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.
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.”
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!
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.
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.
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 violence.
7. Death of a Salesman
Before he got serious about acting, Harvey Keitel worked a dead-end salesman job in a women’s shoe store. Is anyone else picturing a young Mr. White, brandishing a shoehorn?
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.
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!
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.
11. Bringing Sexy Back
In 1995, Empire magazine ranked Keitel as one of the sexiest 100 stars in Hollywood.
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.
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.”
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.
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 hell out of here.”
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 military, saying they had a “common tongue” between them.
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!
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.
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.
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.
21. Grand Theft…Pigeons?
Keitel’s childhood thievery was not quite epic. He would steal 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!).
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 stole!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
29. Music Man
Keitel has even appeared in music videos for artists as diverse as the late Glen Frey, Björk, and Jay Z.
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.
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.
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.
33. A Method Man
Harvey Keitel is such a method actor that he refuses to acknowledge having done nude scenes. Keitel insists that actors like him don’t do nude 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.
34. Little Harvey Represents
In reality, Keitel hasn’t shied away from a full-frontal nude 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.
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.
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!
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 violence as an honest, human experience, and that violence on film should always be portrayed as painful, vivid, and disgusting—just how real violence is.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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?
45. No More Powder for Mr. White
Keitel abused cocaine decades ago, but he refuses to talk about it in interviews. Keitel believes substance abuse is too serious of an issue to be covered in fluff entertainment pieces.
46. Sunny-Side Up
Keitel calls himself neither optimistic nor cynical. Apparently, he thinks he’s a healthy measure of both.
47. He Spit 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.
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 war. 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 drugs, sickness, and depravity.
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 abuse and stalling career.
The final nail in their relationship coffin? Bracco left Keitel for actor Edward James Olmos.
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 sexual 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 legal fees.