A character actor throughout the 70s and 80s who held his own alongside everyone from Robert Mitchum to Frank Sinatra.
“Nobody told Kirk Douglas to fill in the dimple on his chin, so why should they tell me to fill in the gap between my two front teeth? I can put caps on them, the same as I can put a hump on my back. That’s what an actor does; he changes physically and psychologically from role to role”.
1970s American films threw up a number of reliable character actors whose faces seem familiar even if you can’t always recall their names. Steven Keats may well fall into that bracket. A regular guest star on many drama series he was also a standout in a few notable films of the era.
Born in the South Bronx in 1945 his father was a Danish immigrant born to Polish Jewish parents from Warsaw. His mother was born in New York, also to a Polish Jewish family. Keats grew up in Canarsie, Brooklyn. “I was the black sheep”, he told the New York Times. “The bad guy, the one who belonged to street gangs, the classic ghetto kid.”
At 18 he enlisted in the Air Force. His parents cut all ties with him. He was assigned to the Forward Air Controllers in Vietnam. It was to have an intense effect on him for the rest of his life. Their mission was to fly in search of the enemy, direct air strikes over them, and then to fly low and count the dead. Author Don Bell wrote an oral history of Forward Air Controllers in 2015. “FACs flew at an elevation from one foot to 500 feet…at 600 miles per hour, in hot, dehydrating cockpits fit for battle but not for human occupants.”
Keats served across 1965 and 1966. “It’s a miracle that I came back with my mind as well as my body, intact,” he said. With one broken marriage already on his return to the States, he spent some time in therapy, where he felt he began to understand how his father’s troubled childhood had shaped the person he became as an adult.
Deciding to pursue acting Keats began attending Montclair State College. Here he was spotted by scouts from Yale School of Drama.
His off-Broadway debut came in 1970 in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. The following year he made his Broadway debut in the second cast of Oh! Calcutta. Here he met his second wife Raina Barrett.
He landed his first film role with The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973) as the gun runner Jackie Brown. An adaptation of George V. Higgins’ sparse but brilliant novel Keats memorably played opposite a brooding Robert Mitchum. Director, Englishman Peter Yates, cast Keats due to his apparent resemblance to Mick Jagger.
The Gambler (1974) alongside James Caan came next followed by Death Wish (1974) where he played the son-in-law of Charles Bronson. A leading role followed in Joan Micklin Silver’s directorial debut Hester Street (1975), where he starred opposite Carol Kane as a Jewish immigrant to 1890s New York.
Throughout the 70s and 80s, Keats featured in a number of films with perhaps the most memorable role being his turn as Israeli agent Moshevsky in John Frankenheimer’s Black Sunday (1977).
NBC’s 1977 mini-series Seventh Avenue saw Keats in the lead role. The cast included Eli Wallach, Ray Milland, Jane Seymour and Anne Archer. Keats received an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Lead Actor.
Having worked with him on TV mini-series The Awakening Land (1978) Keats became great friends with fellow actor Hal Holbrook. After filming of the series Holbrook invited Keats to sail with him across the ocean to Hawaii. Holbrook had little yachting experience while Keats had none. They hired an experienced sailor and the three of them made the trip successfully.
In 1986 Keats gifted scripts he’d accumulated from 1973 to 1985 to the UCLA Library Special Collections. The collection included plays and screenplays including Death Wish (1974), Yanks (1979), Urban Cowboy (1980) and Flashdance (1983).
The 80s were filled with a number of guest appearances on the popular shows of the era such as The Love Boat, The A-Team, Knots Landing, The Fall Guy, TJ Hooker, Moonlighting and Miami Vice. In 1987 Keats appeared in a season seven episode of Magnum alongside Frank Sinatra. The episode gained the show’s biggest ratings in two years.
Steven Keats was found dead on 8th May 1994 in his Manhattan apartment. He was 49. His son Thatcher, a noted photographer, told the New York Times he had committed suicide.
In a 1977 interview with the New York Times, he said of his experiences in Vietnam:
“If I acknowledged to myself what I was really feeling and thinking, probably would have committed suicide, which is what a lot of the guys in our company did. Somehow, I managed to divorce my humanity from what I was doing. For that period of my life, it was if I had become a robot.”