New York — Only an actor of Stacy Keach's wildly varied experience could spend 20 minutes describing his most recent TV movie and a failed series pilot and then confess his desire to star in a revival of "The Iceman Cometh." Television's premier tough guy is also a Yale-trained Fulbright scholar hailed in the late '60s as the finest classical actor since John Barrymore. After seeing his Coriolanus, a New York critic wondered, "What will there be left for him to do when he is 50?"
"Well, here I am, better than 50, and for the most part I'm very happy with my career," Keach says with a quiet chuckle. In recent months he has opened on Broadway in the thriller "Solitary Confinement" (critics liked him a lot more than the play), filmed a cameo role as a gunfighter opposite Kenny Rogers in an upcoming TV movie Western and starred as a father seeking to avenge his son's murder in "Revenge on the Highway," a fact-based NBC-TV movie airing Sunday.
"I look for characters who are emotionally driven," Keach says, "and the death of a son was something that really interested me." He describes "Revenge on the Highway" as "a little like Steven Spielberg's 'Duel,' with the phantom truck terrorizing everybody on the road." As trucker Claude Sams, Keach gives chase to catch the renegade drivers who may have killed his son. In real life, the case led to the passage of stricter federal trucking safety regulations.
Keach draws no snobbish distinctions between playing Claude Sams on TV and Richard III at the Folger Shakespeare Theater. Television has given him a good living and occasionally a great part (Mike Hammer, Ernest Hemingway), allowing time to get back to the stage every year or two.
"After I played Hamlet, I thought the world was going to open up for me," Keach recalls of his acclaimed performance in a 1972 Central Park production co-starring Sam Waterston, James Earl Jones, Colleen Dewhurst and Raul Julia. Instead, he admits, "I couldn't get a job. Sue Mengers, who was my agent at the time, said, 'You're going to have to come out of your ivory tower and get your nose dirty like the rest of us.' "
His first TV series, "Caribe," flopped in the mid-'70s, but Keach enjoyed the medium's predictable work schedule and audiences responded to his gruff persona. His second series, "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer," ran for four seasons with a hiatus during the actor's 1985 prison term in Reading, England, for cocaine possession.
Keach won the public's respect by serving his six-month sentence without protest and then participating in drug-awareness and prevention programs. "I tried to be as honest about it as I could," he says, adding that his volunteer efforts now center on environmental issues.
In conversation, Keach is cordial and soft-spoken, chatting easily about the joys of late parenthood with his fourth wife, Polish-born actress Malgosia Tomassi (their son, Shannon, is 4; daughter Karolina is 2). "Being a late bloomer, I really didn't have any interest in children until my late 30s, but I'm so happy I didn't go through life without that experience."
Traveling, he concedes, is no longer the carefree adventure it was pre-kids. Arriving here for the opening of "Solitary Confinement," Shannon Keach complained about crowded elevators and pronounced New York "too dirty," while his father lamented an $8,000 nursery school tuition bill. "We live a very leisurely, outdoor life in Malibu," Keach explains. "We designed our home as a place of rest and relaxation because we're on the road so much."
The actor speaks with pride of his close relationship with his younger brother, James, who successfully moved from acting to directing, and their parents. Keach's father, Stacy Sr., still acts in commercials and character parts, including a current series of ads for Lincoln-Mercury and a small role as Stacy Jr.'s dad in last season's TV movie "Mission of the Shark."
Keach acknowledges that he'd welcome the chance to do another television series. A one-hour pilot for Bruce Paltrow, "New Year," in which he and Jane Alexander played the rivalrous heads of competing pharmaceutical companies, didn't sell last year. Approached about doing a Paris-based detective series for the international market, Keach says his family would pick up and move "in a second. I love to work in Europe, but it's expensive. Maybe now that the Democrats are back in power, the economy will improve and miniseries and epics will come back."
But what about Hickey in "Iceman" or James Tyrone in "Long Day's Journey Into Night"? "One of these days ..." Keach replies. "My strength as an actor is in the theater--I know that about myself. Some actors get onstage and vanish, but I'm much better there than I am on screen. Still, he adds with a benign laugh, "I've got to put my kids through school. And I like the security of working every day, which is what television is about."
"Revenge of the Highway" airs Sunday at 9 p.m. on NBC.