Anyone who associates Stacy Keach primarily with the role of Mike Hammer may be surprised to discover that the same actor who seemingly effortlessly brought to life Mickey Spillane’s tough, brash private eye for a generation of television viewers has been described by The New York Times as “The finest American classical actor since Barrymore.” One of the characteristics that has marked his highly successful career has been his versatility, as he has excelled throughout the years in a wide variety of dramatically different roles in film, theatre, and television.
Mr. Keach won a \scholarship to Yale Drama School in 1964 and began his professional acting career that summer, playing Marcellus and The Player King in Joseph Papp’s production of Hamlet. Later he was awarded a Fulbright Scholarship and went on to study at London’s Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA). His stage credits include the title roles in Macbird (1967), Coriolanus (1967-68), Hamlet (three different productions in 1971, 1972, and 1973), Cyrano de Bergerac (1977), Richard III (1990), and Macbeth (1995). He won Obies for his performances in Macbird, Hamlet, and Long Day’s Journey into Night (1971). In 1969 he made his Broadway debut playing Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit’s Indians, a part for which he received a Tony nomination for best actor. In 1994 he was awarded the Helen Hayes Award for his role in the Broadway production of The Kentucky Cycle. In 2000, the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington, D.C awarded him the prestigious Millennium Recognition Award for his contributions to classical theater.
He began his film career in 1968 in Carson McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter and went on to star in several more films of note including End of the Road (1970), Brewster McCloud (1970), Fat City (1972), Judge Roy Bean (1972), The Long Riders (1980), and Escape from LA (1996). In 1973 he put in a critically acclaimed performance as Luther in the American Film Theatre’s adaptation of John Osborne’s play of the same name.
In the seventies and eighties his highly successful television career was highlighted by lead roles in Mistral’s Daughter (1984), Hemingway (1988), for which he won a Golden Globe and an Emmy nomination for Best Actor, and, of course, Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer.
Today he finds himself constantly in demand for roles on the stage and in television, and for his Shakespearean readings. He is also a tireless spokesman and advocate for the Cleft Palate Foundation. Mr. Keach can currently be seen playing Philip Oschner in Arthur Miller’s new play Finishing the Picture at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.
AFG: So when did you read your first Mike Hammer book?
SK: Well, it was about 1955. And of course, in those days, it was soft porn—the dog-eared pages were under the bed! I read them when I was in high school. It was the rage, you know.
AFG: I’ve read that your mother confiscated your first Mike Hammer book!
SK: Yeah, she scolded me! I lost all privileges for the weekend. But Mike Hammer was fun. He was a great character and I really enjoyed exploring it. I mean, for a classical actor—basically a character actor, as I consider myself—to have been able to play a sort of romantic detective like that for a string of time was a great privilege. As an artist I began to look for the qualities that make him attractive. Obviously he’s an Old Testament character, born out of the revenge motif, which is the source of many great dramas and great dramatic characters. He’s a “get ’em” guy—an eye for an eye. And he had a way of expressing himself, too, that I think was the equivalent of street poetry. I always thought of Mike Hammer as a cross between James Bond and Dirty Harry with a foot in the superhero world and another in the gutter!
AFG: And he’s always behind on his rent! I think people can tire of the politically correct detectives. He was definitely not that.
SK: Not at all. And I think that’s what was the great thing about him. I remember Ralph Meeker’s performance in Kiss Me Deadly which I thought was wonderful. I think I was the eighth or the ninth actor to play Mike Hammer.
AFG: There was Darren McGavin. And Ralph Meeker . . . .
SK: Biff Elliot. Mickey Spillane himself in The Girl Hunters.
AFG: I saw the one with Ralph Meeker in the cinema a couple of months ago. They’ve re-released it.
SK: Was it with the ending?
AFG: Yeah, with the ending. The ending was crazy though!
SK: Yeah. It’s nuts.
AFG: Darren McGavin was pretty good but, you know, you’re my favorite Mike Hammer.
SK: Oh, thank you. Darren McGavin was my favorite. He brought humor to the role for the first time. I mean, we extended that, and went even a step further with the humor—the sort of sarcastic, ironic, tongue-in-cheek observations of life I always enjoyed. I loved doing the voice-overs. The other thing I loved about it was the music.
AFG: Harlem Nocturne.
SK: Yeah, Harlem Nocturne . . . .
AFG: Did Mickey Spillane give you any advice on how to portray Mike Hammer?
SK: Well, he was very concerned about the hat. He said, “Wear this, kid.” I think the hat that he was referring to was a snap-brim hat, not the fedora we finally ended up with. I’ve got a big head anyway and I just looked like a bowling pin with a toy hat on its head. I didn’t look good. But the fedora worked. So the hat became a sort of trademark—the hat and the trench coat.
AFG: So how’s Mickey doing? Do you still keep in contact?
SK: He’s doing great. I spoke with him and he’s just celebrated his 88th birthday! Such a wonderful man. A great sense of humor.
AFG: I saw him on television once and they were asking him about the O.J. Simpson case and he said, “Oh, I can come up with a couple of easy scenarios for a frame-up!” So, what’s your favorite episode from the Mike Hammer series?
SK: That would be tough! Probably the very first show. It was our movie actually—Murder Me, Murder You.
AFG: Will we be seeing you doing any more of them?
SK: I don’t think so. Well, I certainly won’t. I feel that Mike Hammer is a little bit in the tradition of great pop art heroes, in that he needs to be regenerated by a younger actor. I think it’s like James Bond. I don’t think we want to see Mike Hammer get old and die.
AFG: But you look great! I was going to ask you how you managed to keep so fit.
SK: Oh, man! It’s lots of anxiety and stress. No, I’m kidding you. I don’t know. As I get older my priorities have been changing…. I’ve been spending a lot more time producing and composing music.
AFG: Oh, you compose music?
SK: Yes, I do. Not many people know that, but they will in short order. I think I’m about ready to explode here with a bunch of stuff.
AFG: So what type of music do you compose?
SK: All kinds—jazz, blues, romantic movie music. Right now I’m doing a lot of stuff that’s very much about the era of my parents. So I’m doing a lot of nostalgic twenties, thirties, forties kind of music. Ragtime, you know. But my dream is to score a movie. I’m really working hard toward that. I’m just getting ready to sit down and take a Pro Tools course. I work with a synthesizer and piano, but I’m a keyboard guy. So I’m doing more and more music, as well as producing a couple of documentaries for public television with my friend Gary Greenberg. I don’t know if you want to get into this aspect of my career, but it’s something that sort of preoccupies my time at the moment.
AFG: I’m interested in everything. In fact, I was going to ask you about your performance as Luther. I saw that six months ago, and it was fantastic.
SK: Oh, thank you. I loved that project. That was an amazing experience. I’d always been fascinated with the character, and I saw Albert Finney perform it brilliantly on stage in New York when I was a young actor. I think often people judge actors as being envious of one another a lot of the time, and it’s true, they are. But I think, also, there are occasions when you see great performances in certain roles which inspire you to come to the same role, and it’s not competitive in any way. But there was one glitch on that show that always troubled me, and that was in the terms of the style of that particular series being one that was problematic from the start. It was a wonderful series, the American Film Theatre series. They did Luther, Lost in the Stars, The Iceman Cometh, and I think we did A Delicate Balance. But they were taking plays and making film versions of plays, and they had to make a decision about whether they were going to make a movie or a movie of a play. When we were doing Luther, very early on, there was a portion of the script where you actually go inside the character and hear his interior voice speaking. On the stage, of course, that’s spoken as a soliloquy and it’s a convention that’s accepted in the theatre. But in a movie, when you speak your thoughts out loud, it somehow, I think, goes against the nature of film. Guy Green, the director, and I never saw to eye to eye on that because he said, “No. This is the soliloquy that John Osborne wrote. We’re going to film it speaking,” and I said, “Well, can we just hear the voice while I’m walking from one end of the cathedral to the other, as opposed to speaking as he walks?” We did it both ways but the way that he chose to film it was where Luther is speaking out loud. What it does is it strains credibility in terms of what you’re watching, and it threw me out of the film. That was the one regret—it’s not a regret, but I wish it was done differently. But listen, in movies that’s always the case. There’s always something that could have been done differently.