The seasoned thespian and co-star of the film, Nebraska, offers a glimpse into his Hollywood moments and friendships.
Actor Stacy Keach
Tavis: Stacy Keach’s impressive career reaches back more than 40 years to outstanding performances as varied as “Richard III” on stage and “Mike Hammer,” of course, on television.
But along with success has come some serious setbacks, but he’s chronicled them and all the turbulence in his life in a candid new memoir titled “All in All.” But all in all does not mean the end, as his career is still going strong.
Stacy Keach: That’s an omen.
Tavis: He’s now getting some rave reviews for his critically-acclaimed performance in “Nebraska” where he plays a really vile character opposite Bruce Dern. Let’s take a look at a scene from “Nebraska.”
Tavis: That voice of yours, those pipes, such a powerful instrument.
Keach: Thank you, thank you, Tavis.
Tavis: So much of your performance, I think, goes hand in hand with that voice.
Tavis: It just works.
Keach: Well, thank you, thank you. You know, I started my career doing voice work because my dad was in radio. He was a radio guy. Anyway, thanks for showing that clip.
You know, “Nebraska” was a wonderful experience for me because Alexander Payne is a fabulous director and I got a chance to work with my old pal, Bruce Dern. We did “That Championship Season” together. I’m a bad guy in this, as you say…
Tavis: A vile guy, yeah.
Keach: But he’s a victim. You know, actors, it’s very hard for them to make value judgments when they play characters. It’s very dangerous if you start thinking of yourself as a bad guy.
As Stella Adler used to say, you always have to find something to love about the worst character, including Iago. I mean, you’ve gotta find something of value that you can attach your positive emotions to.
Tavis: And what was that in this particular character in “Nebraska?”
Keach: He felt he was maligned. I mean, the back story here is that Bruce Dern and I owned a garage together 40 years ago. And he left and went off to live in Billings, Montana with his family. He receives something in the mail that tells him he’s won a million dollars, a magazine subscription. It’s a scam, but he really believes it.
He really believes it until he takes his son, played by Will Forte, and he travels back to Nebraska to collect his money, and I want my piece of it. So that’s kind of what that scene was about, you know. So he really thinks that he was, you know, done bad.
I got a chance to sing in “Nebraska.” I got a chance to get up and do a little karaoke and he really feels that he’s the victim. He sings “In the Ghetto,” that Elvis Presley song, and he feels like he’s that boy that is maligned by life.
Tavis: What do you make of all the buzz? You mentioned Bruce Dern. I mean, he’s on everybody’s short list.
Keach: Oh, he’s great.
Tavis: What do you make of just the buzz the movie is getting?
Keach: Well, you know, the award season is always exciting and it’s wonderful to get respect from your peers. But I always think it’s dangerous when that becomes a measure of success beyond the box office. In other words, in terms of your personal feelings. It’s wonderful to be recognized, but he deserves it.
I mean, Bruce has had a wonderful career and this is, I think, the pinnacle of his career. This is the best thing he’s ever done, I think, without question. It’s a great performance and I think the film itself is getting a lot of buzz because of other performances. June Squibb who plays his wife is absolutely fantastic and she’s very funny.
And it looks great. It has a great look to it. Alexander had to fight with the studio in the beginning to shoot it in black and white because they wanted him to make it in color, and he thought this is a movie that needs to be black and white.
“The Artist” won the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was black and white, and he won the Academy Award for “The Descendants” as a writer. So they said, okay, Alexander, go ahead and make your movie in black and white.
Tavis: We’ll get to “Mike Hammer,” I suspect, a little bit later in this conversation and so much other stuff you’ve done in your career. But at this stage in your career, how are you making decisions? I mean, obviously, “Nebraska” was a good one.
Tavis: How are you making decisions at this stage in your life of what you do and don’t want to do onscreen?
Keach: Well, you know, to have the freedom to be able to make choices is something I guess every actor aspires to. Most actors don’t have those kind of choices. If the part comes along, they take it, you know.
It’s one of those things when you can pick and choose, you are definitely in an elite position. And I’ve never really had that luxury. I’ve always pretty much taken what’s come along, you know, and I’ve been lucky.
But then I’ve played some roles that I wish I didn’t have to play because there were circumstances that I needed to make some money to put food on the table. I mean, there were those kinds of situations as well.
But I love the theater and I particularly love the classical theater and I love doing Shakespeare. And that does pay the rent. You know, it pays the soul, but it doesn’t pay the rent.
Tavis: I like that. Pays the soul, but not the rent.
Tavis: How did you fall in love with the theater and specifically with Shakespeare?
Keach: Well, it started when I was growing up. My dad was, as I said, in radio and he was an actor and a director. But he didn’t want either myself or my brother to be in this business because of the disappointment, the rejection, the competition. And he just thought, you know, be a doctor or a lawyer. Do something secure, you know.
I said, well, that’s not something I really want to do. At first, it was hard to get their support. But then when they saw me have some success and they realized that I would be okay and I could fly out of the nest without crashing, hopefully, then they started really supporting my decision to be an actor.
Tavis: What do you love so about Shakespeare? Every actor that comes on who is, you know, a Shakespeare fan has their own rationale for what it is they love about his writing, about his work.
Keach: Well, the poetry, of course, is, I mean, extraordinary. But I think his observations of human nature are such that I don’t know that anybody else has been able to express the full range of what it is to be a human being.
And I always think that, in many ways, when you’re playing a Shakespearean role, the role is playing you.
I mean, I feel that very strongly with certain Shakespearean characters.
The challenges are there too. The physical challenges are great. You have to be in shape. It requires stamina, it requires – it’s an athletic event doing Shakespeare.
Tavis: Yeah. I mentioned “Richard III,” of course, earlier in this conversation, in the lead-in, I suspect. But you were talking earlier about how with every character you play, which makes sense to me, every character you play, you gotta find something in their humanity to connect to. What was it for you in “Richard III?”
Keach: Oh, that’s a good question. Well, Richard III, he has a connection with the audience. He has a direct pipeline to the audience because he talks directly to them. And the audience, in spite of themselves, gets charmed by him.
And the Shakespeare brilliantly allows this villainous character to woo the audience along with the characters on the stage and it’s a great exercise in manipulation. That’s what it is. He manipulates the audience and he does it with great relish and great charm. And you want to see him do that. You like watching him do it.
I’m not a great proponent of heavy violence in terms of the way Shakespeare’s depicted on the stage. I think, you know, the violence is in the language and in the words, even though I love the stage fights in Shakespeare. They’re great, and they can get rough. I’ve done a bunch of them and you can get hurt if you don’t stick to the choreography and stay in shape.
Tavis: Speaking of fighting, I’m gonna shift and come right back. There’s a good punch in this “Nebraska” movie.
Keach: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: I was hoping that was the clip they sent us. They didn’t send the clip of the – I’m just gonna call it “the punch.”
Keach: The punch.
Tavis: But there’s a punch in “Nebraska” that you can’t miss, yeah.
Keach: Will Forte.
Keach: He stands up for the dignity of his father and he says, “I’ve had enough” and then, boom. He throws a pretty good right.
Tavis: It’s a pretty good punch, yeah. So let me shift now to talk about – we talked about your stage work. Let me shift to talk about your TV work. So when you think Stacy Keach, the next thing that comes to mind, of course, is “Mike Hammer.”
Tavis: You know – and I say this with all due respect – if you are fortunate in this business, there is a character that people know you for and love you for. Angela Lansbury was just here not long ago. And whatever she does in her career, we’re always gonna know as Jessica Fletcher from “Murder, She Wrote.”
Tavis: And I suspect whatever you do, that you couldn’t run from “Mike Hammer” if you wanted to.
Keach: Well, I wouldn’t want to. I wouldn’t want to.
Tavis: Okay, so tell me why you wouldn’t want to.
Keach: Well, still I loved doing “Mike Hammer.” You know, to me he’s the – well, I grew up with him, first of all, in the 50s. I mean, in those days, reading Mickey Spillane “Mike Hammer” books was like soft porn [laugh]. I mean, it was really, you know.
So when the opportunity came along for me to do it, I was thrilled. I was really excited about it. And I know that a lot of people think that there’s stigmas attached to playing those kinds of characters.
Henry Winkler talks a lot about his experiences with “the Fonz” and he’ll always be remembered as “the Fonz.” But that’s okay ’cause he does many other things, as I do many other things.
And I’m still doing “Mike Hammer.” We do radio-audio books. They’re books on tape done as radio shows, like they’re radio novels. So I’m still playing him, you know, vocally. And I love that film noir. I love that whole style and…
Tavis: I love the hat. You wore that hat like – put that picture back. Give me another picture, Jonathan, that hat. Look at this, man. You can’t fade that hat. You wore that – look at that, look at that. Man, you wore that thing so beautifully.
Keach: Oh, thank you, man.
Tavis: That hat was just – [laugh].
Keach: Well, that was Mickey Spillane’s – that was one of his final words to me before we started shooting was “Wear the hat, kid,” even though I think he was talking about a pork pie, not a fedora, but nevertheless…
Tavis: Yeah, that was a beautiful thing, man. And the costumes, man.
Keach: Oh, they were great.
Tavis: The costumes for that series was…
Keach: Well, you know, it was anachronistic to put a guy who’s like a throwback to the 50s, putting him in a 1980s environment. And I thought that was, you know, a very clever thing the producer, Jay Bernstein, along with Columbia and CBS…
Tavis: Given that point you just made now, what is it that you think made us connect to him in the 80s?
Keach: Well, you know, he was an Old Testament guy. I mean, he’s a vigilante. He really believed in justice. He was a champion of the little guy. If somebody was a victim of some, you know, larger scheme, then he was very much in their corner and he would do everything. He didn’t work for money if he cared about the victim. And I think that that’s one of the things we connected with.
The other thing is humor. He had a good sense of humor. He had a poetic way of expressing himself. If he’s feeling good, he said, “My Dow Jones was definitely up.” I mean, those kinds of poetic – you know, those are good things. And a lot of that comes from Mickey Spillane.
Tavis: To your point now, what have you come to appreciate about the words on the page? I mean, part of what made “Mike Hammer” work is the words, the script.
Keach: The script, the script.
Tavis: I mean, this is a softball question in the sense that any actor is gonna say it’s the words on the page. But there is an appreciation for that that I think you really have.
Keach: Well, I do. I really do, because, you know, as a writer myself, particularly if you’re writing for comedy, if you’re saying this instead of that, there’s a reason why this is there instead of that. You know, I really honor what the writer does.
If I find something that sticks in my throat or if I feel that it’s not quite the right thing, I’ll talk to the director or the producer and we’ll work something out to make it more comfortable.
But I really believe it’s there on the page for a reason and I think it’s important for actors to honor those words, you know. That doesn’t mean that they’re locked in stone. You can change them, you know.
From time to time, in Shakespeare, if there’s a word that is totally obscure, we’ll find a word, a modern word, and plug it in there once in a while. Not often, but once in a while, just so the people will understand what you’re talking about.
Tavis: Did the writing, the screenplay for “Nebraska,” just jump at you the minute you saw it?
Keach: Fantastic screenplay. Bob Nelson did a great, great job with that, you know, and Alexander massaged it. I mean, he really did. Wonderful words, you know. Deep, simple and expressive.
Tavis: You raised this earlier, Stacy, but what do you think that this project in black and white, what’s the takeaway? I mean, what’s the connect for the audience seeing this movie shot that way in black and white?
Keach: Well, I think it has to do with the starkness of that environment and yet there’s a warmth there as well in Nebraska. Going back there – I’d never been there before, and going back there to shoot this film, actually, I was there on two different occasions.
And I really looked forward to going back after the first time because the rhythm of life and the whole cultural aspect of the way people live there is so different than, you know, living in the big city or California in Hollywood. It’s just much simpler, less complicated.
And I think that color sometimes in this world could get in the way, would make things too kind of, I don’t know, rosy, I guess. We’re looking at the emotions and the behavior of the characters. I think you see those more vividly when they’re coming at you in black and white as opposed to color in this particular movie.
Tavis: You just used a phrase a moment ago, “less complicated.” And it’s a great segue to your book, “All in All,” because there have been less complicated moments in your life.
Tavis: And there have been more complicated moments in your life.
Keach: Oh, yes.
Tavis: I was struck by the candor, the transparency, the honesty. Why at this point put all of this in a book? Because there’s a lot here.
Keach: Yeah. Well, I figured I’d better do it while I can still do it, you know, when I’m still breathing. You know, it was kind of like I felt the time would come that I’d sort of, you know, come to terms with a lot of things in my past that were troubling and bothering me.
And I think that I found a certain plateau of peace that allowed me to sort of be objective about the things in my life that I’m not proud of. But, nevertheless, I’ve always been asked about what was it like in jail? What was it like being busted? And I said, well, one day I’ll write about it, you know.
Tavis: So speaking of being in jail and speaking of the drugs and the other difficulties in your life, I love that phrase, plateau of peace. How did you find your way to that plateau of peace?
Keach: My wife had a lot to do with it, Malgosia, and my family, my friends. Back in the 80s when I was hooked on cocaine, I thought that, you know, I could take it or leave it. I really was in such a self-denial, an area of self-denial and self-delusion, that I really thought it was something, you know, that I could deal with. Wrong.
It took my getting busted in order to come to terms with that and to understand that. Because I think I would have just gone on like many of my friends in those days and might not be here as a result of it. I mean, it saved my life in a lot of ways getting busted. It really did.
My wife had a lot to do with nurturing my spiritual side of myself. That had a lot to do with my being able to get through that period of my life too.
Tavis: Do you look back on the getting busted part? You said it saved your life, but does that mean you look back on it as a blessing?
Keach: It was.
Tavis: Or do you look back on it as something that you just wish you could have found another way around?
Keach: Oh, I wish I could have found a way around…
Tavis: So it’s both?
Keach: Yeah, exactly.
Tavis: Wish you could have avoided it, but it turns out to be a blessing.
Keach: Exactly right, exactly. It was. Because had it not happened, who knows? I mean, I think I would have gone on deluding myself that I could, you know, this is something I could deal with. That’s part of the whole aspect of the addictive personality and I’ve put myself in that category.
I definitely have, you know, a tendency to be obsessive about certain things, whether it’s drug or food or whatever.
Tavis: When you look back on that period now that you’re sitting on this plateau of peace, when you look back down at that valley, is there a particular thing? Is there something that you think that you lost vis-à-vis your acting career in that particular period?
Because there was a time when you were – you’re still doing your thing, but you were the man. I wonder if those difficulties cost you something.
Keach: It did indeed.
Tavis: What did it cost you?
Keach: Well, it cost me by being able to go back to London to play a role in “Great Expectations,” Magwitch. This was about eight years after the event. And the home office said, no, we’re not gonna let you do it. You have to give us another two years. And I didn’t know that it was gonna be like a 10-year – you’re gonna have to wait 10 years before you can come and play with us again.
And that role was played by Anthony Hopkins and it was Magwitch in “Great Expectations” and the next part he did after that was Hannibal.
Tavis: “Silence of the Lambs?”
Keach: “Silence of the Lambs.”
Tavis: Yeah, Hannibal.
Keach: That was the next role.
Tavis: Yeah. That was a big one for him.
Keach: Huge! Yeah. That could have been me [laugh]. But you asked what was lost. That was something, you know, my ability to go back there in that particular period in time. Now I’ve gone back since and it’s okay. But I had to pay for it.
Tavis: The subtitle of this book is called “An Actor’s Life On and Off the Stage.” In your life, at large, what are you most grateful for? What are the things you’re grateful for?
Keach: My family, my friends. My family, though, most of all, my wife. And the fact that I’m able to continue to do what I love to do. And I keep exploring and finding new things and particularly in the world of music. It’s something that I feel I’m truly blessed and I’m very grateful.
Tavis: Speaking of music, how is it that you occupy your time when you’re not on the screen?
Keach: I play the keyboard, so I play a lot and I compose. So I’ve been doing that. A great thing about music is, in music generally speaking, if you continue with it, you get better at it as you get older, you know, I think as opposed to athletics, for example.
Tavis: Is that somehow – so, athletics I get – is that somehow different from acting? Are you still getting better as an actor?
Keach: I hope so [laugh]. I do, yeah. I’m just about to revisit Falstaff which is a character I played 45 years ago. I mean, 45 years is a long time between takes [laugh].
Tavis: With regard to the music, how would you describe what your compositions sound like? Is there a genre that you’re writing in?
Keach: No. I play jazz and a little blues and I play the classical. You know, I play mood music is what I like to think of it as, you know, romantic, kind of schmaltzy, nostalgic kind of stuff.
Tavis: You’re an old soul.
Keach: I am, yeah.
Tavis: Yeah, you are an old soul.
Keach: Well, thank you.
Tavis: You still enjoy the acting thing?
Keach: I love it. No, I really do. You know, I’ve been offered many opportunities to direct more. I directed when I was younger. And I enjoy directing, but I really like acting more. The idea of controlling the whole thing is not something that really appeals to me as much as being able to just control the world of the character that I’m dealing with, you know.
And producing is something I enjoy. I do. I enjoy producing, yeah.
Tavis: What would you say – I mean, everybody answers this question differently. I have my own answer to this question. But for you, what’s the takeaway from “Nebraska,” the movie?
Keach: I think in reflecting on your past, don’t obscure the future. In other words, the dream that Woody had of a million dollars, he held onto it even though everybody knew it was a sham, it was a fraud.
But by virtue of the fact that he had the energy and the devotion, the dedication, the passion to pursue that dream, it gave us an experience of witnessing and getting to know this entire family. We get to know a lot of wonderful characters, funny people, you know.
So I think hold onto your dreams is, I think, what I come away with from “Nebraska.”
Tavis: Nicely said. But then again, you could say anything with those pipes. It would sound nice [laugh]. You could read the phone book and it would sound nice.
Keach: Well, thank you.
Tavis: His name, of course, Stacy Keach. He one of the stars in the movie, “Nebraska,” which is getting all kinds of buzz in this town and I suspect a lot more buzz as we get deeper into the awards season.
And, of course, on the screen now you see the cover of his book. He’s finally written his memoir. It’s called “All in All: An Actor’s Life On and Off the Stage” with a wonderful forward by Alec Baldwin. Stacy Keach, congratulations on the success of “Nebraska” to come. And good to have you on this set.
Keach: Thank you, Tavis. It’s a pleasure. Nice to be here.
Tavis: Thank you, sir. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
Announcer: For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at pbs.org.
[Walmart Sponsor Ad]
Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.