As mob boss Angelo Bruno in Martin Scorsese's "The Irishman," Harvey Keitel makes a brief appearance, but a lasting impression … just as he did as Ludwig, plotting a prison escape in "The Grand Budapest Hotel."
Hollywood hasn't always considered Keitel, as he says, "bankable." Hut he's always memorable:
He quoted Russian theatre director and teacher Konstantin Stanislavski: "There are no small parts, only small actors."
Small parts in big movies such as "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore," "Pulp Fiction" ("I'm Winston Wolf. I solve problems"), and "Taxi Driver." It helped, he said, that "I had good training."
The 80-year-old actor grew up in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn, where his parents ran a series of luncheonettes:
"Did you get put to work in those ever?" asked Mason.
"Yeah, sure. I made the best egg cream in Brooklyn."
"That's a trick!"
"Okay, somebody get the chocolate. And the milk has to be frozen."
"That's the secret?"
"Yeah, for the creamy top."
Overlooking the East River, Keitel remarked, "It's said that Heaven looks down from the Brooklyn Bridge."
"You believe that?" asked Mason.
"We in Brooklyn do!"
His first exposure to creativity, Keitel said, came in the Marines.
Mason said, "It's interesting to me that you describe being in the Marines as creative?"
"Well, you've never been on Parris Island. You have to get real creative there!" Keitel laughed.
It's where he learned to confront his fears, and be honest about his feelings.
"How did your family feel about your being an actor?" Mason asked.
"I'll make a long story short: When I said to them, 'I'm gonna study acting,' my father summed it up, he said, 'Actor, schmactor!'" Keitel laughed.
He moved to Manhattan at age 25 to pursue acting, taking small stage parts at first: "I played a dog. No lines!"
His big break in film came when he met a kid named Marty Scorsese: "He was a student at NYU. And I was selling shoes in Manhattan at that time. And he advertised for this student film in the trade papers. No money. And I got the part."
The film, "Who's That Knocking at My Door," was the beginning of a lifelong friendship. "Marty, we just connected right away," he said.
Keitel has been in six Scorsese films, and made another enduring connection in those early years when, at the Actors Studio, a friend introduced him to a young Robert De Niro. "She said, 'Harvey this is Robert. Robert, Harvey.' And we looked at each other, just like that, sorta grinned. And we never said a word to each other."
"Not a word?"
"Not one word. It was just mumbles and grunts and smiles, turning into laughter."
Keitel would recommend De Niro to Scorsese for his next film, "Mean Streets":
They'd reunite again in Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," when Keitel asked to play one of the lesser roles: "I said, 'Let me play the pimp.' And he said, 'The pimp? The pimp has three lines.'"
Keitel would improvise additional dialogue, after going out with a real pimp and strapping a tape recorder to himself. "I said to him, 'I have to tell you this, you know, I'm wired.' He said, 'What?' I said, 'I taped myself so I could record it.' He said, 'Are you f*****g nuts! You're gonna get us killed! Take that tape off!' I had to unbutton my shirt and take all the tape off."
Mason asked, "What were you hoping to get?"
Keitel smiled: "Authenticity."
Below: Harvey Keitel as the pimp Sport, and Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle, in a scene from "Taxi Driver." [Caution: Graphic language]:
In 1977, Ridley Scott gave him his first leading role in "The Duellists." But the next year he lost an even bigger part, when he walked away from "Apocalypse Now." In Francis Ford Coppola's Vietnam epic, he'd been cast as Captain Willard, the role that eventually went to Martin Sheen. But Keitel balked when Coppola wanted him under contract to his new studio.
"He said, 'Sign it or I'll fire you,'" Keitel recalled.
"So, you got fired?"
"Yeah – I would've been a star, and 'bankable'!" he laughed. "But there was a big reward there. I got through it. I didn't wanna be owned by anybody. And no actor should be owned by anybody."
But for much of the 1980s, he worked largely in exile. "Hollywood didn't seem interested in me, and the Europeans did," he said.
He played mostly in foreign films (including Nicolas Roeg's "Bad Timing," Lina Wertmuller's "Camorra," and Ettore Scola's "La nuit de Varennes") until 1990, when he was cast in the sequel to "Chinatown." "Jack Nicholson hired me to do 'The Two Jakes.' The studio wanted me to be replaced, 'cause they wanted a bankable actor. And Jack said, 'Nobody's firing you.'"
The next year, Ridley Scott hired him to play the sympathetic detective chasing "Thelma & Louise."
Mason asked, "Why did you want that part?"
"I needed it," Keitel replied. "And I'm proud of that movie, by the way, because it has become a standard, a classic."
That same year Keitel earned an Oscar nomination playing mobster Mickey Cohen in "Bugsy."
But he's always had an uneasy relationship with Hollywood. Mason asked, "Why do you think at that point in time, Hollywood seemed to lose interest in you?"
"Gosh, if I knew that, I'd bottle it and sell it. I think they've lost interest in me now."
"Because everything is box office. Not that things don't have to be box office, they have to be. But not everything. And right now, it's everything."
To Keitel, it all goes back to that word "bankable."
Mason said, "To be bankable is essentially to be a star, yes?"
"Do you not think of yourself as a star?"
Keitel said, "I think of myself as a former Marine who got lucky. Really lucky."
To watch a trailer for "The Irishman" click on the video player below:
- ("Sunday Morning, 10/30/19)
- Review: "The Irishman" (CBS News)
- GALLERY: The films of Martin Scorsese
- "Irishman" producer Irwin Winkler on a life in movies ("Sunday Morning," 9/15/19)
Story produced by Gabriel Falcon.