer given to Keitel in an act of loyalty and artistic faith. Keitel did not disappoint. Other prominent roles followed.
“I don’t think about those things, really. I work hard on everything I do. Everything is a struggle, everything is hard, everything is difficult.” e
Keitel’s role as co-producer and co-star in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs proved to be the second big break of his career. At 53 Keitel was now a creative mentor, helping launch Tarantino’s career while incidentally reviving his own. After that everything changed.
The Piano, Bad Lieutenant, Pulp Fiction, Thelma and Louise, Smoke, Clockers, Cop Land… high profile roles in films of actual merit found Harvey and so new generations found him as well. Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant is now perhaps Keitel’s most iconic role, a star turn as a self-destructive cop in pre-Giulianni New York City. Keitel’s performance seems both fantastic and utterly true, grounded in life experience and set aflame with the fire of a lifetime of seeking truth in the moment. Initially a modest arthouse hit, the latter-day exploitation flick found a place in the cinematic bad-boy pantheon alongside Scarface, Blue Velvet, Goodfellas and the King of New York. Keitel’s tough, low-key middle-aged Brooklyn masculinity was now a type but not a stereotype. While peers such as DeNiro, Pacino and Walken all found themselves shadowed by affectionate impersonations of their voices and mannerisms Keitel proved more elusive. His name evokes a firm but nebulous image of a grim-faced, softly threatening man of distinction under various names and guises but refuses to snap into focus, eluding capture by lesser talents.
Still working as a character actor, co-star and occasional star, Keitel has remained an artist in flux, rooted in a particular context and type while still pushing in new directions towards new horizons.
a. Mr. Wolf [Harvey Keitel], Pulp Fiction (1994)
b/e.Harvey Keitel, interview with David Morgan, (1992)
c.Harvey Keitel Still The Coolest Cat Around by Paul Fischer, 2005.
Jeffrey Wendt is a contributing writer for bysuchandsuch.