The actor Harvey Keitel and I are good friends and we go way back. For any of you who hate movies and Hollywood as I do, Keitel is your man. He was on Broadway for ten years then made Mean Streets, the first of many gritty films with Robert De Niro depicting young Italian toughs around tough New York neighbourhoods. De Niro and Keitel are very close friends, but the latter is a very open person, not at all shy or — God forbid — a Hollywood type. We became fast friends as soon as we were introduced. It went something like this: Me: ‘What’s a nice little Jewish boy from Brooklyn doing in the Marine Corps instead of being down on Wall Street?’ Harvey, while bursting out laughing: ‘Who is this guy? I like him.’
We’ve been buddies ever since. One night my young son came home and announced he had just seen Bad Lieutenant, in which Harvey plays a drug-sodden cop who screws everything in sight while shooting up heroin and chasing bad guys. J.T. went on and on about the film, so I told him to make sure to come to dinner the next evening at the Monkey Bar. I had Keitel and his wife Daphna for dinner, and when my boy saw Harvey his eyes nearly popped out. Bad Lieutenant was a very powerful film, as were Mean Streets, Reservoir Dogs and Taxi Driver — in which Harvey played Jodie Foster’s pimp.
But my favourite is The Duellists, Joseph Conrad’s Napoleonic saga about an obsessed French officer who keeps challenging a brother officer to a duel throughout their careers for no apparent reason. The atmosphere alone is worth the admission price. Harvey from Brooklyn speaks Brooklynese in the film and carries it off.
Keitel enlisted in the Marine Corps when he was 17, ‘with two other Jewish kids from my neighbourhood’. Apparently, the various DIs (drill instructors) in Parris Island had never met a Jew before. ‘This guy would line us up, look at us, shake his head and move on down the line,’ says Harvey. He attends Marine Corps functions every year and keeps in touch with the old gang. No typical Hollywood actor he.
Keitel seems haloed in electricity, as well as authenticity. He reminds me of Bogie for his natural portrayal of daily life as a cop or as a gangster. His characters are always beautifully composed and finely worked, a legacy of being on stage, I guess, unlike the rest of these mumbling so-called superstars of today who can’t act their way out of a paper bag. His work doesn’t seem at all studied — in fact, it’s like looking out of your window in the Bronx or Brooklyn and observing people.
Last week another buddy, Captain Chuck Pfeiffer, a Special Forces hero in Vietnam — two silver stars — Harvey, Willy von Raab and I attended the Notre Dame/Army game at Yankee Stadium, after first having got thoroughly sloshed at Chuck’s place. Now as many of you must know, there is nothing to compete with Yankee razzmatazz — as well as corniness — especially when two famous places of learning, both with great traditions, meet on a Saturday evening in famous Yankee Stadium.
Sixty thousand people turned out for the game — alas, most of them Fighting Irish fans, as the Catholic university is known in football parlance. What struck me was the size of Notre Dame’s band — more than 600, and they sure did a good job of it. The spectacle was terrific, the pageantry and tradition reminding one of those careless undergraduate days, especially when the Notre Dame band played a very spirited rendition of ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, George Gershwin’s immortal ode to youth and romance. Then came ‘The Battle Hymn of the Republic’, with all the West Pointers singing in their long grey uniforms. For a moment it made one proud to be there, but then came the inevitable schmaltz that is America today.
Afterwards, quite gone on liquor and nostalgia, I staggered out of the Waverley Inn, Graydon Carter’s ode to yesteryear New York, when a very old and frail lady addressed me. She was well dressed and her chauffeur was holding her up. ‘Are you Taki?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘I met you a very long time ago, on the Riviera. You were handsome and you were with Tyrone Power’s wife.’ ‘Madam, that was a hell of a long time ago, I was not even 20.’ ‘Yes, it was long ago, but I recognise you. I bet you have no idea who I am.’
Well, I tortured myself throughout the night, and although at the time I pretended to remember in order not to hurt the lady’s feelings, I now wish I hadn’t. Yes, I was with Tyrone Power’s wife Linda Christian, and, yes, I naughtily snuck out of the hotel and went to meet the lady in question at her hotel. And although handsome at the time, I returned to my love nest with Linda not so handsome, as the lady’s boyfriend walked in on us and attacked me with a vase as I was getting out of her bed rather quickly in my birthday suit. It was not my finest hour and Linda also got pissed off but then I was all of 19 at the time.
Speak memory, as old Vladimir said, and what wouldn’t I give to be 19 and to be attacked by a man with a vase in his hand while on the saddle.