Regarded by many as one of the greatest method actors ever, Harvey Keitel worked in theater for more than a decade before he made his film debut in 1967.
Coincidentally, it was a feature film debut for Martin Scorsese as well, and they teamed up for the first time in the drama “Who’s That Knocking at My Door”. The pair continued to work together on several projects in the future, as Keitel’s name started to appear frequently on movie posters.
A relatively underrated actor, Keitel failed to win some of the most prestigious awards in the world of cinema, but has an Oscar and a Golden Globe nominations to his name.
The famous drama teachers Stella Adler and Lee Strasberg were his mentors in the beginning of his acting career and helped him to land several roles in Off-Broadway productions. In the meantime, Keitel auditioned for a few films, and finally, Scorsese gave him the opportunity to shine.
Since 1967, Keitel has appeared in more than 120 movies and has become one of the most popular actors of our time. However, after his early success in the 70s, his career took a step back in the 80s, and although he regularly got parts,
Keitel usually played the stereotypical tough guys and needed something to get him out of that acting rut. That happened in the next decade, when he filmed some memorable films that reshaped his career and took his acting to a different level. The 90s remained his most prominent years.
Although he frequently plays violent guys, mobsters, and detectives, Keitel showed that he could portray quite sensitive and sympathetic characters, and has proved his versatility and acting range. He frequently found it hard to lose his thick Brooklyn accent but managed to do so when needed.
Keitel’s acting style can be described as intense and emotional. He often collaborates with Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro and Quentin Tarantino. Unlike many other Hollywood actors, Keitel has appeared nude in several scenes.
Harvey Keitel was born on May 13, 1939 in Brooklyn, New York, USA. He is the son of Harry and Miriam, Jewish immigrants from Romania and Poland, respectively. Keitel grew up in Brighton Beach with his brother and sister and went to Abraham Lincoln High School. Without graduating, Keitel decided to join the US Marine Corps.
Upon his return from Lebanon where he was stationed, Keitel worked as a court reporter and managed to make enough money for himself before pursuing his acting career. He is one of the co-presidents of the Actors Studio Drama School in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan, along with Al Pacino and Ellen Burstyn.
Here are the 15 great movie performances from Harvey Keitel.
15. Death Watch (Bertrand Tavernier, 1980)
A futuristic drama based on David Compton’s novel, which unmistakably predicted what is happening in present time, tells a story about young Roddy (Keitel), who agreed to take part in an experiment in which a micro camera will be implanted in his eyes. His job is to follow the people who are diagnosed with terminal illness and document their last days, without their knowledge.
One of them is Katherine (Romy Schneider), and TV producer Vincent (Harry Dean Stanton) proposes to her a big offer to take part in a reality show called “Death Watch”. The writers’ prophecy is 100 percent correct; as reality shows are multiplying with enormous speed, it’s a matter of time when we will see one exactly like this.
Keitel’s passionate performance as Roddy, the living camera, is quite astonishing, and the actor portrayed it with a great deal of sensibilities. He tracked Katherine to get closer to her and become friends so he could record her last moments.
Roddy took the job because it is well paid, but the side effects are that he cannot sleep or function without light. Keitel and Schneider are faultless in their roles, and the pair expressed great chemistry on screen.
14. Dangerous Game (Abel Ferrara, 1993)
The New York director goes to Los Angeles to make a movie about marital troubles between a husband and wife, as the main characters Francis Burns (James Russo), and Sarah Jennings (Madonna) try to cope with the difficulties of playing these roles.
It’s a movie within a movie, and Eddie Israel (Keitel) is having a lot of problems finishing it as his job starts to interfere with his personal life. Abel Ferrara had a great idea for the movie, but somehow failed to meet the expectations. Russo is good; however, Madonna probably had her best acting performance ever here, and Keitel is at his best.
Keitel’s character is all but simple; he demands the very best out of his actors and pushes them to the limits. At the same time, he is self-destructive and has personal matters to settle, and having an affair with his lead actress surely isn’t helpful.
Keitel excels in the role of film director, and precisely represented the life of real director Ferrara. He never fell into the temptation to overact a single scene, which is exactly what we expect from the great professional. Keitel received a Golden Ciak at the Venice Film Festival for his performance.
13. Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976)
In one of the best movies of the 70s, Robert De Niro plays Travis Bickle, an apparently unstable Vietnam War veteran who is working as a taxi driver and wandering through New York disgusted by the decadence and the reality of the Big Apple’s streets.
His syndrome gets to the surface from time to time, and sometimes he becomes drastically violent. Bickle is trying to handle that inner madness while attempting to save teenage prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster) from a sleazy pimp named Sport (Keitel).
This film was one of many masterpieces by the magnificent Scorsese, for which he received a Golden Palm at Cannes Film Festival. The movie was nominated for four Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor in a Leading Role, two Golden Globes, and won three BAFTAs (two of which were for Foster).
It was the fourth movie collaboration between Scorsese and Keitel. Although a supporting role for Keitel, he provides another vivid performance while tremendously playing a mean pimp, as he spent some time with real street pimps to understand the role better. Even though, in the script, the pimp is supposed to be black, Keitel gladly accepted the part and played it terrifically well.
12. Ulysses’ Gaze (Theodoros Angelopoulos, 1995)
The plot is set in the Balkans, as A (Keitel), a Greek filmmaker who lived in exile in America, is back in his native Ptolemas to attend the screening of one of his films.
However, his real motive is to get the lost three reels of the first film made by the Manakia brothers, and he is prepared to search through the entire Balkans to find it. A is determined in his quest, and is ready to do whatever it takes to get to it, but he’ll learn that everything comes with a price.
The famous Greek director Theodoros Angelopoulos did a fantastic job in picturing a realistic situation in former Yugoslavia during the raging civil war. The story is a bit slow, but it’s very touching, and the difference between the European and Hollywood cinematographies are visible in this film.
Maybe it will be hard to watch for non-Balkan viewers who are not familiar with these countries, but it’s surely worth of seeing. Even the Greeks often described Angelopoulos as difficult, but the director did great work. The movie won the Grand Prize of the Jury at the Cannes Film Festival.
Keitel played in several European films throughout his career, but this one is arguably the best he’s appeared in. He manages to speak Greek on numerous occasions without sounding awkward. It’s a big plus for the actor, because Greek is not among the easiest languages in the world to master.
With the poetic power of dialogues and pictures, Keitel perfectly blended into the whole story and appealed to his deep feelings without saying 20 swears in a sentence to make his character believable.
11. Youth (Paolo Sorrentino, 2015)
The acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (“Il Divo”, “The Great Beauty”) gives us a story about retired orchestra conductor Fred (Michael Caine), and his friend, movie director Mick (Keitel). The two men are relaxing at a luxurious hotel in the Alps when the apathetic Fred receives an invitation from Queen Elizabeth II to perform one more time.
While Mick is trying to make one last big film, Fred is mulling over the invitation. The friends are facing an aging crisis along with professional struggles, and both actors were fantastic in their roles. Rachel Weisz is splendid as Fred’s daughter Lena, while the always intriguing Paul Dano was great as Jimmy Tree.
Jane Fonda’s cameo is notable, and she was nominated for Golden Globe for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture. The movie received an Oscar nomination for Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song.
Keitel is perfect as Mick Boyle, and unlike his previous film where was a filmmaker (“Dangerous Game”), he shows us the other side of his acting talents as an aged, sympathetic man who is having a lot of trouble finishing his “testament” film. Mick’s longtime leading actress (Fonda) refuses his offer to participate, and the director becomes depressed.
Keitel excellently played the old fellow with a young spirit; he successfully complements the great Michael Caine while holding his own. It was one of the most recent Keitel movies, and while he can’t really play the tough guys or dynamic cops anymore, this part suited him very well.
10. Bugsy (Barry Levinson, 1991)
This film tells the story of the infamous New York City mobster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel (Warren Beatty) and his operations in Las Vegas.
Bugsy meets Virginia Hill (Annette Bening) and Mickey Cohen (Keitel) in Los Angeles and plans to build a hotel-casino in the desert near Las Vegas. However, he is facing a lot of troubles in the meantime, while the New York syndicate that includes his best friend Meyer Lansky (Ben Kingsley) is breathing down his neck.
It is not just another gangster film, and it’s quite atypical. There isn’t tons of violence or bad language like we’re used to seeing in some of the classic movies of this type.
“Bugsy” won two Oscars for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration and Best Costume Design, and earned another eight nominations, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing, and Best Actor in a Leading Role. Also, it also won a Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture – Drama, which is worthy of mentioning.
Keitel was also awarded his only Oscar nomination for portraying Mickey Cohen, the notorious Jewish gangster who ran Los Angeles in the 40s and 50s. Though smaller than the roles that he’ll get in the coming years, this one revived Keitel’s career after he fell into obscurity in the 80s, and he was arguably the best actor in this movie.
Interestingly, Keitel played Bugsy in the TV movie “Virginia Hill” in 1974. Keitel never had a problem portraying violent and cruel mobsters, but his role as Cohen, the mean and ruthless killer, is flawlessly and rather accurately performed.
9. Finding Graceland (David Winkler, 1998)
Elvis Presley had been dead for about 20 years when this film was released, but this film is about a man named Byron going through a personal tragedy (Johnathon Schaech), who picks up an eccentric drifter (Keitel) who claims to be the King of Rock ‘n Roll in the flesh and agrees to drive him to Graceland.
The adventures followed them along the way, and Byron started to think he could be Elvis indeed. They meet a cute Marilyn Monroe impersonator (Bridget Fonda) on the journey, and the exciting road trip brings them all to Memphis.
Priscilla Presley liked the script so much that she became an executive producer and opened the door of the Graceland mansion for the scene inside the famous house.
Keitel does not look like Elvis at all, but the actor was excellent in this role. His versatility and ability to get inside the character is brilliant, so at the end of the movie, viewers can conclude that he could be one hell of an Elvis impersonator.
Keitel fantastically performed “Suspicious Minds”, and his hard-working nature is evident in this rare gem. Another incredible performance from one of the best in the business, and it’s a shame that this performance was hugely underrated.