When you think of an actor taking absurd risks to perfect a character or make the performance as real as possible, Tom Cruise is probably the first name that comes to mind. He personifies endangering himself for a position. This list includes several names of actors who put themselves at risk for a perfect performance. However, Harvey Keitel’s name is rarely used in these chats.
Keitel, a regular collaborator of Martin Scorsese, has a great story about putting himself in dangerous circumstances to improve his portrayal in 1976’s Taxi Driver. It is also one of the greatest examples of unwavering dedication to a job. Of course, his co-star in the film, Robert DeNiro, made his own potentially destructive choices to understand his character. However, Keitel may have gone too far.
Harvey Keitel’s Preparation for ‘Taxi Driver’
In Taxi Driver, Keitel plays pimp Matthew “Sport” Higgins. Before the movie started, the actor didn’t know anything about being a pimp or what it took to do that. He is always known for his meticulous preparation and study for every job. This part matched his reputation for portraying “tough guy” roles in movies. However, knowing nothing about his character, he got into a difficult situation. Both DeNiro’s Travis Bickle and Keitel’s Higgins were challenging parts to prepare and perfect.
As part of the preparation of the film, they both started with method acting. DeNiro, who plays a night shift cab driver, spent two weeks driving a yellow cab through New York’s most dangerous streets before production began. He wanted to know what life was like behind the wheel of a taxi. Keitel, for his part, plunged headlong into his drug-fueled role as a pimp. His preparation technique? Learn from a real pimp.
Keitel traveled to Times Square and spoke to sex workers in an effort to meet with their managers. When it didn’t work out, he went through someone to get a real pimp. He worked with this person for two weeks. They take turns portraying a girl and a pimp, inventing and rehearsing sequences and getting acquainted with the lifestyle. Something about that way of life intrigued him, or at least what that man told him. He said pimps loved their wives and never lied to them, regardless of their calling. “It took me a little bit to realize that, to absorb that,” Keitel noted in a December 2015 interview with Collider. “I’m not sure I have that.”
Harvey Keitel was not allowed to play a taxi driver
Keitel’s portrayal of Higgins has become one of the most prominent roles of the New Hollywood period. But if the screenplay hadn’t been adapted, he might not have won the part, or he might not have existed at all. The Taxi Driver screenplay was written by Paul Schrader, who first saw Higgins as a black character. He created the screenplay this way and the casting was originally planned with this in mind.
However, given the ending of the film, the studio intervened and asked Schrader to adjust some elements in his original screenplay. At the end of the movie, Bickle enters the facility where Higgins does most of his work and shoots it up, killing Higgins and others. Columbia Pictures predicted that this scene, in which a white man shoots a black man, would lead to riots. As a result, Schrader rewrote the screenplay to make Higgins a white man. It wasn’t until after that, Keitel got the part and delivered an incredible performance against DeNiro. As they say in Hollywood, the rest is history.
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