Stacy Keach Interview: Poignant and Personal, an Intimate Look at a Legendary Actor's Life and Career
Image attributed to Stacy Keach
Born in Savannah, Georgia on June 2, 1941, Stacy Keach does it all in film and television and is one of America’s most acknowledged Shakespearean actors. He started in theatre at an early age and came to prominence on stage in the 1960s playing in MacBird!, an Off Broadway anti-war satire staged at the Village Gate and entered films in 1968, landing a solid supporting role in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter.
Early in his career, he was credited as Stacy Keach, Jr. to distinguish himself from his father Stacy Keach, Sr., also in show business. He has played the title role in two separate productions of Hamlet, portrayed Richard Nixon in the US traveling version of the play Frost/Nixon, has had leads in both Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, has won Obie awards, Drama Desk Awards and Vernon Rice Awards and is a founding member of L.A. Theatre Works.
“We had a Weimaraner dog that I loved dearly, but he bit a next door neighbor, and my parents decided they would give the dog away, and they did. They gave him back to the owners where he had been bred. One weekend we were driving down to Palm Springs, and dad said, “Let’s stop by and see Hunter.” His name was Hunter. This was not a good idea, but we did it anyway. I remember seeing Hunter behind this wire mesh fence, and he was just crazy because he recognized us obviously, and it just broke my heart. I just wept uncontrollably. For many years, I used that event … even as I tell you the story now, I get a little teary.”
Films include The New Centurions, The Traveling Executioner, The Ninth Configuration, Up in Smoke, American History X, W., That Championship Season, Doc, Escape From L.A., Cellmates, The Bourne Legacy, Planes and Nebraska. Keach also portrayed Frank James (elder brother of Jesse) in The Long Riders, and his brother James played Jesse.
Television credits include Dynasty, Jesus of Nazareth, The Blue and the Gray, Mistral’s Daughter, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (1984-1985), The Return of Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer (TV movie), The New Mike Hammer (1986-1987), Mike Hammer, Private Eye (1997-1998), Titus, The Simpsons, Prison Break, ER, Two and a Half Men, 30 Rock, The Neighbors, Sean Saves the World and 1600 Penn.
In 1984, London police arrested Keach at Heathrow Airport for carrying cocaine. He pleaded guilty and served six months at Reading Prison. In his memoir, All in All: An Actor’s Life On and Off the Stage, Keach discusses his arrest and addiction, being born with a cleft lip and partial cleft of the hard palate, his four marriages, the romance with singer Judy Collins and much more.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are you still in rehearsals for Henry IV?
Stacy Keach: We are indeed. We went into technical rehearsals today.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Isn’t this the second time you’ve played the rather “large” character of Sir John Falstaff?
Stacy Keach: It is, with a 47-year gap in between (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are there more challenges portraying the character now?
Stacy Keach: Yes and no. Physically, it’s much more challenging obviously because I was a young man when I went around in a fat suit. But from a point of view of sort of understanding the character, I think it’s much easier. Playing it when I was 27, I was trying to be old and fat. Now that I’m 72, I’m trying to be young and thin.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I enjoyed All in All. It’s a great read!
Stacy Keach: Oh thank you. I’m glad you did.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why was it the right time for you to write a memoir?
Stacy Keach: Well, I figured I’d better get it done while I could still do it (laughs). I think that was the motor behind it, more than anything else. I figured it was time. Looking back over my career, I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been blessed with a wonderful career, and I wanted to share it with others while I could still sit down and write, you know?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, I found it very refreshing that you spoke with such honesty about your drug addiction in particular. How do you go on in life as a person and as an actor after spending six months in prison for cocaine smuggling?
Stacy Keach: When that occurred back in the 80s, I was absolutely convinced that my career was finished. I thought, “That’s it. It’s all over.” Thanks to my family and friends and specifically Nancy Reagan and Frank Sinatra, I managed to sort of crawl my way back into my life as an actor. But when I got out of Reading, I thought, “Well, I’d better go study or do something else because my acting career is over.”
I was very grateful for the fact that the industry embraced me to come back, and I think a lot of that had to do with Mrs. Reagan and the endorsement of Frank Sinatra. It was a combination of events plus my family. Without my family’s support, I don’t know whether I would’ve been able to survive that whole ordeal.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe the Alabama cities of Montgomery and Selma hold particular significance for you.
Stacy Keach: They do indeed. Absolutely. My first movie was in Selma, and then The Traveling Executioner in Montgomery sometime later. Alabama became important in my later career when we went to Mobile to do Mission of the Shark which was the story of the USS Indianapolis being sunk by the Japanese submarine. We shot that on the USS Alabama and got to spend some time in Fairhope, which we liked very much. In fact, my wife at the time said, “This is nice. Maybe we should buy a house down here.” I think it was the next year that one of those hurricanes came in and she said, “I’m glad we didn’t do that!”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were inspired by your visit to Kilby prison in Montgomery to make a documentary?
Stacy Keach: That’s correct, yeah. It was called The Repeater. It was really about prison recidivism. When we arrived at Kilby to shoot The Traveling Executioner, they had literally just evacuated the prison days before, so there were all of these diaries, letters and artwork in all the cells. We went from cell to cell and gathered all that material and wrote a little script and decided we’d go back and shoot there again. We got permission to do so. That was an amazing experience. Little did I know when we were shooting that I would one day find myself really behind bars. That was a cruel irony.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1968) filmed in Selma was the first time you were in front of a movie camera?
Stacy Keach: Professionally yes. When I was in high school we actually made some of our own films ourselves. But, yes, it was my first professional movie.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You talk in the book about your acting experiences with Edward Norton who costarred with you in The Bourne Legacy. Would you describe him as difficult?
Stacy Keach: No, not difficult at all. He’s very particular. He’s a perfectionist. He really wants to get everything just so, just right. I admire that. It’s a bit of a hardship on other actors who don’t understand that process. I loved working with Edward. We had a great time together. There’s talk about the possibility of The Bourne Legacy now going into a sequel situation, so we may be working together again. Who knows?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Very cool. Interesting story in the book about meeting Burton and Taylor. Is there an actress today you feel may rival Elizabeth Taylor in acting ability and beauty?
Stacy Keach: Oh that’s awfully difficult. I don’t think so. There are some wonderful actresses today, but she was extraordinary. Off the top of my head, I would say, “No.” She was one of a kind.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You were terrorized by bullies when you were a child and born with birth defects. As an actor, do you draw on certain life events for emotion while playing specific characters?
Stacy Keach: Yes. I think many actors draw on their life experiences in terms of their work. As a young actor, it’s sometimes difficult. The whole idea of the method, I think, is somewhat over simplified and not understood by a lot of people. I remember specifically one event that traumatized me as a young boy.
We had a Weimaraner dog that I loved dearly, but he bit a next door neighbor, and my parents decided they would give the dog away, and they did. They gave him back to the owners where he had been bred. One weekend we were driving down to Palm Springs, and dad said, “Let’s stop by and see Hunter.” His name was Hunter. This was not a good idea, but we did it anyway. I remember seeing Hunter behind this wire mesh fence, and he was just crazy because he recognized us obviously, and it just broke my heart. I just wept uncontrollably. For many years, I used that event … even as I tell you the story now, I get a little teary.
When I’m teaching, I tell my students to use these things if you have to shed tears in a scene. If you have an event as I did like that where tears come easily as a result, that’s good. I find that a lot of actors get stuck. They get stuck because they don’t have an event like that they can call on. They’ve blocked those events or whatever.
There are the great joyous moments in your life where you’ve just experienced sheer bliss and happiness, too. Those events sometimes awaken tears quicker than sad events when you’re dealing with an emotional recall in a scene. So yes, I do encourage using life events. At this age, having acted for over 50 years, it comes very easily. I don’t have to work to find the emotion for a specific moment. It’s there.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Author Mickey Spillane told you to “just wear the hat, kid.” What exactly did that mean, and was he involved in the production of the Mike Hammer series?
Stacy Keach: He was to a certain extent. He worked very closely with Jay Bernstein who was the executive producer on the series. He wanted to make sure that we didn’t take Hammer into the 21st century or the 20th century without paying tribute or homage to his source. Originally, Mickey was a cartoonist, and Mike Hammer originated as a cartoon. His name was Mike Danger, and he was a cartoon character. Then when Mickey started writing about his experiences in the Korean War, the character Mike Hammer was a product of the Korean War in the early books.
When we did the series on television, he wanted to update him, but in updating him, Mickey was concerned about preserving the traditional, classical kind of film noir style of the character so he would be like a fish out of water, a character who was a throwback to the 50s but who was living (at that time) in the 80s. I think that dynamic worked. None of us were sure it was going to work, but it seemed to resonate with audiences.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I didn’t realize your dad portrayed Professor Carlson in the Get Smart TV series starring Don Adams.
Stacy Keach: Oh yeah. He loved doing that show. It was one of his favorites.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was your father’s reason for not wanting you to become an actor strictly financial?
Stacy Keach: I think that was part of it, but it was also the fact that he had experienced the life of an actor, so it was not just financial, it was also emotional. Emotional in the way of being able to withstand the rejection in this business and being always under the microscope with critics, agents and producers. It wasn’t just financial. It was also from an emotional point of view.
Primarily for both my brother and myself, dad was concerned about security and happiness. Finances did have a lot to do with it because there were times during our growing up when dad was out of work, and he was nervous. He was worried about it and having to rely unfortunately on the phone ringing most of the time to get a job. I encourage young actors to not wait for that phone to ring and get out and get together with friends to work on plays and scenes and keep busy. You have to keep those muscles active because that’s the important part. The readiness is all, as they say.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You protested the Vietnam War. Would you still call yourself an activist today?
Stacy Keach: No. I’m not really a political activist. I think Judy (Collins) had a lot to do with that. She was very politically active, and it was very hard not to be a political activist being with her. Heck, it was impossible. I have very strong feelings about things, and I express them, but I’m not a banner waver. I think many times when actors get involved in situations, they diminish their powers as artists in some ways. In some ways, it enhances them. I think it depends on the individual. I really do. It also depends on the issue.
If I hear somebody supporting something that I don’t agree with, I won’t buy a ticket to see their next whatever it is. I don’t know. I have very mixed feelings about it. I also think that if you do have a public profile, in some ways it’s your responsibility to express yourself in terms of what you feel. I can see that point of view, but I don’t entirely agree with it. I’ve chosen to be an actor and express myself through my work and not in terms of political activism.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You suffered a stroke in 2009. How is your health now?
Stacy Keach: It’s good. I’m knocking on wood as I say it, but yeah, it’s good. I like doing these big Shakespearian roles because it keeps me in shape. It’s a little bit like being an athlete doing these big roles. You have to be able to move around. It’s a physical challenge and certainly moreso now then when I was 27 (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are your kids in show business?
Stacy Keach: Shannon is not. He’s studying for his master’s degree in International Public Relations at NYU. My daughter is following the footsteps a little bit. She’s studying theatre at Pepperdine. As a matter of fact, she’s just getting ready to open in a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and she’s playing Hippolyta, so she was asking dad about her hair color (laughs). I said, “You’d better talk to your mom about that.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you wind down after a long day or week at the theatre?
Stacy Keach: I like to play music. I carry my keyboard wherever I go and play music. On my days off, I like to play golf. There are so many other projects I’m involved with right now that … I don’t take vacations well. I never have. If I know I have a job waiting for me at the other end of a two-week vacation, I’m fine. But it’s very difficult for me to go away and just relax not knowing what’s coming next. Even after all these years, something always comes up. Jack Lemmon would call his agent at the end of every film he ever made and say, “I’m out of work. I’ve got to get a job.” I share those crazy feelings (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That’s a great lead in to my next question about upcoming projects. Is filming completed on Sin City 2 (Sin City: A Dame to Kill For)?
Stacy Keach: Yes. They spent a tremendous amount of time in postproduction on that because it’s graphic art animation. Frank Miller and Robert Rodriquez did an amazing job, but it was a lot of work in the editing room. We shot that entire thing in front of a green screen not having any sense of environment whatsoever because they put it all in later. We did that close to a year and a half ago. It’s coming out August 22.
I just completed a film that I’m very excited about. It’s called Cell, which is based on the 2006 Stephen King novel where cell phone radiation creates zombies out of students (laughs). I play the headmaster of a school. I did that one with John Cusack, Samuel L. Jackson and Isabelle Fuhrman. We shot that in Atlanta, and they just finished production. I was able to get out of rehearsals to go down there. The time I was supposed to go was when they had that terrible weather, so we had to delay a week. They were getting nervous on the Shakespeare front because we didn’t know if I was going to be able to get down there and get it done without jeopardizing the rehearsal schedule. It all worked out though.
I did a film in Vancouver with Chloe Moretz called If I Stay which will be coming out later this year. It’s about a prodigious cello player played by Chloe whose family gets killed in an automobile accident, and she’s in critical condition in the hospital. I play her grandfather, and I help resuscitate her back to health and happiness and the cello. While she’s recovering, she revisits her past in sort of an out of body experience. It’s a wonderful film with beautiful music, and Chloe is just an extraordinary young actress. She’s 16 years old.
It was very difficult on the set because you’d hear, “Chloe, you’ve got to go to school!” Legally they’re only allowed certain hours of the day to work. Planes 2 (Planes: Fire & Rescue) as well where I play the voice of Skipper. I’ve got a lot of stuff coming out that I’m very excited about.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Congratulations on Nebraska being nominated at the Oscars even though it did not win Best Picture.
Stacy Keach: Yeah. The fact that it got six nominations, I think, is a victory itself. Even though it didn’t win anything, the fact that it was recognized and nominated in those six separate areas was a victory.
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