"For me, the Marine Corps was a spiritual journey. It's not about war."
Known for quiet intensity, Harvey Keitel has enjoyed a long, successful career as an actor, but one of his earliest formative experiences was serving as a U.S. Marine. The son of European Jewish immigrants, Keitel grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., with two siblings. He attended Alexander Hamilton Vocational School after graduating from high school, but dropped out and joined the Marines in 1956.
When asked why he joined the Marines, Keitel has said, "The Marine Corps was one experience along my own particular path. I had to do what I did. I couldn't do otherwise. What was it that the guy said, 'Why'd you climb that mountain?' And the answer was, 'Because it's there.' Sounds corny, but nevertheless, it's somewhere in that area."
Keitel's time in the Marines helped shape many of his perspectives on life. During training at night combat school, he mentioned being afraid of the dark. An instructor told him that everyone is afraid of the dark because people are afraid of the unknown, and he would teach him how to handle it. Keitel took the lesson to heart and extended it to other areas of his life over the years.
"That is probably the most important philosophical question to ask oneself," Keitel said. "What is the darkness? How do I learn to live with it? I heard that when I was 17 years old, and I never forgot that he said it. And it appealed to me. I wanted to learn to live with the darkness."
Over the next three years, Keitel served in Lebanon during Operation Blue Bat for which we earned a medal as a fire team leader.
The first job Keitel took when he returned to the U.S. was as a court stenographer. He enjoyed the lack of interaction it required. During work breaks, he'd study plays and refine his understanding of acting as a craft.
When he was ready to move on, he joined The Actors Studio in New York. His persistence paid off, and he began landing roles in live theater.
His film career took off with Martin Scorsese's 1967 "Who's That Knocking at My Door." The actor and director hit it off, and Keitel returned in future Scorsese films, including "Mean Streets," "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" and "Taxi Driver."
Keitel's film career marched on with dozens of roles since his first film. Still active in Hollywood, Keitel's latest films include "The Grand Budapest Hotel," "The Congress" and "Inglourious Basterds."
He credits time serving the Marines in part for his success and professionalism within the industry.
"I can tell you that if you do not take the training that a Marine takes, and you are thrown into the jungle, you're probably going to die," Keitel said. "If you do not take the training an actor needs to take when you are put into that human jungle of cement and palm trees, you are going to die. You need your craft to support you, to guide you, to sustain you. I can only advise your directors to study acting. And your actors to study acting."
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