In 1968, 29-year-old actor Harvey Keitel introduced himself to the movies by starring in "Who's That Knocking at My Door?," the first film by his pal, director Martin Scorsese. Set against the backdrop of the strict Catholicism of New York's Little Italy, the film examined a young man's struggle to reconcile the sacred and the profane and was an intensely personal experience for both men. Keitel received decent notices for his performance while Scorsese got decidedly mixed reviews, but it was Scorsese who skyrocketed to critical acclaim in 1973 with his next film, "Mean Streets," which also featured a scintillating performance by Keitel. For some inexplicable reason, however, it has taken Keitel a bit longer to move into the spotlight: 19 years, to be exact.
A respected character actor who has turned in solid performances in 37 films, Keitel has finessed an astonishingly wide range of parts, stretching from Thomas Paine (in "La Nuit de Varennes") to the smooth-talking pimp Sport in "Taxi Driver," to the feminist police officer of "Thelma & Louise," but roles that would establish him as a leading man have thus far eluded him.
That's about to change. Voted 1991's best supporting actor by the National Society of Film Critics for his work in "Mortal Thoughts," "Thelma & Louise" and "Bugsy" (which also garnered him Oscar and Golden Globe nominations for his portrayal of mobster Mickey Cohen), Keitel has four films scheduled for release, two of which--"Reservoir Dogs," which opens Friday, and "The Bad Lieutenant" (Dec. 30th)--are being touted by industry insiders as showcasing the finest work he's ever done. Though both films have drawn some criticism for their relentless violence, the praise for Keitel's work in them has been unanimous.
"My career has really picked up steam all of a sudden and I wish I knew what made that happen, because if I did I would've made it happen 10 years ago," says the 53-year-old actor.
He plans to direct his first film next year and has a supporting role in "The Specialist," John Badham's remake of "La Femme Nikita" starring Bridget Fonda and Gabriel Byrne. "I really can't tell you why things are going so well now."
His friend Scorsese has an idea why. "Harvey's career has finally kicked into high gear because he's a damn good actor," he flatly declares. "There are a lot of hard knocks in this business but he hasn't let that get him and has just kept working. That's the only thing you can do, and if you're any good, people eventually start to notice."
Keitel is living in Malibu while he concludes shooting "Rising Sun," the Philip Kaufman cop-thriller co-starring Sean Connery and Wesley Snipes. Based on the novel by Michael Crichton that generated a good deal of controversy for its alleged Japan-bashing, "Rising Sun" features Keitel in "the role of a bigot. I'd rather wait until I've seen the film to comment on it," he says, closing the subject.
While in Los Angeles, Keitel will also loop the sound for New Zealand director Jane Campion's third film, "The Piano," a love story co-starring Sam Neill and Holly Hunter set for release next year. Cast as a Britisher in a New Zealand settlement in the 1840s, Keitel describes the making of the film, which was shot from January to May of this year in New Zealand, as "a fantastic experience. Jane Campion is a goddess, really an incredible lady."
Off camera, Keitel is the very antithesis of his image. Though a quick perusal of Keitel's filmography suggests he's taken pains to resist being typecast, he is nonetheless known for his expertise at playing macho thugs, white-trash misogynists and sneaky street punks. In person, however, Keitel comes across as an emotionally open, deeply spiritual man with an impressive knowledge of philosophy, theology and history. Sauntering into his beachfront back yard on a Saturday morning, barefoot, dressed in workout clothes, clutching a cup of coffee and a Power Bar, he doffs his sunglasses for a moment and says, "We have to meet with our eyes before we start talking."
Having thus met, the reporter asks Keitel if he would discuss his childhood and upbringing, subjects not always discussed in articles about him. Keitel slowly puts his Power Bar on the picnic table and after a long moment of silence replies, "I'm not gonna tell you my earliest memories because they're very personal, but I do remember very far back--to my infancy, in fact. As to whether those memories are pleasant or painful, I've learned over the course of my life that memories I once considered painful have been the greatest source of revelation in my life, so it's too simple to say they're positive or negative."