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Keitel opts for 'presence' over superstardom on film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

New York--Almost like the magnificent answer to the riddle asked of Oedipus (What walks on three legs in the evening?) Harvey Keitel comes hobbling into a hotel room, his considerable weight semi-supported on a cane.

Have five decades of hard living and hard acting finally taken their toll? Have some fans mobbed him? Was he performing some dangerous stunt in service to his art?

Disappointingly, no.

"I was jogging," he says, like any suburban dad who stepped off a curb wrong. "And something went."

But that would seem to be the only thing that went. Harvey Keitel, at 53, is one of the hottest actors in the movies. After several decades' worth of flirting with stardom but choosing instead to shine on the margins of film, he's become a peculiar kind of star; not the big Hollywood kind, but the kind whose presence suggests seriousness of purpose and originality of concept. In certain circles -- the independent circuit, for example -- his name alone is enough to get a movie made, as Quentin Tarantino found out when he was trying to finance "Reservoir Dogs."

Keitel, who looks more like a cab driver than an actor, has insisted on going his own way, choosing his own scripts. And so it is, after triumphs in the last 36 months in roles as disparate as an Arkansas state policeman in "Thelma and Louise," a professional armed robber in "Reservoir Dogs," a hideously corrupt New York police officer in "The Bad Lieutenant," a 19th-century settler gone native in "The Piano," a larcenous gypsy organ grinder in "Monkey Trouble," and a suave "fixer" in Tarantino's second movie, "Pulp Fiction," he's reinventing himself again in "Imaginary Crimes," which has just opened.

In this one, new to the Keitel canon, he plays the wandering,

somewhat slippery father of two young women growing up in the Northwest in the '50s. He's equal parts love and lack of responsibility, a dreamer who somehow is never around when the bills have to be paid.

Keitel, in the flesh as on screen, is very much a man of flesh: He seems somehow a particularly meaty person, bigger than life, his face drawn up in a grimace of pugnacity, his hands gigantic enough to crush a grapefruit, his nose like some kind of magnificent fist, gnarled, sausagey, bulbous, completely anti-Hollywood in its meanings.

But it's his eyes that dominate and possibly suggest what's so unusual about him: They dart about, eating up details, sometimes falling out of focus to fix on something in the distance as he contemplates an abstraction. Whether they are windows to the soul is unknown; certainly, by their dance and vividness, they suggest the idea of an unusual mind that would rather grapple with essences than discuss banalities. For example, when asked a question by a reporter, he firmly says, not "Blah blah blah blah," as so often happens on the movie-star interview circuit, but, "With all due respect, sir, I disagree," and then launches into a spirited, well-thought-out and only slightly nutsy defense of Judas Iscariot, whom he played in his pal Martin Scorsese's "The Last Temptation of Christ."

"I don't perceive Judas as evil," he proclaims, citing books he's read and generally tooting away intensely on the theme as if he's playing a Judas partisan in a movie called "The Resurrection of Judas Iscariot."

With equal fervor, he'll take a crack at the meaning of the title "Imaginary Crimes," the film of which is derived from a well-regarded novel-memoir by Sheila Ballantyne. Why, he is asked, are the father's crimes "imaginary"?

"I don't want to express it, that is, put a specific meaning on it," he says stubbornly. "I want people to see the answer for themselves. Whether the father's crimes are imaginary or not lies in the mind of the little girls. Maybe the crimes are imaginary and maybe they're not. For him, it's a journey on a razor's edge. I don't think I'm going to judge this man -- he kept the family together where other people might have given up."

He is asked if it helps in defining a character if he eschews that kind of judgment. Again he wrestles with the subject like a divinity student arguing one side or the other of the afterlife issue.

"It would depend. Clearly, there are some bad guys around. He doesn't have to have a redemptive quality for me to play him. I can't imagine with all this mayhem in the world, how all men would have a redemptive quality. How could they do the things that they do?"

Keitel has to him the intensity of a self-educated man who has come late to love the world of books and ideas. For example, what got him into "Imaginary Crimes" in the first place was the book itself, which he called "One of those things you read, you never forget."

In fact, he was one of the prime movers in getting it turned into a movie, taking it upon himself to call director Anthony Drazan and putting Drazan together with producers in order to get the movie going after languishing for nearly a decade.

"Harvey was very influential," admits Drazan, not exactly a power player in Hollywood after one small picture, "Zebrahead." "He's a determined, determined man on some things, in a medium that tests your patience. After Cannes (and the triumph of "The Piano"), he had heat."

Keitel, says Drazan, was the key figure in bringing "Imaginary Crimes" to the attention of the Maryland producer James Robinson and his associate Gary Barber, who quickly financed the project and got it into production.

It was also Keitel who brought the original novelist, Sheila Ballantyne, into the production, so that she, Keitel, co-star Fairuza Balk and Drazan could improvise some scenes from the book and restore them to the movie -- scenes, as Drazan puts it, "that struck more directly to the issues of Sheila's book."

"I'm not the best-read person," says Keitel, who chose the Marine Corps over college in the late 1950s, "but I have a great respect for the written word. I felt we should follow Sheila's book and I asked her to join in and help us."

Stop and think: After "The Piano," with Keitel's powerful nakedness, his tattooed charisma blazing away, he could have done any movie he wanted. But he chose to do this damp little family drama, painful and groping, in which his character is notable mainly for his weaknesses. That reflects the part of him that is a wild chance-taker.

It's part of his legend that when he was a young man, hot off his first big success in "Mean Streets" for Scorsese, he was offered the hugest of the huge roles: that of the young lieutenant in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now."

"I wanted to do it," Keitel recalls even now. "But the contract

Francis offered me was too binding. I opted for my freedom instead."

Keitel has followed his muse through strongly etched character parts -- from Sport the pimp in Scorsese's "Taxi Driver," where he got plugged by Robert De Niro, through Hollywood nonsense like rTC "Saturn 3," where he played Farrah Fawcett's robot rapist, and such oddball European films as "La Nuit De Varennes" and Ridley Scott's "The Duellists."

It seems that he appears in three or four movies a year, which is the way he likes it.

"I'm a working man," he says. "I go to work every morning, just as if I were working in a factory. The only difference between what I do and what they do in factories is that I have it easier."

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