Six decades into his career, Stacy Keach is finally receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. The 78-year-old actor muscled into notoriety playing everyone from Hamlet to Hemingway to Mike Hammer. When the New York Times spotted the then-27-year-old up-and-comer in “Henry IV,” it gushed that his “superb” Falstaff was “so freshly observed that it is almost a new character.”
In the late 1960s, Keach was hailed as America’s Laurence Olivier — right when the country decided it didn’t need one. His agent, the powerhouse Sue Mengers, gave him the truth: “Come out of your ivory tower. Forget the classics. Get to Hollywood.”
He obeyed, and today Keach is best-known for playing heavyweights who tend to kill and be killed on film and TV, where the camera can closely observe his intimidating build, defining harelip and what Elia Kazan called “a sense of violence behind the eyes that’s not housebroken.”
After directing him twice, the late John Huston beamed, “Stacy is not just a star. He is a constellation.” But when it comes to the Walk of Fame, Keach is content to simply be a star.
“I’m very grateful for it,” says Keach from his second home in Poland. (He and his wife, Malgosia Tomassi, and their two kids are dual citizens.) “And I’m glad that I’m still upright!
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“The reason I chose this date is because it was my departed mother’s birthday. She always said, ‘Stacy, I’ll always know you made it if you’re a clue in the New York Times crossword puzzle and you get your star on the Walk of Fame.’ Well, Mom, I finally did it.”
Keach was born into a creative, but financially insecure, family who moved from Savannah, Ga., to the San Fernando Valley to pursue artistic careers when he was an infant. His mother, Mary, was a stage actress; his father, Stacy Sr., was a jack-of-all trades who performed, taught, talent-scouted and eventually found semi-stable footing in radio.
The Keaches had a flair for the dramatic. His parents swore lightning struck their home the night Stacy was born. Yet, his parents warned him and his brother James against following them into the arts. “They wanted me to be a lawyer,” says Keach. As a teenager, when Keach would cruise Hollywood Boulevard on the weekends, his folks would say, “‘Look for Walter Pidgeon’s star on the Walk of Fame — he’s an actor-lawyer.’” laughs Keach. “He was a pretty good actor. But my role models were Marlon Brando and James Dean.”
His family began to accept his dream after Keach got into Yale Drama School and then won a Fulbright scholarship to train at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts. He had an athletic, roiling intensity that people found irresistible — including Morgan Freeman, who made his theater debut alongside Keach in 1967, and continues to credit him as the actor who taught him the most. Soon after, Keach tackled several high-profile on and Off Broadway roles, including the daring 1967 satire “MacBird!” where his murderous LBJ schemes to kill JFK. Laughs Keach, “We thought we’re going to be accused of sedition!”
Still, even the threat of FBI surveillance proved easier than making the transition to Hollywood. Keach hoped to break out with the brash counterculture film “End of the Road,” but a graphic abortion scene earned it an X-rating and audience walkouts. “I do think it was ahead of its time,” says Keach. He was cut from all-star cast of “Catch-22” a week into rehearsals when Mike Nichols decided he was too young to play Colonel Cathcart, which left him so rattled that he turned down the next military part he was offered, Capt. “Hawkeye” Pierce Jr., in “MASH.” Sighs Keach, “You think about the roles that got away more than the ones you did.”
Eventually, of course, he found solid footing in defiance of the early agent who advised him to get facial surgery for his harelip. “The girls seemed to think it was sexy — or so I was told, anyway,” chuckles Keach.
When he was cast as TV’s Mike Hammer in the CBS hit “Mickey Spillane’s Mike Hammer,” the author gave him one piece of advice: “Wear a hat.”
In 1984, as the show hit its peak, Keach was nominated for a Golden Globe — and arrested at Heathrow for cocaine possession. A U.K. court sentenced him to nine months in jail.
“The lowest point of my life,” he admits. Determined to have a constructive incarceration, Keach managed the prison library, wrote letters for illiterate block-mates, and read stacks of Oscar Wilde, who’d been locked up in the same prison. At night, one guard, an aspiring author, would slip pages under his cell door that Keach would edit in exchange for fresh oranges. “I was sworn I’d never tell this story and reveal who this gentlemen was — he would get fired! — but he’s retired, so …”
Upon release, CBS welcomed him back, and Nancy Reagan invited him to be a spokesman for her Just Say No! campaign. “That really saved my life and my career.”
Keach went on to win a Golden Globe for the lead in the TV biopic of Ernest Hemingway, and has since enjoyed a hectic — and eclectic — career. Audiences are as likely to see him onstage as the disgraced president in “Frost/Nixon” or in a best picture contender like Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska” as they are to hear his sonorous purr as the voice of Howard K. Duff in “The Simpsons.” And thanks to decades of playing the villain in movies from “American History X” to “Sin City,” Keach boasts several of Hollywood’s most creative onscreen deaths. (He’s partial to the time John Carpenter gave him a hair transplant infested with a killer parasite in “Body Bags”) “My dad said you can’t make a living just doing Shakespeare,” says Keach. “Well, it’s true!”
His Walk of Fame star will have a TV set. “Much of what I’ve done, whether or not it was made for television, it ended upon television,” laughs Keach. “I’m very happy — I think it’s the right choice!”
What: Stacy Keach receives a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
When: 11:30 a.m., July 31
Where: 1628 Vine St.