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A chat with David Keith
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Knoxville News-Sentinel Archive Richard Gere and David Keith are pictured in the 1982 film “An Officer and a Gentleman.”
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David Keith

Actor and Knoxville native David Keith was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best Supporting Actor for his work in the 1982 film “An Officer and a Gentleman.” His other film and TV credits include “The Indian in the Cupboard,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” “Hawaii Five-O,” and “The Class.” His acting career spans six decades.

The Standard caught up with Mr. Keith to find out why he did not become a lawyer, what it was like acting in “Happy Days,” and his thoughts on University of Tennessee football.

Southern Standard: What are you working on right now?

David Keith: I am doing a film (“The Stenographer”) about a mild-mannered stenographer who finds out he’s got a brain tumor. He goes vigilante, extracting justice from the criminals who get off on a technicality. I play the judge the stenographer works for.

SS: How have you been able to sustain a career in the industry for so long?

DK: Well, I don’t get as big a roles now that I’m older, because people don’t want to see that many movies about old men. But, you know, if you do a good job, then people appreciate your work. I still have to audition, I do audition tapes. Getting to do something you love and you’re really good at, and getting paid for it—there was nothing really to make me burned out on it. 

SS: Is it true you didn’t know you wanted to be an actor until you were in high school?

DK: Yeah, I wanted to be a criminal lawyer, and the courtroom theatrics was what attracted me. I worked for a big law firm in Knoxville the summer after my sophomore year in high school. I discovered the courtroom theatrics were just a small part of it and there was a great deal of what I called “homework.” I did not relish the thought of all that work that was not in front of an audience.

So then I had my first speaking role in a play my junior year of high school, and the light went on. You know, it was just like, “Wow! That’s it.” It was “The Music Man,” and I played Charlie Cowell, the anvil salesman, the villain.

SS: I read that you actually attended fewer Tennessee football games as a University of Tennessee student than you did before or since?

DK: Well, we either had rehearsal or a Saturday afternoon matinee on Saturdays. So that really made it tough. Lots of times, after the matinee would be over I’d run down with my makeup still on and catch the fourth quarter. There was no way you could go to the games and do plays, because the plays always had a Saturday matinee or a Saturday afternoon rehearsal.

SS: One time you said you were onstage doing a campus play while there was a football game going on, and you put a transistor radio beneath your costume and you were listening to the football game while you were onstage doing the Saturday matinee show?

DK: Correct.

SS: Not just backstage—when you went onstage, you were still listening to the game?

DK: That is correct.

SS: And you almost missed your cue?

DK: Yeah, yeah, well, it was tough, you know. I was concentrating on the game, and it came time for me to say my line, and it was a moment of hesitancy there before I shouted it out.

SS: Of all the Tennessee football games you’ve attended, what has been the most exciting?

DK: The Miami Sugar Bowl. The ’86 Sugar Bowl. They (Miami Hurricanes) were heavily favored. They were supposed to win the national championship, and all they had to do was beat us. And we beat them 35-7.

SS: What has been the most positive experience making a film that you’ve had?

DK: Well, there were two. One was getting to play Elvis in “Heartbreak Hotel” because it gave me a chance to sing on a stage and be a rock star. I’ve been a closet rock star all my life. I’ve had several blues bands, country bands. That was a huge thrill because it tapped into the music side of me.

Just pure acting, there’s a scene I did with Gene Hackman where we kind of go toe-to-toe in “Behind Enemy Lines.” And that was my greatest joy as an actor because he’s the best actor I’ve ever worked with. The depth of his talent was just fathomless, and no matter how deep I went he could go there with me. And that was the best three hours of my entire career.

SS: What was it like working on “Happy Days”?

DK: Well, the first thing that comes to mind is I had this old car, this old Triumph TR3. And it kept breaking down on me, and I was late to work several times. And Jerry Paris was the director, and it did not sit well with him. So that made it uncomfortable. The cast was great, Ronny Howard was great to work with, everybody was great.

But that sort of cast a pall over the daily rehearsals because I’d show up late. I’d have to get a cab or whatever I had to do to get to work, and I was late several times because of that stupid car. It finally got stolen, which was probably a blessing.

SS: Professionally, what are your goals over these next several years?

DK: I really want to direct. When you’ve been in acting as long as I have and you’ve developed as much taste for shots and lighting and editing and things, you just really want to use that knowledge. My dream is to continue executive producing and then move into directing with the same company that I’m working with now.

SS: In the past, you’ve talked about taking chances and not being afraid of failure. Can you elaborate on that?

DK: You know, I’ve always said that there’s two things about following your dream. One is, you’ve got to. You can’t play it safe. You’ve got to roll the dice and go for what you really, really want to do. Because then you’re going to be happy, and that’s going to make you happy in the rest of your life.

However, you can’t look at that career as who you are as a person. That’s your family and friends, the people you love, the people that love you. And that’s what life really is. No matter how much your dream fulfills you, no matter how big your dream is, it is not who you are as a person. And I’ve always looked at it that way.

Some actors are just, “If I can’t become an actor, I’ll just die. I’m worthless.” 

That lends a hint of desperation in an audition, and nobody wants to see a desperate actor trying to get a part. Nobody wants to see that desperation in an actor. They want to see confidence, and they want to see swagger, and they want to see performance. 

And if you go in there all knotted up like “If I don’t get this, I’m a failure,” they sense that and it hurts your performance.