August 30, 2023 | Andrea Papillon

Gritty Facts About Harvey Keitel, The Hollywood Tough Guy

Harvey Keitel has made a career of playing diverse film characters, although he’s most famous for his singular tough-guy roles in Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino movie masterpieces. Keitel is also a successful film producer and former president of the Actors Studio in New York. His early personal relationships were tumultuous and he’s battled many personal demons over the years. Ultimately, Keitel is intense, introspective, and desires above all else to be the best actor—and best man—he can be. Here are 51 forceful facts about Harvey Keitel.

1. Hats Off Before You Eat

Keitel’s parents ran a lunch counter in Brooklyn. His dad also made hats as a side hustle.

harvey keitel

2. Blue Boy

Aimless, and restless, Harvey Keitel joined the US Marine Corps at barely 17 years old. He took part in the US invasion of Lebanon, in 1958, called “Operation Blue Bat".

Harvey Keitel facts Shutterstock

3. A Textbook Operation

Imagining young Keitel as a marine, taking part in a beach invasion, I pictured something horrendous, like Saving Private Ryan. But thankfully, “Operation Blue Bat” was swift and relatively peaceful. Instead of bloody force, the marines encountered lazing beachgoers, groups of construction workers, and villagers doing chores.

Some local youngsters even helped the marines unload their heavy equipment, and street vendors set up pop-up tents on the beach to sell the Americans some souvenirs!

Saving Private Ryan factsSaving Private Ryan, Paramount Pictures

4. Fellas Making Good

Keitel was acting in off-Broadway productions when he saw an ad for a student film and contacted the director. That student director was Martin Scorsese, and the two became lifelong friends.

Harvey Keitel facts Wikimedia Commons

5. In Living Color

In 1992, Keitel’s film career reached new heights when he starred as Mr. White in Quentin Tarantino’s first huge film, Reservoir Dogs.

Harvey Keitel facts Reservoir Dogs (1992), Miramax

6. At Home on the Range

Keitel has been careful to select roles to highlight his acting range, although his most celebrated choices have been characters displaying an “intense moral center” and a propensity towards extreme brutality.

Harvey Keitel facts Wikipedia

7. Death of a Salesman

Before he got serious about acting, Harvey Keitel worked a salesman job in a women’s shoe store. Is anyone else picturing a young Mr. White, brandishing a shoehorn?

Harvey Keitel facts Reservoir Dogs (1992), Miramax

8. Order in the Court

Harvey Keitel also tried his hand (or his speedy typing fingers, in this case) as a court stenographer. He said he wanted to try it out because he could work without having to truly interact with anyone.

Harvey Keitel facts Wikimedia Commons

9. Here, Boy!

Keitel was always Quentin Tarantino’s dream choice to play Mr. White in Reservoir Dogs—but Tarantino never thought his pipe dream would come true. By a stroke of luck, someone knew someone who knew Keitel and they sent the script to him. Not only did Keitel sign on to play Mr. White, he brought in a ton of green too, and he ever worked as a co-producer on the film!

Harvey Keitel factsReservoir Dogs (1992), Miramax

10. Not Your Average Janitor

Keitel’s role as Winston the “cleaner” in Pulp Fiction just reeks of deadpan and cool—maybe because he already had experience! Just two years earlier, he played another cleaner in the film Point of No Return.

Harvey Keitel facts Pulp Fiction (1994), Miramax

11. Bringing Sexy Back

In 1995, Empire magazine ranked Keitel as one of the sexiest 100 stars in Hollywood.

Harvey Keitel facts Shutterstock

12. Night Sweats

The thing that terrified 17-year-old Keitel the most, after joining the marines, was the dark. During a night combat course, Keitel literally couldn’t see a thing. The veteran marine instructor told his recruits that he would teach them to “know the darkness” so they’d no longer of afraid of it. This remains a powerful lesson to Keitel, that he’s drawn from in his acting career.

Harvey Keitel facts Wikipedia

13. The Piano Man

For a guy who can be standoffish in interviews, and who’s driven ex-girlfriends into long and acrimonious court battles over custody and child support issues, one of Keitel’s co-stars has offered a peek into the actor’s soft underbelly. Holly Hunter, who starred with Keitel in The Piano, has personally raved that he’s “quite vulnerable” and “just a really tender guy".

Harvey Keitel facts Flickr, Gage Skidmore

14. De Niro’s GPS

Keitel met his lifelong friend Robert De Niro when they were both students under legendary method acting instructor Stella Adler. Keitel convinced De Niro to take the role of Johnny Boy in Mean Streets, setting De Niro on his own path to film stardom.

Robert De Niro factsGetty Images

15. Getting the Feels

Keitel’s storied lifetime friendships with De Niro and Scorsese were both based on just a “gut feeling". As Keitel explains, sometimes you say “hello” for the first time and know it’s forever…other times, all you’re thinking is, “get the [heck] out of here".

Harvey Keitel facts Getty Images

16. Army Brats

One of Keitel’s more recent films was Youth, taking place at a luxury resort in the Swiss Alps. Michael Caine headlined the film and although the two had never met before, Keitel and Caine clicked like old friends. Keitel credits their chemistry on the fact that they both served in the army, saying they had a “common tongue” between them.

Harvey Keitel facts Youth (2015), Indigo Film

17. He’s Wee Mighty

Sometimes the best things come in small packages. Could be said of Keitel, since he measures in at just 5'7.5" tall. Don't forget that half inch!

Harvey Keitel facts Getty Images

18. A Whirlwind Wedding

Keitel met his wife, Daphna Kastner, at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2001. They got hitched just three weeks later, at a “secret ceremony” in Jerusalem.

Harvey Keitel facts Wikimedia Commons, David Shankbone

19. Fake It to Make It

Harvey Keitel has confessed something about his first acting resume: The only thing that wasn’t a lie on it...was his name! He made sure to list plays he’d (supposedly) starred in that all just happened to have been put on out of town.

Harvey Keitel facts Getty Images

20. His Klepto Acting Chops

Only a guy like Keitel can make you see the connection between stealing as a child and becoming a famous actor as an adult. As Keitel explains, stealing was “formative” to the process of discovering his acting chops because he had to “pretend” he wasn’t stealing.

Harvey Keitel facts Flickr, David Shankbone

21. Grand Theft…Pigeons?

Keitel’s childhood thievery was not quite epic. He would take pigeons from neighborhood coops, or potatoes from the corner store, that he and his friends would then roast on a fire (the spuds, not the birds!).

Harvey Keitel factsFlickr, Rock Pigeon

22. Hand in the Candy Jar

Keitel describes one rare time he was caught stealing after putting candies from a confectionary shop up his shirt. The sweets tumbled out as he was leaving the store, stopping him in his tracks. Although Keitel didn’t receive too harsh a punishment, he said he “smartened up” after that incident…by smartening up, he meant that he started wearing “bigger shirts” to hide the stuff he swiped!

Harvey Keitel factsWikimedia Commons, Rept0n1x

23. Buddha Says it’s Game Time

Harvey Keitel has gotten thoughtful with his religious views in his later years. He says he enjoys elements of Buddhism, particularly the saying: “Be at play with everything. Even death".

Harvey Keitel facts Flickr, Wonderlane

24. He Went to the Dark Side

Harvey Keitel has vigorously pursued some incredibly dark acting roles, notably that of an SS Officer in The Grey Zone, a stark film detailing corrupt Germans and Jews who ran the Auschwitz gas chambers in World War II.

Harvey Keitel facts The Grey Zone (2001), Killer Films

25. No More Than Toy Soldiers

Playing a German SS Officer may have been a questionable acting choice for a Jewish American, but Keitel offered insight into it through a description of his childhood. As a young kid in Brooklyn, Keitel and his friends often played soldiers…they even pretended to be Nazis. Keitel admits that they had zero grasp of the horrors of the Holocaust, and they only played "Nazi soldier" because they thought the skull and crossbones on the uniforms were pretend pirate symbols.

Harvey Keitel facts The Grey Zone (2001), Killer Films

26. A Greek Tragedy

As a serious actor with a history of diverse film projects, it’s no stretch of the imagination that Keitel would branch out into film production. What requires further explanation is the name of Keitel’s production company—The Goatsingers. Keitel explained that, while reading a biography of Aeschylus, he discovered that the Greek word for tragedy is a combo of the words for goat and song.

Look up any singing goat clip on YouTube—the word tragedy will make total sense.

Harvey Keitel facts Flickr, Billie Grace Ward

27. Put a Nickel in Lucy's Psychiatry Booth

Keitel admits he’s been in therapy. While he found it helpful, his self-exploration has continued through the study of religions, particularly Buddhism.

Harvey Keitel facts Getty Images

28. Roll Those Credits

If you have time to roll, that is. For a guy of small stature, Keitel has amassed a pretty tall order of film credits…158 film and television roles at last count—and still growing.

Harvey Keitel factsWikipedia

29. Music Man

Keitel has even appeared in music videos for artists as diverse as the late Glen Frey, Björk, and Jay Z.

Harvey Keitel factsGetty Images

30. Firing up that Kiln

Keitel had a brief relationship with Lisa Karmazin, a San Diego-based potter, in 2000. Karmazin got pregnant, giving birth to son Hudson just two weeks before Keitel secretly married his current wife.

Harvey Keitel factsGetty Images

31. Hudson in Hiding

Keitel’s middle son, Hudson, does not feature in Keitel’s spotlight. Sadder still, Keitel was not present at Hudson’s birth, and allegedly only saw his son three times in the first year of his life.

Harvey Keitel factsWikipedia

32. Another Court Battle

Lisa Karmazin, mother of Keitel’s son Hudson, also engaged him in a lengthy court battle, this time over child-support payments for their son.

Frivolous Lawsuits FactsShutterstock

33. A Method Man

Harvey Keitel is such a method actor that he refuses to acknowledge having done bare-all scenes. Keitel insists that actors like him don’t do those scenes (despite ample evidence to the contrary). In Keitel’s words, he’s played an “event” and told a story. Clothing optional storytelling, it is.

Harvey Keitel factsFlickr, Elen Nivrae

34. Little Harvey Represents

In reality, Keitel hasn’t shied away from a full-frontal scene, as long as it's integral to a film script. He famously bared it all—in his 50s no less—for films including Bad Lieutenant and The Piano.

Harvey Keitel factsThe Piano (1993), Miramax

35. This Set Needed a Warning Label

Filmmaking can be dangerous, but in the case of the film Blue Collar, it was what happened in between takes that got violent and unruly. Legend has it, fistfights between Keitel and his co-star, the late Richard Pryor, routinely broke out between takes.

Harvey Keitel factsBlue Collar (1978), Universal Pictures

36. Bar Mitzvah Fashion Faux Paus

At Keitel’s childhood bar mitzvah, the rabbi banned one of Keitel’s friends for wearing a checkered, cabana-style jacket and peg pants. A Brooklyn metrosexual before his time!

Harvey Keitel factsWikipedia

37. Make It Painful

Harvey Keitel has defended his gruesomely violent films in interviews. Keitel insists the violence is not gratuitous in his Quentin Tarantino and Martin Scorsese directed appearances. He says these noted directors are portraying violent acts as an honest, human experience, and that violent acts in film should always be portrayed as painful, vivid, and disgusting—just how real violence is.

Harvey Keitel factsWikimedia Commons

38. Just for Ro-Men

Keitel has revealed in interviews that his son Roman doesn’t mind Keitel’s unruly mop of hair. Apparently Roman feels lucky that Keitel still has all his hair, and Roman believes it’ll be the same for him too! I guess we'll just have to wait and see!

Harvey Keitel factsWikimedia Commons, JanPress

39. A Championship Stutter

Keitel developed what he called a “huge, huge, deep, deep” stutter around seven years old. Although he said it faded away after several years, it apparently reappears from time to time, particularly when he gets exhausted.

Harvey Keitel factsShutterstock

40. Just a Blip on the Roadmap

Keitel has accepted his stutter recurring from time to time, and it no longer bothers him. Keitel even refers to his stutter as part of the road to his identity.

Harvey Keitel factsGetty Images

41. Harvey the Hoofer

Okay, not so much, but Keitel did take dance classes as part of his professional actor training. Most of the time he couldn’t even dance because he was laughing so hard at himself and at how idiotic he felt doing it.

Harvey Keitel factsGetty Images

42. He Listens to RiRi

Keith has said Rihanna “sings so beautifully” about getting along with “the voices inside my head,” and her music reminds him of the discipline he learned in therapy. High praise!

Harry Styles FactsWikipedia

43. Don’t Tempt Him

Harvey Keitel has asked interviewers if they wanted him to knock their teeth out to prove he’s still physically strong. Um, no thanks, we’re good.

Harvey Keitel factsWikimedia Commons

44. Paging Mr. White

Keitel has admitted that the characters he’s played have “followed [him] around". Think I can get Mr. White’s autograph?

Harvey Keitel factsReservoir Dogs (1992), Miramax

45. No More Powder for Mr. White

Keitel abused coke decades ago, but he refuses to talk about it in interviews. Keitel believes substance misuse is too serious of an issue to be covered in fluff entertainment pieces.

Harvey Keitel factsGetty Images

46. Sunny-Side Up

Keitel calls himself neither optimistic nor cynical. Apparently, he thinks he’s a healthy measure of both.

Harvey Keitel factsShutterstock

47. He Spat on Cars

Harvey Keitel admits the hardship of his upbringing made him resent people with money. When a friend got a new car, he would spit on it out of sheer frustration.

Harvey Keitel factsWikipedia

48. A Coppola Clash

Harvey Keitel was initially cast as Captain Willard in Francis Ford Coppola’s epic, albeit catastrophe-laden, Apocalypse Now. As a former marine, Keitel had serious issues with Coppola’s unfinished script, especially the director's secondhand viewpoint of armed conflict. The two argued, and Keitel was fired from the project. The part of Willard was given to Martin Sheen, who famously suffered a heart attack on a set that was already riddled with illicit subtances, sickness, and depravity.

Matt Damon factsGetty Images

49. Let It Lorraine

Keitel met actress Lorraine Bracco (who famously played Karen in Goodfellas and Dr. Melfi in The Sopranos) while working in France in the 1980s. They began a long relationship and had a daughter named Stella together. Their relationship soured in the early 90s, brought on by Keitel’s drug use and stalling career.

The final nail in their relationship coffin? Bracco left Keitel for actor Edward James Olmos.

Harvey Keitel factsWikimedia Commons

50. Mega-Custody Battle

Keitel sued for custody of his daughter, Stella, in the 90s. The battle between Keitel and Bracco got so acrimonious, New York magazine published a full length, soap-opera-worthy article about it. The article included harassment allegations in court against Bracco’s new man, Edward James Olmos, and Keitel’s belief that Olmos was under threat from the Mexican mafia, thereby endangering Stella’s life as well.

The proceedings ended up costing Bracco $2 million in court fees.

Harvey Keitel factsGetty Images

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 

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