When you think of an actor who takes insane risks to perfect a role or make the portrayal as authentic as possible, the first name that might come to your mind is Tom Cruise. He has epitomized putting yourself in harm’s way for a role.
There are many names in this list of actors who have put themselves in harm’s way to perfect a role. But, in these conversations, Harvey Keitel’s name rarely comes up.
A frequent co-worker of Martin Scorsese, Keitel’s story of how he put himself in precarious situations to perfect his portrayal in 1976’s Taxi Driver, is a classic. And it is also one of the best examples of sheer dedication to a role.
Of course, Robert DeNiro, his co-star in the movie, made his own choice of potentially harmful things to understand his character. But Keitel arguably took it a bit too far.
How Harvey Keitel Prepared for ‘Taxi Driver’
Keitel portrays Matthew “Sport” Higgins, a pimp, in Taxi Driver. The actor, however, knew nothing about being a pimp or what it entailed before the movie began.
He has always been known for intense preparation and research for each role he gets. Famous for playing “tough guy” characters in movies, this role was in the ballpark.
But, not knowing anything about what his character was supposed to be put him in a difficult position. The two main roles — DeNiro’s Travis Bickle and Keitel’s Higgins — were both difficult roles to prepare for and master.
Harvey Keitel, who played the pimp in the 1976’s ‘Taxi Driver.’ (Photo: harveykeitel1/Instagram)
Both of them took up method acting as their way of preparing for the movie. DeNiro, for his part as a night-shift taxi driver, drove around the most dangerous streets of New York in a yellow cab for two weeks before the filming began. He wanted to understand what life looked like from behind a cab’s wheels.
As for Keitel, he, too, dove head-first into his drug-filled role of a pimp. His preparation method? Taking lessons from a real-life pimp.
Keitel went to Times Square and spoke with sex workers, trying to get a meeting with their bosses. When that did not bear good fruit, he then located an actual pimp through somebody.
He worked with this person for two weeks. They took turns playing a girl and a pimp, improvising and rehearsing scenes, and getting familiar with what that lifestyle entailed.
One thing about that lifestyle fascinated him, or at least what that person told him did. He said that pimps loved their girls and never lied to them despite the profession they were in.
“it took me a while to understand that, to grasp that,” Keitel said during an interview with Collider in December 2015. “Not sure I have yet.”
Harvey Keitel Wasn’t Meant to Land ‘Taxi Driver’
Keitel’s portrayal of Higgins is now one of the New Hollywood era’s most important roles. But he might have never gotten the role, or it might not have never existed if it was not for a change in the script.
Paul Schrader, the writer who created the Taxi Driver script, had initially thought of Higgins as a Black character. He wrote the script as such, and initially, casting was to take place with that in mind.
However, seeing as how the movie was to end, the studio stepped in to ask Schrader to change a few things in his initial script.
At the end of the movie, Bickle enters the establishment where Higgins does most of his work and shoots up the place, killing Higgins as well as others. Columbia Pictures determined this scene, where a white man was shooting a Black man, would cause riots.
Therefore, Schrader adapted the script to make Higgins a white male. Only after this did Keitel land the part and deliver as amazing a performance as he did alongside DeNiro.
The rest is, as they say, Hollywood history.