November 24, 2010

Harvey Keitel

Harvey Keitel

NEW YORK—Actor Harvey Keitel and I are good friends and we go way back. For any of you who hate movies and Hollywood as I do, Keitel is your man. He was on Broadway for ten years and then made Mean Streets, the first of many gritty films with Robert De Niro depicting young Italian toughs around tough New York neighborhoods. De Niro and Keitel are very close friends, but the latter is a very open person, not at all shy or—God forbid—a Hollywood type.

Keitel enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 17 “with two other Jewish kids from my neighborhood.” Apparently the various D.I.s (Drill Instructors) in Parris Island had never met a Jew before. “This guy would line us up, look at us, shake his head, and move on down the line,” says Harvey. He attends Marine Corps functions every year and keeps in touch with the old gang. No typical Hollywood actor he.

“His work doesn’t seem at all studied; in fact, it’s like looking out your window in the Bronx or Brooklyn and observing people.”

We became fast friends as soon as we were introduced. It went something like this:

Me: “What’s a nice little Jewish boy from Brooklyn doing in the Marine Corps instead of being down in Wall Street?”

Harvey, while bursting out in laughter: “Who is this guy? I like him.”

We’ve been buddies ever since. One night my young son came home and announced he had just seen Bad Lieutenant, where Harvey plays a drug-sodden cop who screws everything in sight while shooting up heroin and chasing bad guys. J. T. went on and on about the film, so I told him to come to dinner next evening at the Monkey Bar. I had Keitel and his wife Daphna for dinner, and when my boy saw Harvey, his eyes nearly popped out. Bad Lieutenant was a very powerful film, as were Mean Streets, Reservoir Dogs, and Taxi Driver–where Harvey played Jody Foster’s pimp—but my favorite is The Duellists, Joseph Conrad’s Napoleonic saga of an obsessed French officer who keeps challenging a brother officer to a duel throughout their careers for no apparent reason. The atmosphere alone is worth the admission price. Harvey from Brooklyn speaks Brooklynese in the film and carries it off.

Keitel seems haloed in electricity as well as authenticity. He reminds me of Bogie for his natural portrayal of daily life as a cop or a gangster. His characters are always beautifully composed and finely worked, a legacy of being onstage, I guess, unlike the rest of today’s mumbling so-called superstars who can’t act their way out of a paper bag. His work doesn’t seem at all studied; in fact, it’s like looking out your window in the Bronx or Brooklyn and observing people.


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