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Walter Stacy Keach Jr.
5' 11½" (1.82 m)
When Stacy Keach burst into the public consciousness in John
Huston's Fat City (1972) in 1972, it appeared that a great actor had
been discovered. He was not unknown: Keach had earlier appeared
on-screen in The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter (1968), End of the Road
(1970) and the revisionist Western 'Doc' (1971), but he was brilliant
as the tank-town boxer Tully in Huston's small masterpiece. Keach
would have been awarded the New York Film Critics Circle Award as Best
Actor in January 1973 if a dissident faction had not successfully
demanded that the rules be changed to require a majority (rather than
a plurality) of votes to win the award. Keach's on-screen career would
continue to be plagued by bad luck.
Keach followed up Fat City (1972) with a starring turn in the film
adaptation of "The New Centurions" opposite the great George C. Scott.
He also took the prized role in the film adaptation of John Osborne's
"Luther," a part made famous by and virtually "owned" by Albert
Finney. With this promising beginning, bolstered by cameos in Robert
Altman's "Brewster McCloud" and Huston's "The Life and Times of Judge
Roy Bean" and by his TV-directing debut on PBS with Arthur Miller's
"Incident at Vichy," Keach seemed to be on the cusp of a kind of
stardom enjoyed by only a small elite of American actors like Marlon
Brando and Paul Newman: a star who was also a fine actors.
However, Keach, like his immediate predecessor for the actor/star
crown Jon Voight, was unable to capitalize on his stunning debut. The
1970s turned out to be the heyday of the ethnic actor, dominated by
Dustin Hoffman, Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, who racked up 10 Academy
Award nominations and 3 Oscars between them in the period 1972-1980.
It was Keach's bad luck that he never became a star and thus never
able to get roles that befitted his marvelous ability. It was
emblematic of the times that even when a part called for an actor,
many directors, including Martin Scorcese in "The Age of Innocence"
and Robert Redford in "Quiz Show," would turn to Englishmen rather
He was born Walter Stacy Keach, Jr. in Savannah, Georgia on June
2, 1941. His father, Stacy Keach, Sr., was a contract player as a
character actor at Universal Pictures in the 1940s and later worked as
a producer for R.K.O. before returning to acting in television. Stacy,
Jr. was born with a cleft lip, a facial birth defect, but it was
repaired and did not hinder his dream of becoming an actor. After
graduating from Van Nuys High School, he entered the University of
California, Berkeley in 1959, then continued his studies at the Yale
University School of Drama. Keach won a Fulbright Scholarship and used
it to further his craft at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic
He made his Broadway debut as a member of the Repertory Theatre of
Lincoln Center in "Danton's Death" on October 21, 1965. He also
appeared in "The Country Wife" and "The Caucasian Chalk Circle" for
the Lincoln Center Rep in 1966, and appeared as Edmund to Lee J.
Cobb's "King Lear" in the '68-'69 season for the Rep. Later that year
he achieved theatrical fame as Buffalo Bill in Arthur Kopit's play
"Indians" in 1969, in which he proved himself to be a superb actor,
wining a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Play for his debut.
He consolidated his reputation as an actor's actor playing the
eponymous "MacBird," a hit off-Broadway hit comedy satirizing Lyndon
Johnson as a latter-day MacBeth. For his turn as MacBird, he won an
Obie Award, a Vernon Rice Award, and the Drama Desk Award, as well as
being named "Best Performance in a Comedy" by Saturday Review's Award.
Switching gears from comedy to serious drama, his 1971 performance of
Jamie in Eugene O'Neill's, "Long Day's Journey Into Night" with Robert
Ryan and Gerladine Fitzgerald brought him another round of Obie,
Vernon Rice and New York Drama Desk awards.
In the 1972-73 season, Keach took on the greatest challenge for
the dramatic actor, the title role in Shakespeare's "Hamlet"
off-Broadway for the New York Shakespeare Theatre. (No American actor
had mounted a Broadway Hamlet since John Barrymore and Walter Hampden
in the 1920s and '30s. Raymond Massey was a Canadian and Maurice Evans
was an English immigrant.) Keach's portrayal of the Gloomy Dane
brought him his third Obie and Vernon Rice Awards. Playing Hamlet had
been a challenge that the great Brando himself had ignored, though
Keach played Stanley Kowalski off-Broadway in . Stacy Keach apparently
had arrived as the next Great American Actor. Alas, that was not to
be. His career in films sputtered out by the mid-70s and he was
reduced to playing a caricature in Cheech and Chong movies. It was a
waste of a major talent (as can be seen in his understated performance
as Frank James in "The Longriders," a film he co-wrote and co-produced
with his brother, 'James Keach' ) and an indictment of the
post-Hollywood studio American film industry. While American film
became dominated by directors in the 1970s, it also increasingly
became focused on the box office, i.e., appealing to the 12-24
year-old male demographic once satisfied with drive-in fare as the
drive-in movie became lavished with big budgets and big stars (e.g.,
"Silence of the Lambs"). In another era, an actor of Keach's talent
surely would have thrived as a character lead and supporting actor,
possibly breaking through like Humphrey Bogart did in his early 40s.
The alternative to a career like Bogart's is television, the media
that doomed the studio system, and that's where Keach turned. He had a
success as a hardboiled private dick in the series "Mickey Spillane's
Mike Hammer" from 1984 to 1987. The momentum of Keach's success on
series TV was impeded after n he was arrested at Heathrow Airport when
customs officials found cocaine in a hollowed-out shaving cream
container. He was convicted of smuggling cocaine into the United
Kingdom and spent six months in prison. Keach's contrition attracted
sympathy, including that of First Lady Nancy Reagan, the high
priestess of her husband's war on drugs, and he eventually returned to
For his TV portrayal of "Hemingway," he won a Golden Globe and an
Emmy nomination as Best Actor. He also played the role of Ken Titus'
father in the TV series "Titus". Television also uses his well-trained
voice frequent as a narrator, most notably for "Nova," "National
Geographic" and "The Discovery Channel."
Always one to return to the boards like a true actor, Keach scored
another major success on stage when he was the lead in "The Kentucky
Cycle," the only play to be awarded a Pulitzer Prize for Drama without
first appearing in New York. He appeared in the play both on and
off-Broadwayas as well as in its Washington, D.C. tryouts. For his
Broadway turn in the play, he won an Outstanding Artist Award from The
Drama League, the Helen Hayes Award as Best Actor and a New York Drama
Desk Awards nomination as Best Actor.
Stacy Keach serves as the honorary chairman of the Cleft Palate
Foundation, for which he received a Celebrity Outreach Award in 1995.
He also is a Charter Member of the Artist's Rights Foundation. That he
continues to act 37 years after making his film debut in "The Heart is
a Lonely Hunter" is testimony to his talent. Audiences should not be
surprised if, seemingly out of the blue, Keach the screen actor
returns to form and delivers another masterful performance like his
Tully, the last time he came in out of the cold.