I 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.