Harvey Keitel

Harvey Keitel: The Art of Darkness

Harvey KeitelI initially turned down the offer to write an unauthorized biography of Harvey Keitel when it came in 1997. To me, just the word “unauthorized” smacked of exploitation. I associated it with Kitty Kelley, Andrew Morton and a group of other purveyors of that trade, all of whom seemed vaguely disreputable to me.

Plus, having written an authorized biography of Sam Peckinpah, I knew how hard it was to deal with a subject when you had permission – and the subject himself was dead. I couldn’t imagine how difficult it would be if your subject was not only alive but actively discouraging people from talking to you.

But I eventually said yes for the most mundane of reasons: I was being offered too much money to turn it down. It was hardly a fortune – but it was more than I’d been paid for my Peckinpah book and certainly more than I could afford to refuse.

In approaching the book, I decided to gather as much information as I could and synthesize it into a critical biography, setting Keitel against the backdrop of his times. His story was certainly intriguing: The son of Jewish immigrants, he was so shy that, when he got out of the Marines, he enrolled in court-reporter school so that he could have a job in which he would never have to talk to anyone. Then he started acting almost on a dare and, in his first major movie, found himself teamed with both Martin Scorsese and Robert DeNiro in “Mean Streets” – only to watch both of their careers take off like rockets, while his dropped into the doldrums.

At the point that I wrote the book, Keitel was back on top, the undisputed king of independent film. After a trough in the late 1970s that lasted well into the 1980s, he made a kind of comeback through a series of strong supporting performances in “Bugsy,” “Thelma & Louise” and “Mortal Thoughts.” He’d become a genuine star, based on top-billed performances in films as diverse as Abel Ferrara’s “Bad Lieutenant,” Jane Campion’s “The Piano” and Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” and “Pulp Fiction.” He was the go-to guy for first-time directors, capable of getting a movie financed by virtue of his presence in the lead role.

Needless to say, his career has fallen back to Earth since I wrote the book. But he remains a fascinating character actor who always brings a sly pungency to his film roles.

I’m not ashamed of the book itself; given the circumstances and resources I had to work with, I feel as though I captured as much of Keitel as I was able to unearth in my research and interviews. I wrote an honest book that was respectful but truthful about his work and life, one that I believe is still entertaining to read.

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