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MOVIES : Leaps of Faith : Harvey Keitel's search for God often involves confronting his darker self; case in point: 'Reservoir Dogs'

October 18, 1992|KRISTINE McKENNA | Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar

Having established the boundaries of how much he's willing to reveal, Keitel offers a loosely sketched autobiography. "I was born in Brooklyn in 1939, I grew up in Brighton Beach, and I have a brother and a sister--I'm the baby of the family so be gentle with me," he laughs. "My mother was Polish and my father was Romanian and they were hard-working, struggling immigrants--my mother worked at a luncheonette and my father worked at a factory as a sewing machine operator and they could barely read or write. Life demanded of them that they work hard for their family and they did so, and I admire them deeply for that."

Keitel's parents were devoutly religious and he was bar mitzvahed, but "religion meant nothing to me when I was growing up because it was never made clear to me how the stories and myths in the Bible were relevant to my life," recalls Keitel, who preferred to hang out at the local pool hall with a gang keen on stealing cars and robbing pigeon coops. "We weren't taught to question the teachings handed down from God--we were simply taught to be fearful, and it's a sin religion isn't taught with more feeling for the beauty of the stories. Fortunately, I discovered the poetry of those stories for myself later in life, and my feelings about all this have changed a great deal. All I have to do now is look up at the sky and ask 'What is that?' and 'How did it get there?' to remind myself I'm a great believer in God."

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At the age of 17, Keitel dropped out of high school and joined the Marines. He was stationed in Lebanon and he describes his three years in the Marines as "a spiritual journey that had a profound effect on me." He became a court stenographer on his release in 1959, a job he was to hold for eight years. His acting career began one day in 1964 when a friend at work suggested they go for acting lessons. Though Keitel had struggled with a stuttering problem since childhood, he agreed to give it a shot.

"I wasn't one of those kids who was obsessed with movies and I initially began acting because I thought it would bring me fame and money," he recalls. "Along the way I found out that's not what it's about. When I began acting, I had this very dedicated actor friend named Rufus Collins--hello, Rufus, if you read this, wherever you are--and we were studying together at this little theater in Greenwich Village. I was living in Brooklyn then and Rufus kept urging me to move to Manhattan because he said I could never become an actor living in Brooklyn. I told Rufus I wasn't interested in being an artist and that I just wanted to be rich and he scorned me for that. I can see now that I hid behind the desire to be rich because I was afraid to feel my inner workings and acknowledge my need to make a contribution and create something."

Keitel began to discover that need at the legendary Actor's Studio, where he studied with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, who gave him a firm grounding in Method acting, an approach to performing generally regarded as decidedly New Yorkesque. "I wouldn't describe my acting style as New Yorkesque because the system I studied under, the Stanislavsky method, began in Russia and draws a lot from the Greeks," says Keitel, who continues to study at the Actor's Studio. "So contrary to what many people think, it's a classical approach rather than a New York street style."

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Keitel's first chance to apply what he was learning came in 1965 when he answered an ad placed by film student Martin Scorsese, who was looking for actors to appear in "Who's That Knocking at My Door?," a film he planned to make.

"When Marty and I met it was like two comrades meeting on the way somewhere," Keitel recalls with a smile. "I asked him where he was going and we discovered we were trying to get to the same place, so we held hands and got scared and walked along together."

Says Scorsese of their meeting 27 years ago: "What struck me about Harvey was his tremendous passion and that's the quality that's carried me through with him on each of the five films we've done together. He pays scrupulous attention to the smallest detail of a role and is always intensely supportive of the project as a whole, and watching his work evolve over the years I've seen him get deeper and deeper into himself. Harvey travels into very forbidding regions of his soul for his work, and he's able to have that experience and put it on the screen in an absolutely genuine way I find very touching."

Keitel had featured roles in Scorsese's next three films, and their collaboration resumed in 1988 with Keitel's unconventional portrayal of Judas Iscariot in "The Last Temptation of Christ."

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