Stacy Keach’s dad was an actor, director and a producer. He had hoped his son would be a lawyer. Keach eventually wore down his parents, abandoned his major of political science and economics to pursue acting. Keach started with Shakespeare, which took him from a festival in Oregon to studying classical theater in England. Today, Keach teaches acting via Skype and his only true regret is not experiencing more of the great outdoors.
Alec Baldwin: Ask actor Stacy Keach's loyal fans why they love him and they'll point to a dozen different roles. He's played Richard III, King Lear, Hamlet, Falstaff, and Willy Loman.
Stacy Keach: "The trouble is, Linda, people who don't seem to take to me."
Alec Baldwin: Keach has played captains and kings, pugilists, and pub crawlers, but before you typecast him as strictly drama, note Stacy Keach's role as Sergeant Stedanko in Cheech and Chong's Up in Smoke or as the president of Duff Beer in The Simpsons. And I know I'll never forget his cameo on 30 Rock for its KouchTown commercials.
Stacy Keach: "When did we get so soft? You know what this country used to sit on? Logs, girders, poles. Being comfortable, that's not what America's all about."
Alec Baldwin: The great thespian Keach literally spit into the camera. For me, it was one of the show's funniest bits ever. Keach is perhaps best known as the irresistible, hot-headed fedora wearing detective, Mike Hammer.
Female: "Are you for hire?"
Stacy Keach: "No. Not at the moment."
Female: "My money's too dirty?"
Stacy Keach: "I've already got a plan."
Alec Baldwin: A lesser performer might have found himself with limited offers after what was Keach's longest running job. Not so for the 71-year-old actor. His key to career longevity is simple. He says, quote, 'You need television and movies to make a living, but you'll be taken more seriously if you are stageworthy. Stageworthy in Chicago and Washington, but especially New York.'
New York audiences saw Keach most recently on Broadway in John Robin Baitz's play Other Desert Cities. Two generations of a Southern California family gather at Christmas and find themselves reliving a painful family secret. Keach played the conservative patriarch, and for him it was familiar territory.
Stacy Keach: My dad – my mom and dad were very conservative and every Easter, every Christmas, we would take trips to Palm Springs, the Shadow Mountain Country Club in Palm Desert where they had water slides, the very first water slide. We spent a lot of time down there with a lot of conservative people in our business, Republican. So that was an environment that was I very familiar with.
Alec Baldwin: What's it like for you now to work with younger actors who are very much of today? Do you find that the good ones operate the same way or are they different?
Stacy Keach: They're different. They're very different.
Alec Baldwin: In what way?
Stacy Keach: Well, for example, we had Justin Kirk came in for Tommy Sadoski to play Trip, the young – and he's an actor that is – wow – every moment is something different. Boy, there's no consistency in terms. The only thing that was consistent was inconsistency.
You never knew when it was gonna come and I like that. I don't mind it. As a younger actor I probably would have gone nuts. I wouldn't have been able to deal with that because I would have –
Alec Baldwin: You relied on a pattern sometimes.
Stacy Keach: Well, that's right, but I like that. I like spontaneity. I like flexibility and I think that as –
Alec Baldwin: Well, you've also learned how to handle it.
Stacy Keach: Well, that's it.
Alec Baldwin: Keach's philosophy about acting has changed over the years.
Stacy Keach: I think in my early days I started pretty much from the outside and tried to get a fix on what the character looked like and then perhaps what he sounded like after that, but mainly it was look. I think that was when I – and I – it wasn't the best way to start. I think it's better to start inside and work out if you can and in later years I've done that more and more. But I just finished a picture with Alexander Payne called Nebraska where he called me and he said – I was playing the bad guy in this – and he said, 'Your teeth are too good.'
So the whole character became centralized in terms of what was in here and they made these snarly teeth for me, which it was great and it gave me a feel and I would look at myself in the mirror and make facial expressions and that gave me the feeling of where this guy was coming from, but it varies.
If you're playing – like if I was just down in Washington and went to do Falstaff again next year and it's this big, fat corpulent guy and interestingly enough even with all the physical manifestations of that character, that character you gotta go inside.
Alec Baldwin: It's not enough just to play the look.
Stacy Keach: No. Not at all. Not at all. When I first did it it was back in 1968 I guess, 45 years ago.
Alec Baldwin: You did what in '68?
Stacy Keach: Falstaff.
Alec Baldwin: And did they put a suit on you?
Stacy Keach: Oh, huge. This big, fat –
Alec Baldwin: You were a very lean guy.
Stacy Keach: I was. Yeah, and I had to wear this big, fat suit and Theoni Aldredge designed it, leather costume for me and it was this –
Alec Baldwin: What did they do back then in terms of your face when you're lean?
Stacy Keach: Whiskers, eyebrows.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, I see. They bearded you.
Stacy Keach: I had a wig of course and a bulbous nose. I was shooting a picture in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, End of the Road with James Earl Jones and Harris Yulin. I was shooting during the day and had to go on stage in thePark at night. So I'd get in the car at 5:00 in the afternoon. We'd drive down the Taconic and I'd be making up in the car in the front seat as we –
Alec Baldwin: Oh my God. You were shooting a movie with Harris Yulin and James Earl Jones in the Berkshires and you would drive down to Central Park to do eight shows?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. Well, to do –
Alec Baldwin: The Park isn't eight shows. The Park is like a five shows over the weekend.
Stacy Keach: Well, I guess so. We didn't do matinees. They didn't do matinees. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Thursday, Friday, two on – right.
Stacy Keach: But nevertheless, it was an experience to be making up in the car and looking – and buses would come up beside me and they'd be looking, 'What's this crazy guy doing there,' but it was an experience. But anyway, I went and saw Orson Wells do Chimes at Midnight and what he did in that film, I thought it was a great performance.
He personalized that guy so much. It was like he wasn't – he didn't put any spin on it at all. He was just talking right from his heart. It was right – he was really centered on that guy and I thought to myself, 'That's the key. You gotta find the equivalent of that for you when you get in there and when you get inside the fat suit you're gonna have to find the personalization of that.'
Alec Baldwin: What was it about you –
Stacy Keach: I was way too young when I played him.
Alec Baldwin: Well, I was gonna say what was it about you that back then when you were this athletic, lean leading man in the movie business you wanted to put a fat suit on? Why were you running into – why were you diving into a fat suit?
Stacy Keach: Well, because I –
Alec Baldwin: You wanted great parts?
Stacy Keach: Exactly and that is one of the probably, I think, of all of Shakespeare's characters I think it's probably one of the, that and Hamlet, are probably the two greatest, better than Lear I think. It's a greater part. It's more – there's much more going on with Falstaff, I think.
Alec Baldwin: And you're gonna do it again?
Stacy Keach: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: So you did Falstaff the first time when?
Stacy Keach: '68.
Alec Baldwin: '68.
Stacy Keach: '68 in the Park. Oh, yeah. It makes me feel very young.
Alec Baldwin: Forty-five years later –
Stacy Keach: Forty-five years later.
Alec Baldwin: – you're gonna play Falstaff.
Stacy Keach: And I won't have to wear padding this time. No. I'm teasing.
Alec Baldwin: Who are you doing it for?
Stacy Keach: Michael Kahn at the Shakespeare Theater in Washington DC.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, you're gonna do DC.
Stacy Keach: Yeah. We're gonna do both parts. We're gonna do part one and part two. One of the great experiences of my life was doing those plays together in the Park. We started at 10:00 at night and we did part one and then part two and as the dawn came up at the end of the evening, it was the early morning, it was just when Falstaff was being deposed by Prince Hal played by Sam Waterston.
Alec Baldwin: What's a role that you've played, film or television or stage, that was an extraordinarily difficult, if not even painful, and I don't mean the events around the show. I don't – like the producer was a bastard. I mean the playing the part itself was extraordinarily painful.
Stacy Keach: Scottish Play. The Scottish Play.
Alec Baldwin: Where'd you do that?
Stacy Keach: I did that in Washington as well.
Alec Baldwin: How long ago?
Stacy Keach: That was about 12 years ago.
Alec Baldwin: How old are you now?
Stacy Keach: I'll be 72 in June.
Alec Baldwin: So you did it when you were 60 years old. You played that?
Stacy Keach: Something like that. Yeah. I used to say you work your butt off playing that part and the woman gets all the glory. She takes all the thunder, but it's an amazing play. It's a very – it's a beautifully written play and it's very poetic and it's very – got some wonderful ideas in it, but the guy is not sympathetic. There's not – you just have to give up trying to make people feel sorry for you.
Alec Baldwin: That's a very good point you make because that's probably a flaw that I've had in a lot of what I've done is –
Stacy Keach: Well, we all do that.
Alec Baldwin: – is try to make them sympathetic.
Stacy Keach: Well, we all – we want –
Alec Baldwin: And when I didn't I think it worked better, other roles I played when I just gave up on that. So that was a tough role for you why?
Stacy Keach: It was. Well, because again, trying to make him sympathetic, wrong, bad choice, and I stole a bit from Olivier. When the ghost appears, he jumped on the banquet table and he jumped on top of the table with all the – and I thought might as well-
Alec Baldwin: The big O.
Stacy Keach: And then – yeah. So that's – and it worked. That worked and from that point on, once I sort of felt like I was – the madness liberated me in a way. It liberated me –
Alec Baldwin: It does, doesn't it?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. Then –
Alec Baldwin: The more unglued you are –
Stacy Keach: The better.
Alec Baldwin: The choices just come flying out of you sometimes. It's like a vending machine sometimes if you're in that state.
Stacy Keach: That's right.
Alec Baldwin: You grew up where?
Stacy Keach: I grew up in Southern California.
Alec Baldwin: And your dad was in the business?
Stacy Keach: Dad was in the business.
Alec Baldwin: What'd he do?
Stacy Keach: He was an actor, director, producer. He did a show, a radio show, called Tales of the Texas Rangers with Joel McCrea and that – when I was 12 years old he used to take me down to NBC studios. I would watch these actors do their thing. It was a live radio broadcast with all the foley and the sound effects and the horses and that was magic for me. Radio was how I got introduced –
Alec Baldwin: And your dad worked in radio?
Stacy Keach: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: That was his thing.
Stacy Keach: That was his thing. He was also an actor. He played small parts. I remember he used to come home after doing a guest shot on Tales of the Lone Ranger or – what was the other – Dragnet. Get Smart was a show that he did.
Alec Baldwin: And was your mom in the business?
Stacy Keach: No, but she – when she was at Northwestern and that's where she met my dad. They were at Northwestern together and she was an actress at that time, but she never pursued it professionally.
Alec Baldwin: And what did he say to you? What was his program with you, so to speak, in terms of your career? Did he want you to do this?
Stacy Keach: No. Absolutely not. He said, 'No. Acting is not something you should do.' He wanted me to be a lawyer and he wanted my brother to be a doctor. He said, 'It's too – this business is too fraught with it.'
Alec Baldwin: Did you almost do that? Did you think about it?
Stacy Keach: Well, when I started acting in high school, junior high school, was doing plays, and every time I would get a part in a play my dad would get very excited. He would get very animated and he wanted to show me, like for example, I was doing the stage manager in Our Town in high school and he would come in and it was his favorite play and he showed me – he said, 'When you're describing that,' he said, 'You describe that big, butternut tree, you've got to see that tree and when you're working in the drugstore and you're getting ice cream out of the ice cream box you gotta reach your hand way down there and pull it.' He was so animated and he came alive.
Alec Baldwin: Specific.
Stacy Keach: Very specific and very much alive. So all of his BS about, 'Not do this. You're not gonna do this. You're gonna be a lawyer' –
Alec Baldwin: Was it you think because he wasn't as successful as he wanted to be that he wanted you more to be a success, 'cause that's very common. That's what I experienced with my dad. My dad had no money. He was a school teacher. He was constantly under the gun about money. It tormented him and I think when he looked at me he was like, 'It's less about what you wanna be than it is about being successful at something.'
Stacy Keach: I think that's – well, our dads were –
Alec Baldwin: Did he drive you in that direction?
Stacy Keach: Absolutely.
Alec Baldwin: So when you wound up – did he live long enough to see you succeed?
Stacy Keach: Yes. He did.
Alec Baldwin: And what did he –
Stacy Keach: Well, then that was the good part.
Alec Baldwin: Then you're a genius.
Stacy Keach: Yeah. Well, and then it was a good thing because it wasn't until I got to Berkeley and I was – I started – I was given an edict. 'You're not gonna be in any plays.' First year as a freshman I was studying political science and economics. That was it. I was gonna –
Alec Baldwin: I was about to do the same thing.
Stacy Keach: And that was – and –
Alec Baldwin: And they don't think you're worthy in your first year. They want you to wait.
Stacy Keach: No. That's right. So at the end of the first year I got a play. I finally – I passed. I got through the first year and he said, 'Okay. If you wanna do a play you can do a play.' So I did a play and that was it. It was a play called To Learn to Love. It was written by one of the professors and it was about these Navy guys and it was a big hit on campus.
Professor cast me the next semester as De Flores in The Changeling - Jacobean play written by Thomas Middleton - Middleton and Rowley, great piece. A Richard III-type of character and I had success with that and my parents came and saw me and they said, 'Well, I guess you may have some talent. So maybe if this is what you wanna do we'll support you.' So they came around.
Alec Baldwin: Knowing you had some talents at least they thought you were on to something. They could tell.
Stacy Keach: Yeah, and I loved it. I couldn't stand economics and political science, man. I was terrible.
Alec Baldwin: This was at USC?
Stacy Keach: No, Berkeley.
Alec Baldwin: At Berkeley. So you were up in Berkeley and you finished? You went all four years there?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. I went four –
Alec Baldwin: And you got a degree in drama?
Stacy Keach: I got a degree in drama and English. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And then what did you do after that?
Stacy Keach: Then I went to Yale drama school for a year.
Alec Baldwin: What was the program there? Was it longer than a year or you finished in a year?
Stacy Keach: No. It was a three year program. I only stayed a year.
Alec Baldwin: And?
Stacy Keach: I didn't like it and -
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Stacy Keach: Well, in those days Constance Welch was the acting teacher and she was very much old school. They didn't know in those days whether they were training people for the academic theater or for the professional theater, to be teachers or to be professional.
Alec Baldwin: Big distinction.
Stacy Keach: Big distinction and it was – learning all these phonetic science and symbols and this had nothing to do with what I was interested in and I had just – I had done two summers at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival between my junior and senior year in between my senior year and my first year at Yale and played some pretty good parts - Henry the Fifth and Mercutio and Verona. I was getting my feet wet with Shakespeare and these big, wonderful parts.
Alec Baldwin: Was Shakespeare a part of your childhood and your upbringing?
Stacy Keach: No.
Alec Baldwin: Why are you so – you're pretty much steeped in Shakespeare in your early stage career. Why? This was just your own passion?
Stacy Keach: Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Alec Baldwin: Was responsible for it?
Stacy Keach: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: You went there and you were at home?
Stacy Keach: That's right. That's where it started. That's where it started and then when I came back east I was at Yale and I wasn't crazy about Yale.
Alec Baldwin: No more phonetic symbols.
Stacy Keach: Right. No more – and Joe –
Alec Baldwin: And then after that year – Joe found you.
Stacy Keach: Joe Papp and –
Alec Baldwin: And thanks to Oregon Shakespeare Festival you were ready.
Stacy Keach: Yeah. I think so.
Alec Baldwin: Pretty much.
Stacy Keach: Henry Hewes, Saturday – he was a drama critic for the Saturday Review – wrote a nice review of me doing Henry the Fifth. Joe had read that and when I got to Yale I called the New York Shakespeare Festival and wanted to audition. He said, 'Come on down.' So I went and I met Joe Papp in this smoke-filled office here in Manhattan. I sat down and he said, 'What are you gonna do for me?'
I said, 'I'll do a little piece from Henry the Fifth Upon the King,' and I started reading. I got three – I got, 'Upon the king let us our lives' – 'That's it. Are you a member of Equity?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Well, you're gonna be. You're gonna play Marcellus in my production of Hamlet this summer. Julie Harris is gonna be playing Ophelia. Alfred Ryder's gonna be playing Hamlet. We'll see you this summer,' and that was it. I walked out there. I was floating on air. That was it and then summer of '63 – '64, 1964 and that summer –
Alec Baldwin: Did you move to New York?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. For that summer I did, yeah. And then I went to England after that on a Fulbright scholarship to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art.
Alec Baldwin: For what?
Stacy Keach: To study for a year.
Alec Baldwin: But why did you stop – now you've got – I wonder if this is the beginning of a pattern where you get the hot hand here and Joe Papp wants you and then you say, 'Okay. Hold on fellows. I gotta go over to London for a year.'
Stacy Keach: Well, that's it and he was not happy about that. Joe – and interestingly enough he was also – I didn't realize this, it was just a coincidence – he was on the screening committee for the Fulbright guys and when I came in he said, 'What are you here for?' And I said, 'Oh, I'm auditioning for you,' and he said, 'Don't do Upon the King again. I've seen it. Do something else,' and –
Alec Baldwin: He was tough.
Stacy Keach: And he was tough. I was not given Fulbright. I was chosen as an alternate. I was really depressed.
Alec Baldwin: So you went to LAMDA?
Stacy Keach: That summer I got a note from the Fulbright commission saying, 'The guy who was supposed to go dropped out. So you're in.'
Alec Baldwin: You made it by the skin of your teeth.
Stacy Keach: That's it. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Now why LAMDA? Were you gonna train for the musical theater?
Stacy Keach: No. No. Classical theater, Shakespeare. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Right, right. Classical Theater. And you were there for a year?
Stacy Keach: I was there for a year.
Alec Baldwin: What did you benefit from that?
Stacy Keach: Well, first of all the exposure to the English theater in that year was unbelievable.
Alec Baldwin: It's incomparable.
Stacy Keach: Unbelievable and I got to see – I saw Olivier do not only Othello, I saw him do the Master Builder. Saw his production that he directed of The Crucible. It was an amazing year.
Alec Baldwin: Were you ever tempted to stay there?
Stacy Keach: No.
Alec Baldwin: Did you feel you belonged there?
Stacy Keach: No. Americans doing classical theater still is looked on a little bit askance by the English. Just like we don't –
Alec Baldwin: I don't want them to touch Williams either.
Stacy Keach: Exactly. It's the same deal.
Alec Baldwin: So you finished there and you came right home?
Stacy Keach: I came back. Then I came to Lincoln Center and I audition for Jules Irving and Herbert Blau who were just coming from The Actors' Workshop in San Francisco where when I had been – when I was a student at Berkeley I knew all those actors and I had gone to see a lot of their shows and a lot of those actors were also at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.
Liz Huddle, Robert Falin, Dan Sullivan, who is now of course one of our best directors. This was the company so I went and I auditioned. They said, 'Come on in. You're in the company.' So I was married at the time.
Alec Baldwin: Why'd you do that?
Stacy Keach: I know. That was a mistake, but we moved to New York and I spent that first year. Danton's Death, The Country Wife, The Condemned of Altona by Jean-Paul Sartre, and The Caucasian Chalk Circle, not what you would call a banner commercial season and they just got murdered. These guys they just got – well, because they came in thinking they were gonna change the New York Theater. Wrong. Wrong.
Alec Baldwin: Who was your first wife?
Stacy Keach: Her name is Kathryn Baker and she was a –
Alec Baldwin: Where'd you meet her?
Stacy Keach: In Berkeley.
Alec Baldwin: At the airport while you were going from one location to another?
Stacy Keach: Not quite, but anyway, she was my college sweetheart.
Alec Baldwin: She was your college sweetheart. And I'm gonna ask you this as we go down the road here on you interview wise, what do you think she loved about you?
Stacy Keach: Oh, God. That's a good question.
Alec Baldwin: Did she love that life you were living? Did she love your passion and your commitment to acting?
Stacy Keach: I have no idea. You'd have to ask her. You'd have to ask her.
Alec Baldwin: You don't know?
Stacy Keach: I don't know. I really don't. Yeah. Oh, God.
Alec Baldwin: But did you feel at that time that you had an intensity about you as an actor that was very, very attractive to other people? Did you feel that?
Stacy Keach: I – no. I wasn't –
Alec Baldwin: You weren't – you're saying you weren't a ladies man?
Stacy Keach: Well, I was and I wasn't. Definitely – I definitely –
Alec Baldwin: Oh, I love that. I love somebody who says, 'I was and I wasn't.' What does that mean?
Stacy Keach: Well, I loved the lady. I always have loved ladies, but there's a misogynistic element in my character that I think I have to –
Alec Baldwin: About trust?
Stacy Keach: Trust. Yeah. No. If I love somebody I'm trustworthy.
Alec Baldwin: I'm in the same school. It's hard for me to trust people. It's hard.
Stacy Keach: Hard.
Alec Baldwin: So these guys from San Francisco come and they're gonna change the New York Theater and they kind of flop. Then what happens?
Stacy Keach: And then I went back to my roots at Yale. Nicholas Zacharopoulos in Williamstown and he said, 'Come on up to Williamstown and be with me for the summer,' and that was it. I loved doing that. I went up there and had a great summer and one of my fellow students at Yale had this play that a very good friend of his at Berkeley had written, Barbara Carson was her name, and the play was called McBird, a play about Lyndon Johnson as the Scottish guy and it was suggesting that he was responsible for the assassination of John F. Kennedy.
Alec Baldwin: The play says that?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. That's what it was and it was a great cast. Bill Devain played –
Alec Baldwin: J.F.K.?
Stacy Keach: – Bobby Kennedy. Who played – Paul Hecht played J.F.K. and it was wonderful. We did it at the Village Gate. We thought we were gonna get shut down. We thought the government was gonna come in and say we were seditious.
Alec Baldwin: What year?
Stacy Keach: '66.
Alec Baldwin: So Johnson's in the height of his administration?
Stacy Keach: Absolutely, and we thought we were gonna get shut down. We thought it was over.
Alec Baldwin: The FBI's coming. The ushers are in the FBI.
Stacy Keach: Yes. Right. Nothing.
Alec Baldwin: Nothing.
Stacy Keach: Not a –
Alec Baldwin: And it's a hit.
Stacy Keach: It's a big hit and that's what really got me going.
Alec Baldwin: What did you think about the content, 'cause I'm a bit of an assassination buff myself and this is the 50th anniversary this November. This year's the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's assassination, which I still don't think we know the truth about.
Stacy Keach: Unbelievable. I don't either.
Alec Baldwin: Well, what did you think about when you did the play? Was it – did it add up?
Stacy Keach: Not really. No. No, but the suggestion that he was somehow involved or knew what was going on was very palpable.
Alec Baldwin: He didn't mind that it happened.
Stacy Keach: No. The audience believed it. They actually – let me put it this way, I don't know if they believed that it was true, but they certainly accepted the premise that it was worth dramatizing.
Alec Baldwin: There was something there. And that ran for how long?
Stacy Keach: It ran for a couple of years. I stayed in it for about nine months and then –
Alec Baldwin: What's the longest run you've ever done for as an actor on stage?
Stacy Keach: About nine months.
Alec Baldwin: That was it?
Stacy Keach: Well, no. Other Desert Cities ran for about almost a year I think. That's about it for me.
Alec Baldwin: Stacy Keach's runs are sometimes limited by his desire to be near his family. He and his wife, Malgosia, a native of Poland, lived in a suburb of Warsaw for several years when their children were teenagers. Stacy says he commuted from Warsaw to where ever there was work. When he was doing the TV show Prison Break he was lucky there was a direct flight between Warsaw and Chicago. Coming up, Stacy Keach talks about working with director John Huston.
Stacy Keach: I said, 'Well, why did you do it? How did you come up with this idea?' And he said, 'The devil made me do it.'
Alec Baldwin: Many people don't understand how an actor can perform in the same play night after night for months. The truth is it never gets boring. It's like skiing a black diamond run for me to go all the way down and not fall and I fall every night. One show I did recently a few years back I did give myself a diploma for having a perfect show.
I said every word as – 'cause you and I both know that when you get to that level where you're at you know when you don't say the words right. You know the play backwards and forwards. You know every queue. You might not say it that way in real time. So I came off stage and I said to myself – I was – the stage managers were there and everybody and the prop people and I came off stage and I said, 'Well, there you have it.'
Stacy Keach: There you have it.
Alec Baldwin: I said, 'There it is. The perfect show.' I said every line as written the way I wanted to say it and with the feeling I wanted and I just really, really skied the run right to the bottom. That's happened to me once in my career and every other time I missed a little. I didn't – I wasn't connected to the speech.
Stacy Keach: Well, I know exactly what you're saying. When I –
Alec Baldwin: What's the role you've been the most connected to?
Stacy Keach: Well, I did Hamlet three times to try to get it right. I never did. I never got it.
Alec Baldwin: Why do you say that?
Stacy Keach: Three different productions.
Alec Baldwin: What was the first one?
Stacy Keach: Long Wharf Theater, Arvin Brown directed it.
Alec Baldwin: What year?
Stacy Keach: Let me see if I can remember the year. It had to be '70 – it had to be somewhere in the – I think it was '70.
Alec Baldwin: So you were a young man.
Stacy Keach: '70. Oh, yeah. I was – yeah. I was actually – well, they say Hamlet's 30. So I was about 30 when I did it and –
Alec Baldwin: So you were up in New Haven?
Stacy Keach: I was up in New Haven and the first time you play that part I was so intimidated by the fact that all the other actors had played it and it's intimidating and I – but once –
Alec Baldwin: This is your Hamlet?
Stacy Keach: That's right.
Alec Baldwin: It becomes your Hamlet.
Stacy Keach: And most of the time I was concerned about getting the lines right and getting – just getting the moves right, just getting it – just putting it all together and then trying to figure it out, which is what I did. And then the next year, that summer, Joe Papp came and saw it and he said, 'Come into the Park and we'll do it, a different production, a totally different production,' and different director, which was very hard for me to give up Arvin Brown and Gerald Freedman, who I had worked with McBird was asked to direct it.
Alec Baldwin: Were you happy with the new cast?
Stacy Keach: Well, it was a fantastic cast. It was James Earl Jones –
Alec Baldwin: Is this the one with Colleen?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. With Colleen and it was – yeah. And I got closer to it. I got closer to – I felt – I never had the perfect show, but I got closer to it and then –
Alec Baldwin: So that was right after New Haven?
Stacy Keach: Right after.
Alec Baldwin: And then what?
Stacy Keach: Two years later Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, totally different production, Gordon Davidson directing and Harris Yulin playing Claudius and I had one night where I got close, where I really got close, and then I don't know what happened, something. I think it was in the very last scene.
I think the hardest thing about Hamlet is after that amazing duel in the last act before he dies, he's not to be caught breathing on stage. That's the hardest – one of the hardest things to do I think in that particular play. Anyway, but the perfect show –
Alec Baldwin: That was your third and final one?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. No. The perfect show is elusive. It's – the fact that you found – I think one night I was doing Death Trap I remember –
Alec Baldwin: Who'd you do it with?
Stacy Keach: The other – the actors that I worked with I can't remember their names. This is terrible, terrible. Darrin. I remember his first name was Darrin.
Alec Baldwin: So they weren't well-known people.
Stacy Keach: Oh, yeah, but I loved that play.
Alec Baldwin: Oh, I saw Brian Bedford do it at the Kennedy Center when I was in college.
Stacy Keach: Oh, wow.
Alec Baldwin: I've wanted to do Death Trap 'cause it's a great –
Stacy Keach: Oh, it's a great piece.
Alec Baldwin: It's a great summer stock play too. I love Shaffer. Love him.
Stacy Keach: I did –
Alec Baldwin: It was Ira Levin.
Stacy Keach: It was Ira Levin. I get them confused too.
Alec Baldwin: It wasn't Tony Shaffer. It was Ira Leven.
Stacy Keach: Right. I did a Tony Schaffer play, Sleuth. It was the only play –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. Of course. That's why I confuse the two.
Stacy Keach: Yeah. That's very similar.
Alec Baldwin: You did Sleuth?
Stacy Keach: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Who'd you do that with?
Stacy Keach: Maxwell Caulfield.
Alec Baldwin: Good for you. He's a buddy of mine, him and Juliet Mills.
Stacy Keach: We'll be together tomorrow night. We became very dear friends on Sleuth and –
Alec Baldwin: I love him.
Stacy Keach: Yeah. He's great and Juliet is the godmother of my daughter, Carolina.
Alec Baldwin: How many kids do you have?
Stacy Keach: Two.
Alec Baldwin: And you have two girls, a boy and a girl?
Stacy Keach: A boy and girl.
Alec Baldwin: So your son is how old?
Stacy Keach: Twenty-four and he's a student at NYU studying corporate communications and international business relationships.
Alec Baldwin: And his mom is wife number what?
Stacy Keach: Four.
Alec Baldwin: Your current wife?
Stacy Keach: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: So your current wife –
Stacy Keach: No children by any other –
Alec Baldwin: No children – you did it – you handled that beautifully. Oh my God. So you got the marriage right and then had the family?
Stacy Keach: That's right.
Alec Baldwin: Boy, you clever bastard. So three marriages. What was the longest of the other three?
Stacy Keach: Two years.
Alec Baldwin: So the longest –
Stacy Keach: Two years. That's right, two and a half.
Alec Baldwin: The longest of the other three – okay. Let's really round it off here and be fair. It was two and a half years. You think you're tough to be married to?
Stacy Keach: I do.
Alec Baldwin: You do?
Stacy Keach: I know I am.
Alec Baldwin: 'Cause – do you think it's your work though?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. That's our business.
Alec Baldwin: Do you think that you – your dedication to this – I had a woman say to me once, a very famous woman, that her husband was a famous actor and he did a television series. This was many years ago and she said to me he'd go to work and he was a father on the show and she said “ and he gave everything he had on camera.” She said, 'He came home. He had nothing for his own children.'
Stacy Keach: Oh, that's too bad.
Alec Baldwin: He came home, locked himself in his room, had a drink in his hand, had the TV on. He was just, like we said, he was just emptied out.
Stacy Keach: Right. Right, right, right. That's sad.
Alec Baldwin: What changed when you met wife number four?
Stacy Keach: Well –
Alec Baldwin: I only mention these things not to be prying, I'm just saying for a man of passion when you get it right, what was the difference? What happened? What changed?
Stacy Keach: Somebody who understood me. I think really understood –
Alec Baldwin: Gave you your space?
Stacy Keach: Gave me my space.
Alec Baldwin: Let you be who you are –
Stacy Keach: Absolutely.
Alec Baldwin: – which is a nut job.
Stacy Keach: Really. Isn't that critical? Yeah, but –
Alec Baldwin: Sometimes.
Stacy Keach: – let's face it. Well, no, but –
Alec Baldwin: Passionate.
Stacy Keach: Yeah, but you and I, we – our lives are very active. We spend a lot of time doing things that are not family related necessarily.
Alec Baldwin: What's something you think you missed, other than parenthood, other than maybe more time with your family, other than making, having the opportunity at least to make a better go of it with your previous wives, 'cause I'm divorced as well, all that kind of stuff?
What's something you think that you would love to have done with your life that you missed cause of this work? 'Cause I have answer for myself, but what's yours?
Stacy Keach: I would have been more of an adventurer, more of an explorer, more of an outdoors kind of guy. I would have taken off and gone on expeditions.
Alec Baldwin: Going, seeing, hiking, doing – yeah.
Stacy Keach: Yes. I agree. I didn't do it.
Alec Baldwin: Mine was education. I would have gone back to school and so now I sit back and I go – whenever I speak at schools and I say to people – 'cause I'm teaching at NYU this spring – I say, 'How many people here are graduating now?' And maybe like a quarter of them raise their hands in this lecture I give to about 100 kids and I said, 'How many of you – so the rest of you are – how many of you are juniors?'
So another quarter of them raise – so the rest of them – half the kids were sophomores and freshman in the acting program. I said, 'Do yourself a favor.' I said, 'This is the only time in your life you can read and you're here to read.'
Stacy Keach: Good for you.
Alec Baldwin: I said, 'Take lit courses. Take history courses. Read, read, read, because you're gonna miss it. You're gonna miss it.'
Stacy Keach: I'm teaching acting this year.
Alec Baldwin: Where?
Stacy Keach: I teach at George Mason University –
Alec Baldwin: In DC?
Stacy Keach: – via Skype.
Alec Baldwin: Wow. How does that go?
Stacy Keach: I teach – well, it's wonderful because I'm teaching kids how to audition basically, both using material from the theater and from television and movie scripts. The camera's right there. They have to get up in front of a camera just like they do in an audition. So they do a scene for me. I give them a critique. They go back and they work on it for a week. They come back and they show it to me again. I can teach this course from Poland, from Los Angeles, from New York.
Alec Baldwin: Have you taught acting before?
Stacy Keach: Yes.
Alec Baldwin: Where?
Stacy Keach: When I went back to Yale as an actor/performer – well, an actor/teacher some – many years ago right after McBird, when Brustein first came into Yale. I taught at Yale for a year while I was a member of the company and I've taught master classes here and there.
Alec Baldwin: Do you like teaching?
Stacy Keach: I love it.
Alec Baldwin: You do?
Stacy Keach: I do and I – my kids – one of the things that I – they read. They have to read. They have to read four plays and write a report. They have to do quizzes on, not just the things that they read in terms of literature, but dramaturgy and I've discovered an acting book that I just think is fantastic called The Actor and the Target by Declan Donovan. It's – he's an English guy. It's a fabulous book.
Alec Baldwin: Why is it fabulous?
Stacy Keach: Well, because it reinterprets the whole notion of actioning and it takes Stanislavski's ideas, he has his own set of terms, his own terminology, which is refreshing in a way 'cause it's not the same old stuff that we've been hearing for years and years.
I think reading is critical and I know when I first got there that I was told by the university, 'You don't have to assign things for them to read. You can just have them read the material that they're working on in terms of the scenes that they're presenting,' and I said, 'No, no, no. I've learned in the course of my career I've ran into a lot of guys who are illiterate and it's not good.' I think the more you know in terms of the more –
Alec Baldwin: References. It's like a scale. There's only so many notes and you play them in different combinations maybe.
Stacy Keach: What musical instrument do you play?
Alec Baldwin: Never played one.
Stacy Keach: But you're musical.
Alec Baldwin: I wish I could sing, but I can't sing to save my life.
Stacy Keach: Nor can I.
Alec Baldwin: You can't?
Stacy Keach: No, but I taught – again, I have a pretty good ear and I'm musical. I do play and but –
Alec Baldwin: You play piano?
Stacy Keach: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: You grew up that way?
Stacy Keach: Yeah. I grew up – yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Who was responsible for that, your mom or your dad?
Stacy Keach: My mom basically primarily. Yeah. 'You're gonna practice or you're not gonna take the car out,' one of those things.
Alec Baldwin: Threats.
Stacy Keach: Threats, and we tried to do that with our kids, didn't work and the screaming and yelling, we gave in and I'm sorry I did. I think –
Alec Baldwin: That's the way we are now. We don't wanna do the heavy lifting. Our parents were willing to be unpopular.
Stacy Keach: I know. That's right.
Alec Baldwin: Our parents were what I call 'The Captain Bligh School.'
Stacy Keach: That's good.
Alec Baldwin: 'I've got a job to do here. I've gotta get this Bradford back to England and I don't care whether you like it or not.' Now parents are all like, 'Oh, please. Don't look at me that way. Are you mad at me?'
Stacy Keach: That's right. We -
Alec Baldwin: We just shine our kids asses all day long.
Stacy Keach: I know.
Alec Baldwin: It's terrible. It's the end of the world actually.
Stacy Keach: Well, I hope not. I hope you're wrong.
Alec Baldwin: So you were saying about teaching though that – do you do – what I've found is that when I teach I don't say this, but I think it may or may not be implied when I'm doing this is that I can't make you a good actor. I can make you a better actor maybe than when you came in. If you have some ability I can begin to point the way toward what you might develop, but you either got it or you don't. I really believe that.
Stacy Keach: That's right. I do too.
Alec Baldwin: And a lot of people don't wanna hear that.
Stacy Keach: Well, I know.
Alec Baldwin: And in a degree-granting academic program you'll see that a lot of people have the grades to go to the fine institution and they're not necessarily the best actors and I'll say to them – the people I've worked with – I'll say, 'Well, why don't we tear out a couple seats here on the side of Elijah and let's have you give me a class of 20 people or 2 dozen people. Let's have three or four kids who they're cum laude and they're academic credentials were okay. They were good. They weren't a complete bust, but you brought them in here not just for their benefit, but for the benefit of the other kids in the class who can see what good acting is in that embryotic phase.' I find teaching acting, it's tough for that reason.
Stacy Keach: It is tough.
Alec Baldwin: It's tough.
Stacy Keach: You really nailed what I was just gonna say. I've got 20 kids and maybe of those 20 kids 4 can –
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. That's what I got. That's about the number my kids.
And Keach is indeed a good judge of talent. Henry Winkler was a student of his when he taught at Yale and Keach said it was clear he would do something special. That was over 45 years ago. This is a man with stories and he's finally put them down on paper. Stacy Keach has a memoir coming out this fall, All and All: An Actor's Life On and Off Stage will be published by Globe Pequot Press.
Stacy Keach: It's an ordeal. To write a memoir, and you're gonna be doing this one of these days I'm sure.
Alec Baldwin: Why did you do it?
Stacy Keach: Well, I'm at that age. I feel like I better get it down now otherwise –
Alec Baldwin: The truth as I saw it.
Stacy Keach: Yeah. Get it down now because you don't – time's running out and so I wanted to – and I have a lot of stories to tell and I've worked with a lot of great people including John Huston and –
Alec Baldwin: Talk about Huston. What was it like?
Stacy Keach: Oh, God. Well, the first – I remember the first time I met him. He came to visit me on the set of Doc. We were shooting a western in Spain with Faye Dunaway and Harris Yulin and we were – and this script, Fat City, written – it was a very popular book written by Leonard Gardner about boxing and he came to see me personally on the set.
John Huston visited me on the set of a movie. It was – and he was very gracious and he says, 'Stacy, I've got a part for you and I think you ought to take a look at this,' and he treated me as if I was his son right from the word 'Go.' I just – he was so warm.
Alec Baldwin: He welcomed you.
Stacy Keach: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: That's rare in the business.
Stacy Keach: Oh, yeah, but he – and he had no pretenses about – he was larger than life and he didn't make any apologies for that and he was extraordinary, extraordinary human being. He loved to gamble, loved to gamble.
Alec Baldwin: I wonder what that was about.
Stacy Keach: Well, and it's very interesting because we – and I love to gamble too. I enjoy –
Alec Baldwin: What's your game?
Stacy Keach: Well, with him it was backgammon. We would play backgammon between scenes on the set.
Alec Baldwin: For $100.00 a game?
Stacy Keach: No, no, no. A dollar a point.
Alec Baldwin: So he just liked it for the fun?
Stacy Keach: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: But he wasn't a gambler trying to make money?
Stacy Keach: No. Not with me, but I remember we went to the Cannes Film Festival a year later and also we were in London together and he would, 'Let's go over to the casino.'
Alec Baldwin: Do a little gaming.
Stacy Keach: Do a little gaming. Very good. And he loved it. I think – I don't know. What is it about gambling? It's the Dostoevsky thing, the challenge of – they say that people gamble to lose. They don't really gamble to win or at least to experience what it's like to feel what it – how it – how to compensate for the feeling of loss. I think there's something to that. That was – anyway. Alec Baldwin: I love the line someone told me that people gamble to find out if God favors them or not. They wanna know, 'does God favor me today.'
Stacy Keach: Well, you know –
Alec Baldwin: If I win then that's my sign that God favored me.
Stacy Keach: I like that because I still – I get on my iPhone and there's a game called Bejeweled. It's a little bit like Angry Birds and I feel like if I can get it right then God's looking – yeah.
Alec Baldwin: Yes. I'm complete.
Stacy Keach: Yeah. I love it. It's –
Alec Baldwin: What was it like shooting a movie with Huston? What was he like as a director? Was he insightful for you? Did he help you?
Stacy Keach: Absolutely.
Alec Baldwin: He was?
Stacy Keach: Oh, yeah. Well, he's an actor first of all and he – but he – and he always wanted to give you your space. He never – he said, 'There's only two directions, Stace. A little more or a little less.' That was it. He never told me to try to – well, yes. He did once in a while, but he would let us block the scenes.
Susan Tyrrell and I, God love her, he would say, 'Go in there and you stage the scene the way you feel like it should be staged' in a domestic scene in a kitchen or something like that and we would go in there and we would stage the scene. We'd work out the moves.
Alec Baldwin: That's a lot of trust to have in his actors.
Stacy Keach: Tremendous, but he was right. He'd come in and look at it and then we'd move things around a little bit, make a tweak here, a tweak there, and Conrad Hall who was the cameraman would come in and work with him, God love him, and that's the way he worked.
And then – but the thing that really fascinated me about Huston was at the very end of the movie, I'll never forget, Jeff Bridges and I were sitting in this café and it's the very last scene in the movie and in the background there were these people sitting at tables, smoke rising, and they were gambling and they were playing cards, they were talking to each other and he said, 'All right. I want everybody in the background to just freeze. Just don't do anything. Freeze,' and you could see the smoke rising up so you knew it was not a freeze frame that was done technically by the editors.
It was something that he directed and I said, 'John, why did you do that?' And he said, 'Because you' – he said, 'When Billy Tully looks over there and sees nothing,' he said, 'I just want there to be the feeling that God is intervening here in some way.' I said, 'Well, why did you do that? How did you come up with this idea?' And he said, 'The devil made me do it.'
Alec Baldwin: Okay.
Stacy Keach: It was just off the wall kind of comments, but he was –
Alec Baldwin: How was his health then? Was he pretty lucid then? He wasn't really very sick then?
Stacy Keach: No. He wasn't.
Alec Baldwin: He was pretty together then.
Stacy Keach: But he chain smoked many crystal number ones. There was always a box of cigars under his hand and the backgammon sitting nearby.
Alec Baldwin: Where ever John Huston is, I want him to know that when the time comes for me and Stacy, we'll be more than ready for backgammon and cigars with him.
Let me just say as we finish here that I wrote the foreword to your book because you occupy a very unique place. What stands out to me is that you're so comfortable on stage and that transmits – there's a telepathic signal you send to audience.
I wrote this or I said, 'You enthrall people and you inspire people, but you welcome them at the same time,' 'cause when someone's on stage and they're uncomfortable you feel it. And you are someone who your commitment – forget about your talent, 'cause you are an immeasurably talented man –
Stacy Keach: Well, thank you.
Alec Baldwin: – but the companion with that is is how committed you are. When you go and do something, you give it everything you have.
Stacy Keach: Well, so do you. Same to you.
Alec Baldwin: And you are a great inspiration to me.
Stacy Keach: Well, thank you.
Alec Baldwin: When I saw you do Other Desert Cities I sat there and I go – I looked at my friend, I go, 'Look at the son of a bitch. Look at him. Look how fucking fantastic he looks up on that stage.'
Stacy Keach: Oh, thank you.
Alec Baldwin: 'There's no place else he'd rather' – and you had the audience right here.
Stacy Keach: Thank you, Alec.
Alec Baldwin: You're a treasure. Thanks for doing this with me.
Stacy Keach: I loved it. Thanks man.
Alec Baldwin: I'm Alec Baldwin. Here's the Thing comes from WNYC Radio.