As an actor (and likely as a human being), there is nothing that Stacy Keach has not done. He readily admits, he's not equally proud of everything that he's been in, but there's enough in his career to be filled with admiration about that we can forgive him a handful of paycheck in his decades-long life as an actor who transitions easily from stage to screen to television. After early appearances is Robert Altman's BREWSTER MCCLOUD and Shakespeare roles for television (Shakespeare remains one of his oldest and truest passions, so much so that there was time when he was referred to as "the American Olivier"), he got his first big notices for playing Tully in John Huston's FAT CITY (1972), opposite a young Jeff Bridges.
Since then, the roles he has chosen have been as varied as any actors, including that of Sgt. Stedenko in the Cheech & Chong movies UP IN SMOKE and NICE DREAMS; Pat in ROAD GAMES; opposite his NEBRASKA co-star Bruce Dern in playwright Jason Miller's film adapatation of THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON; Ernest Hemingway in the TV mini-series "Hemingway"; CLASS OF 1999; opposite Pia Zadora in BUTTERFLY; as Frank James in Walter Hill's THE LONG RIDERS; and perhaps most famously as Mike Hammer in multiple TV movies and a long-running series, which was almost derailed when Keach was busted for cocaine possession in the UK and spent six months in jail. He was genuinely repentant for the crime and was even given a vote of confidence by anti-drug warrior queen Nancy Reagan, and his career was saved.
In more recently years, Keach did incredible supporting work in such projects as AMERICAN HISTORY X, MAN WITH THE SCREAMING BRAIN (directed by and starring Bruce Campbell), "Titus," "Prison Break," John Sayles' HONEYDRIPPER, Oliver Stone's W., "Bored to Death," and next year's SIN CITY sequel A DAME TO DIE FOR for Robert Rodriguez and Frank Miller. And hopefully you caught him in last week's episode of "Brooklyn Nine-Nine," where he played an old-school, hard-nosed retired police detective turned writer; he was pretty great and hilarious.
This week, however, Keach gets to really sink his teeth into one of his great supporting roles in years, playing Ed Pegram, a former business partner to Bruce Dern's Woody Grant, who believes Woody owes him a little cut of his sweepstakes winnings for money owed from when Woody last lived in their Nebraska home town decades earlier. Pegram is the kind of guy who will always be a big fish in the littlest pond, and it gives him just enough juice to be mildly threatening and intimidating but not enough to pose any real threat. Ed's always working the angle and knows just what to do to get people to like him. Keach's performance in NEBRASKA is masterful, funny and right in line with the actor's long string of tough guys, cops, baddies and men of authority roles. And his karaoke performance of "In the Ghetto" in the film is an Oscar clip waiting to happen.
I was fortunate enough several years ago to see Keach in the title role of Shakespeare's "King Lear" at Chicago's Goodman Theatre, and I decided that was as good a place as any to start our recent phone conversation. If I'd had about three times more time, I would have tried to turn this into a full-on Legends piece--and we do actually cover a great deal of ground. Hopefully next time. Until then, please enjoy my chat with the great Stacy Keach…
Stacy Keach: Hi, Steve.
Capone: How are you, sir?
SK: I’m well. Yourself?
Capone: Good. I actually am in Chicago and I was fortunate enough a few years ago to see you at the Goodman Theatre for "King Lear."
SK: Oh, good. Well, I’m glad to hear that.
Capone: It was terrific. You are one of the few American actors that is well known for the Shakespeare that you've done and still doing, as opposed to the dozens of British actors that are well know for it. Is there a different approach do you think for American actors?
SK: Well, I think there is. There are a couple of us: Kevin Kline continues his Shakespearian career, Sam Waterston to a certain degree. Yeah, Shakespeare has always been a passion of mine, ever since I was in college, and I had many people come up to me and say, "This is a road you don’t want to go down. It’s a cul-de-sac as far as a commercial career in television and movies in the United States, but I couldn't help myself. I love Shakespeare, and I love doing it, and who I am, I guess. I just wrote a book called "All in All." It’s a memoir, and I talk in a little bit more detail about it there.
Capone: So with regards to NEBRASKA. What is the key to playing the big cheese in a small town?
SK: [laughs] I guess, get to know everybody, first of all.
Capone: That’s for sure.
SK: And I had a great time working on it with Alexander Payne, it was an amazing experience. And going to Nebraska, I’d never been to that part of the world and I had a couple of journeys back and forth during the shooting, and I actually found myself looking forward to getting back to that lifestyle, which is so different than what I’m used to, which is a faster-paced life. People there are very… they take life as it comes, but the pace of life is much slower. The pace is slower, the quality of their days, I feel, is much less complicated than in more urban environments. I loved it. It was relaxing. It’s cathartic going back there. And I got to know a lot of the people in these little towns; I just loved it. It’s like you let all the air out of your body and all the stress goes away.
Capone: So it was one of the more relaxing shoots that you’ve ever done.
SK: Very much so. I just think that what Alexander does, one of the great virtues of his directorial genius, is his ability to cast these local townspeople. And they just seemed absolutely perfect for what they were doing. And some of them, most of them, were not actors; they were just people who had sort of an outgoing persona, and I think they just did a great job.
Capone: One of the highlights of the film, and speaking as someone who is currently waking up on a cold and gray Chicago morning, is that you’re singing “In the Ghetto” is done with such conviction. Do you do much karaoke or singing in general?
SK: No, no. I’m musical; I compose and I play piano all the time but no. I’ve done musicals before but I’m not a singer. I don't have any pretension that I am. But I love that song because it gave Ed, my character, a chance for him to feel sorry for himself. He was the poor abused boy. And I loved being able to show that color a little bit. Ed’s a pretty gruff guy. He wants what he thinks he deserves, but the way he goes about getting it and his offhanded insults needed some kind of counter balance or color, and I think “In the Ghetto” gives it to him.
Capone: You’ve worked with so many great directors for this film, and Bruce Dern was just here a couple of weeks ago for the Chicago Film Festival, and he has also worked with many great directors. Would you place Alexander among them?
SK: Right at the top. Yeah, right in there with John Huston and Oliver Stone.
Capone: Tell me about the way he approached his directing that is unique.
SK: I think the first rule of directing is let the actor do what you cast him to do, and he certainly does that. When we would get a good take, he would always print it and then he would say, “Okay, let's do it again and try something else. We’ve got it that way, now try it with a little more intensity or a little less intensity. Do it with a smile on this line.” So he would challenge me to come up with imaginative alternatives to what I had just done, and I think that’s a wonderful quality for a director.
Capone: You and Bruce Dern have worked together before
SK: Yes. We did THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON many years ago, and that’s when we became really close friends, as a matter of fact. We were both living in Malibu at the time and we hung out together a lot; we became very very good friends. We sort of explored the Malibu fires together and we both loved to bet on sports, so we wold share notes, and we still do as a matter of in fact.
Capone: I know Bruce wasn’t before this film, but were you at all familiar with Will Forte's work before this?
SK: Not at all. I know he was on "Saturday Night Live," but I never saw him. I only watch "Saturday Night Live" intermittently, if I just happen to catch it. I was not familiar with him, but I think he did a great job. And I think he’s perfect because he gives Bruce’s character dignity when he hits me in the face there. If the audience goes “Yay,” I’m very happy. He’s defending his fathers dignity, and I think it’s what Alexander was after too.
Capone: Ed is not a bad man.
SK: He’s not a bad man, but in this movie, he’s the closest thing to a bad guy in this film. No, he wants what he thinks is due to him. He really believes, as Woody does, that he wasn't all this funny and he wants to get back what he feels that he’s entitled to. So that’s not bad, but his off-handed remarks about Kate and hanging out with the hooker. They're not what I would call high falootin', elite, sophisticated remarks.
Capone: Is it my imagination, or do the characters that you play maybe have a higher percentage of dying than a lot of other actors?
SK: It’s funny that you say that because I just put together a reel of my death scenes, mainly for comedic purposes, in case I get called upon to do so on a talk show. I just did that. It’s funny you mention that. Ed doesn’t die, of course, but I die in a lot of movies, that’s for sure.
Capone: Do you have a favorite death scene?
SK: Gosh, that’s a tough one. I think the most memorable one was "Hemingway," because I was standing on the spot where he actually did commit suicide and reenacted that moment in the very space that he did it. That was like being in church.
Capone: I’m guessing that a lot of people my age, maybe the first thing I ever saw you in, were of course the two Cheech and Chong movies, which still hold up I think.
SK: Oh yeah, they're some of my favorites too. I think Sgt. Stedenko was just as popular as Mike Hammer in a lot of ways.
Capone: Aside from playing Mike Hammer for so long, you seem to have made it a career objective not to repeat yourself, even if that meant sort of forgoing more popular bigger movies. If it felt too close to somebody you’d played before, you’ve circumvented some roles. Has that always been important to you?
SK: Well, yes it has. Even though a lot of actors when they get identified so strongly with their characters as I did with Mike Hammer, as Henry Winkler did with the Fonz, I embrace it. I’m still playing Mike Hammer. We do audio books, radio novels, and I’m still voicing Mike Hammer and loving it. I’m having a great time doing it. I don’t feel it’s a stigma. I guess it’s because I’ve been blessed to be able to play other things. If that was the only thing that I would be known for, I would probably be concerned. There have been a lot of other characters. I used to go through airports and people would say, “Didn’t you used to be Mike Hammer?” And then later, “Didn’t you used to be Papa Titus and Warden Pope in 'Prison Break?' ” Then one day somebody came up to me and said, “Didn’t you used to be Stacy Keach?” [laughs] So I’m happy. But Stedenko is certainly a character that people remember me for, and I’m really proud of that.
Capone: I remember when I was in high school seeing BUTTERFLY, which is not the best film you’ve ever been--I think you’ll admit. But I knew even then why you did it, and it was to get close to Orson Welles.
SK: Well that’s right. That’s absolutely right.
Capone: Who wouldn't do that? Did it pay off? Did you get the time with him you wanted?
SK: Oh, I had a great evening with Orson, just the two of us, we had dinner. We were in Las Vegas shooting that movie and we had dinner at the MGM Grand, just the two of us, and he ordered two sides of roast beef and a baked potato, and he said, “Make sure it’s a baked potato because I’m on a diet.” This little old lady came up to him and said, “Mr. Welles, Mr. Welles, I love you, could you please sign my…” and he said, “Not while I’m eating, dear.” And during the course of the meal, he didn’t want to talk about his movies. I was dying to ask him a million questions, as you can imagine, but he wanted to talk about my stuff. Oh, it was just one of the great moments of my life.
Capone: I can only imagine.
SK: We got up and walked out, and he was quite large at that point in his life and he needed a cane, and this lady, she waited patiently, and he came over to her and very graciously signed her autograph.
Capone: I know you’re going to be in the next SIN CITY film. What did you think of that? Did you get to do the whole green screen experience?
SK: Oh yeah. Working in front of a green screen, it’s kind of frustrating. You don’t have a sense of the environment, but Robert Rodrigez and Frank Miller were both very articulate in explaining what was going on behind us that we couldn't see. I can’t wait to see it. Yeah, I just loved the first one.
Capone: Who do you get to play in this film?
SK: I play Wallenquist who is the evil head of this group, this crime syndicate. Wallenquist. Great working with Eva Green too.
Capone: I think I had read somewhere that you're going to go back to D.C., to do more Shakespeare in the near future.
SK: That's right, I’m going to go back and do the both parts of the Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2, doing Falstaff.
Capone: When does that go up?
SK: We start rehearsing in January, and we open up at the end of March andplay until the end of June.
Capone: I’m actually from the area and still I have family there, so I may have to time a visit to when you’re there and come see it.
SK: Yeah, do. Come on down and see us, and come back and say hi.
Capone: I absolutely will. Stacy, thank you so much; it was really wonderful seeing you in this great part.