Stacy Keach: A Patriarch Off-Broadway

Special Features   Stacy Keach: A Patriarch Off-Broadway
Tony Nominee Stacy Keach returns to the stage, to Lincoln Center and to the role of father in Other Desert Cities.

Stacy Keach in rehearsals for King Lear
Stacy Keach in rehearsals for King Lear


Father's Day will come a little early this year for Stacy Keach, and it's coming like an express train, in a variety of media.

In theatre — namely, the Mitzi Newhouse — he heads a clan of California-dried Republicans coping with a family skeleton coming out of the closet in Other Desert Cities, a domestic drama by "Brothers & Sisters" creator Jon Robin Baitz. Previews began Dec. 16, 2010.

On TV — specifically, the FX network — starting Jan. 11, he lords over a brood of boxers (well, two bruisers, anyway: Holt McCallany and Pablo Schreiber) in "Lights Out," a family fracas executive-produced by Side Man Tony winner Warren Leight.

Following that, he has a miniseries about the Hindenburg, lifting off in Berlin. He gives the paternity bit a rest here to play "the bad guy." He said, "It's shot in English so it'll make it over here." Given the above — and, indeed, his career to date — one would not think to ask him a musical question. So imagine my surprise when I discover Keach bent over a piano in a rehearsal hall deep in the catacombs of Lincoln Center, knocking out a lovely "Harlem Nocturne."

Oh, that. "I've played all my life, and" — wait for it — "I've just written my first film score," Keach readily confesses. "It's for a two-character, low-budget indie called 'Imbued.'" He stars as one of those characters, and they needed a score, so....

Usually, the kind of music Keach makes in public is the heavy-duty, high-decibel dramatic variety. John Huston, who directed what is arguably one of his best performances (the broken-down tanktown boxer of Fat City), said, "Stacy is not a star. He is a constellation."

Keach followed in father Stacy Sr.'s footsteps and took up the family trade of acting early on. At 28, he received a Tony nomination in Arthur Kopit's Indians. Nearly a decade (and over 20 feature films) later he returned to the boards opposite Marian Seldes in Deathtrap. He's also run the whole Shakespearean gamut from Hamlet to King Lear, with stops in between as Richard III and Macbeth.

At 69, it's no leap from Lear to Leary. "Pops" Leary in "Lights Out" is a former boxer (see Fat City) who is the dad/trainer of two sons. "Holt is the star. It's his show, and we are his support team. We shot 13 episodes — a season." Whether there will be more depends on ratings and the health of McCallany's character. "Not many of the characters know that he's got pugilistic dementia, which is getting hit in the head too much. Jerry Quarry was a fighter, and both he and his brother died of it."

The son in Other Desert Cities, on the other hand, does not follow in his father's footsteps, and therein lies a tragedy that brings the family down, says Keach. "It's a Republican family, living in Palm Springs, at Christmas 2004. We soon learn that 28 years earlier my eldest son, Henry, rebelled against all the conservative values of our family, became a long-haired hippie, got very politically active and bombed a Marine recruiting station, killing a man, and then presumably committed suicide.

"The character I play is sort of a prototype, functionally, to John Gavin, the actor who became an ambassador to Mexico. That's what happens to my character in the play. This, by the way, is after the incident with my son. I was going to run for president of the Screen Actors Guild and was asked to withdraw. I was on the UC Board of Regents, and they asked me to step down. And my wife, Polly [played by Tony winner Stockard Channing], took up the mantle to rehabilitate the family and started really saying, 'What an unconscionable thing to do!' — as if we were the ones bombing the station. We didn't do it. It was our son. We feel terrible about it, but we still have our values."

Ironically, the daughter in both the series and the play is performed by the always-marvelous Elizabeth Marvel, but that's the only parallel Keach can find.

"These guys I play are on completely opposite sides of the political spectrum. Leary is an Irish Democrat. Lyman Wyeth is a staunch conservative." But both are, handily, within his reach. "My own personal politics? I originally registered, when I was a student, as an Independent, and I've been both a Democrat and a Republican. I'm Independent."

Returning to Lincoln Center again is sort of a full-circle sentimental journey for Keach, who feels a little like the prodigal who came back a patriarch. At this time 45 years ago, he was in the troupe that opened the Vivian Beaumont with Danton's Death, The Caucasian Chalk Circle and The Country Wife.

Also, he has warm thoughts of the theatre under the Beaumont, the one where he now resides: "I have vivid memories of the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. Daniel Sullivan was a member of the company as well — he was acting and doing stage-managing work — and I directed him in a production of Chekhov's The Marriage Proposal. It was a workshop production — and the first thing done on the Mitzi Newhouse stage 45 years ago. Now, I'm back in the Mitzi Newhouse. It feels great coming back here."

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