Stacy Keach Interview

Stacy Keach

Cruelty, With Love

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Listen: you need to get over your Tuesday night fixation with Buffy and watch a funny show for a change. I mean Classic Funny, in the tradition of All in the Family, The Simpsons, and The Honeymooners. If you're not watching Titus Tuesday nights on Fox, you're missing the state of the art in Funny.

Back in March, I interviewed Christopher Titus about the series on the eve of its premiere. After watching a few episodes, I realized I wanted to hear from the comedic lynch pin of the series: Papa Titus, played by Stacy Keach.

Let me just pause here a moment and explain something about online interviews and Big Stars: usually, unless your site has the word "Yahoo" in the name, it's not easy to get celebrities to take time out and yap about The Craft. Even here, on the 3rd Most Entertaining Site on the Web, I've had actors, producers, and other creative folks back out of chats as their shows became popular.

Not so with the cast of Titus. Everyone I've ever talked to connected with this show has been part of the public relations campaign promoting the series. The cast, the network, even the publicists - - all of them are eager to make sure the series is familiar to as many potential viewers as possible.

Stacy Keach is a great example of this all-hands promotion of the show. Easily arguable as an icon of the Fox network, Mr. Keach spent a considerable amount of his limited spare time talking about the show on this site. Enough preamble -

The Interview Begins

I was just visiting your site out there, - you've got a great looking site. I hadn't realized how many things you were doing all at the same time.

Stacy - Yeah, I'm a busy guy. [laughs];

And your show's been renewed, and it's climbing up as a hit. I know this is a question you've probably been asked about 10,000 times - - when you first read the part and you saw what was entailed for your character, did you think of yourself as becoming an icon?

Stacy - [laughs] You mean, the "Quit Being a Wussy" icon? No, I never thought of myself in those terms, really. I'll be honest with you: not a chance in this world. But you know, stranger things have happened. When I first read the script, I laughed out loud. I just thought it was *so* funny. It was so irreverent and - - fresh, in a way. I loved it. I just - - I thought it was - - I just couldn't believe it had actually happened to somebody. I thought, maybe this was somebody's perverted imagination. I had no idea that Ken Titus was a real person, and that these events really happened in some form or another in Christopher's life - - which of course made it even *more* interesting. I think as far as the "iconography" of Papa Titus - - I think that remains to be seen. I guess in some ways he *is* the Twenty-first Century Archie Bunker. So, from that point of view, I guess I can see him possibly falling into that slot. But he seems to have a life of his own that even goes beyond Archie Bunker. I think Archie was - - we laughed at him because of his prejudices. Ken is very similar, but Ken doesn't have any racial prejudices that we've seen - - but he's prejudiced in terms of his philosophy of how to raise kids. As a dad, he thinks that his philosophy is morally correct. He has no conscience whatsoever about letting his kids put a penny in a light socket to find out electricity is not so good for you, and if you want to learn how to swim, you have to be thrown into the deep end. That's the way Ken is. He has no pangs of conscience with kids as long as he's "teaching them a good thing." The essence of his character is that he must feel comfortable knowing that he's doing a "good thing" for his kids.

So, he's a "hero," not a "villain," you'd say?

Stacy - Certainly in his own eyes. The question is whether he is, in Christopher's eyes. I think, in Christopher's eyes, it's still unresolved.

I think this is your first "curmudgeon" role...

Stacy - I think you're right. He's certainly not Mike Hammer. He's a lonnng distance from Mike Hammer, for sure.

Is this also your first "Dad" character on television?

Stacy - Well, in I guess it is. First "major" dad, at least. In movies before, for television. But - - I did a movie years ago with Teri Garr called Intimate Strangers - - actually that was her child but he sort of became [the father] -- - we had been separated as a doctor/nurse team in Viet Nam and came back to the United States and she had been kidnapped by the Vietnamese and had a baby, and she was raped and had a child, and took the child back to America and hooked up with me, and I sorta became a surrogate dad. But that was some time ago. This is definitely the first curmudgeon, no doubt about it.

This is also a new generation of viewers for you. My generations knows you from Mike Hammer and Caribe...

Stacy - Totally, a totally new generation. My twelve-year-old son, and my ten-year-old daughter - - all of their friends watch Titus - - well, mostly my son's friends. I never in my career had kids under 20 know who I was! Even when *I* was 20! [laughs] So, it's a whole new audience for me - - and it's really exciting as an old guy to be, you know, turning over the dirt here.

Are you getting recognition now, when you go to the store, people saying, "Hey, it's Papa Titus?"

Stacy - You know, it's funny: young kids will say "there goes Papa Titus" and people in their 20's and 30's will know me from my movie work, and Mike Hammer.

This is your first sitcom, I think. Working in front of an audience, what's it like as compared with doing a filmed series? I realize it's a lot tighter timeframe...

Stacy - Yeah, it is - you're absolutely right. Well, I've often heard that sitcoms are the best kind of work for an actor, and I must say that this particular sitcom (not having had any other experience on a sitcom), this particular one is pretty special because of one respect: we get to make a little movie in the middle of the week - - we spend the whole day shooting the flashbacks. So it's like, "Wednesday is Movie Day." So, it's great! We get to make a little movie on Wednesday, and then we do a little play on Friday. So, for me, it's just *perfect,* because I love the theatre and I love working in front of an audience. It's great fun for me. And this way I get to do both. It's a perfect job.

I was talking with Christopher back in March, when the show was first coming out. He was talking about the writing process: he doesn't believe much in ad-libs, and that the best comedy is set down on paper.

Stacy - He's absolutely right, and I love him for that. I just think he's so right on the money. Which is not to say we don't *explore* possibilities, and other avenues of expression when we're in rehearsal; but they all find themselves on paper - - even the "oohs," the "ahhs," everything. And I think that's right. That's the only way to control it.

Jim - You say you "explore" - do you get a chance to ad-lib? I mean, how much leeway is there?

Stacy - Well, we will - every syllable, every comma, every accent is "pitched," in the sense that it's presented or talked about among Jack Kenny, Brian Hargrove, and Christopher. And I like that, because first of all, I trust their opinions about things. A lot of times, it's just a matter of timing. It's a matter of whether to take a pause before or after the last word in the line. And it's *all designed* to figure out where it's funniest. Funny is the objective all the time.

The comedy in Titus seems to be not in handing out the punch line, but handing out that 'pregnant pause.'

Stacy - Yes, that's right. And I think that it's good. I think that's where laughs happen. Zack Ward, I think, is a master of the Dumb Delivery. It gives us these great opportunities to do endless double-takes, even triple-takes! Richard Benjamin, who was our guest star last week, he did a *quadruple* take on one of Zack Ward's inane statements. It was so funny - - it was wonderful.

An amazing part of your show is that your show has just a small, fixed set every week. Everything hangs on the power of the script to carry the show....

Stacy - That's right, and I like the idea of being in a fixed set, rather than moving around from one set to another, because we do the "moving around" in the flashbacks. That visual variety is what keeps it from becoming "sitcom stale" in that one environment for 30 minutes.

I know you've been asked in a couple of interviews about Edmund Kean's line of "Dying is easy..

Stacy - ...Comedy is difficult." Yes.

Is this the hardest thing to do, comedy, as an actor?

Stacy - I think it is. I think so. I can't think of anything that requires more finesse than comedy, both from a verbal and visual point of view. I think so. It poses the most challenges, and the most rewarding challenges if you meet them. I mean, there's nothing greater than making people laugh and smile. To me, that's really - - you're creating happiness, and I think that's - - and in the case of Titus, you're going beyond that in that it's also a great relief for a lot of people [laughs] to know they're not *alone*.

Are you getting feedback from viewers saying, "My dad was *just* like that!" at all?

Stacy - Oh yes, of course.

I would imagine that you didn't have this same relationship with your dad.

The Titus FamilyThe Titus Family: Stacy Keach, Zach Ward, David Shatraw, Cynthia Watros, Christopher Titus

Stacy - No, but there are elements of Papa Titus in *every* dad. He *is* every dad in some ways. I mean, he's an extreme and he's a caricature in some ways of - I think it was Esquire that said "male, macho ebullience" - - nevertheless, he wants the best for his kids, and this is what makes him universal. He loves his kids and he wants the best for them. He just doesn't want them to be "wussified" by society, and by laziness, and by indolence. He wants them to be strong, and he's a very Darwinian father. He really believes in teaching kids to survive by the "if you can't stand the heat, you've gotta get out of the kitchen" method.

He's quite literally 'sink or swim.'

Stacy - That's it. Quite literally.

Even though it's on a confined stage, it looks pretty exhausting. In the average week, I'd imagine you'd have to get yourself mentally pumped-up for this show.

Stacy - That's right. It's *mentally* exhausting - - which, of course, there's physical things and you have to be in shape. But, the energy required - - we have to do this like a play. It was Christopher's brilliant concept that he did not want this to become like every other sitcom where you do one take, and the audience gets bored with seeing it ten times, you know, over and over again. So, we go through it - - and if we blow something, we keep moving, as if we were doing a theatre piece. It's like a play, and then we'll do it again. Then, at the end of the evening, there's always the opportunity and the need for pick-ups. So, without the audience having to sit there and be so bored that they can't stand it anymore - they're gone, and we do all the remaining work on our own, then. It's working out very well. I think Jack Kenny and Brian Hargrove, our show writers - - they're doing this to their great credit. It's a well-oiled machine.

As you go on through this series, and you know the story arcs are going to continue looking back into the past - - do you see anywhere that you want Ken Titus to be in seven years?

Stacy - Well, if he's still on television in seven years, I'll be a very happy guy, and thank you for suggesting that! [laughs] I asked Christopher for a list: I had some questions about Ken. I wanted to know who his heroes were; what his politics were; what kind of music did he like; and was he musical himself? I asked him a number of questions and I got some very interesting answers. Ken's heroes, according to Christopher, would be people like John Wayne, of course. His movie heroes were people like Burt Reynolds in the the Smokey and the Bandit days, and I'm sure he's a Clint Eastwood fan, too. Sports: NASCAR racing. He's into NASCAR racing. Music? Country, and blues, and jazz - - but mostly country. And Christopher made a very interesting statement: he said that if his dad could play any musical instrument, it would be the piano. Well, *I* play the piano, and I would *love* to see Ken play the piano. Maybe like Jack Benny played the violin, or Victor Borge or someone like that. I'd like to extend his musical possibilities. As far as where he goes, story-wise, I have no idea. That's all Christopher's balliwick. As an actor, you put yourself in and you're an *interpreter.* Even though I want to put in *my* stuff to Ken, I'm basically *interpreting* what Christopher tells me about - - what actually happened, or the story he wants to tell. I know that when Christopher was young, there were disputes between his mom and dad - - that he was the victim of a couple of "kidnappings," or a couple of quasi-"kidnapping" events, and I suspect that those will be shown in flashbacks as the series progresses. You know, "He's Mine!" - "NO, HE'S MINE!"

I've heard your character described as "a dad of the likes of Darth Vader."

Stacy - [laughs] Now, that's funny! Papa Darth. Well, I don't know if Ken is technologically inclined. I suspect not. I don't know if science fiction would be his interest. I think that's a foreign area for him. He'd be more the Tom Clancy novel-type.

Now, I see you have a lot of things coming up - you've got the Tesla Show.

Stacy - Yeah, I'm really looking forward to that. I chased Tesla for many years. I wanted to do a film about him. Always a fascinating figure, I think. It's just amazing what he accomplished in his short life.

And you're working on "The Devil's Disciple" over in the U.K...

Stacy - Yep, that was a radio presentation. And a movie that I did with Eric Roberts and Cynthia Watros and Laurence Taylor called Mercy Streets, coming out in October. It's a very spiritually-oriented movie - - it addresses issues of morality on a different level than movies out today. There's not a single swear word in it- - I play a priest - - I have one scene, that's a cameo. I loved doing it. I saw it last night and I was amazed. I was expecting it to be sort of - - proselytizing and didactic, and boring. But it wasn't at all - - it was quite wonderful.

And you were teamed up with Cynthia again...

Stacy - Yeah - - we don't have any scenes together, but she's in the movie.

I have several friends who follow your career very closely, and I'm trying not to ask any Gray Lady Down questions, but ...

Stacy - [laughs] Where were they when the Russians went down?

Well, one of my friends wanted to know if you could beat David Carradine in a fight?

Stacy - No way - he'd kick my ass! [laughs]

I have a son who is 17, and he doesn't know you for Mike Hammer, and doesn't know you from Caribe, and doesn't know you from Twinkle Twinkle Killer Kane. - - Do you mind *not* being remembered for your earlier work?

Stacy - No, not at all! It's a generational thing. No, as long as I keep working, I don't mind.

I guess as long as people are paying attention, it's a good thing.

Stacy - I'll tell you, Jim - - this is such a wonderful project. It's a great part for me - there's no question about that. It just fits like a glove, and you don't get that often. So, I'm very grateful to everybody who helped me get where I am with this guy. And I *love* working for Fox - - they are a wonderful network. They seem to be doing more-interesting things than some of the other networks at the moment, and they're the perfect place for this show to be. I can't imagine this show on another network.

It's an unconventional show, but it looks like it's going to be a classic series.

Stacy - From your mouth to God's ears![laughs]

When I talked with Christopher, he said he wasn't sure about who to cast in the role of the dad, and he had originally looked at Lee Majors. But, when he met you, he said, after the first read-through - he turned to Kenny and Hargrove and said, "He SCARED me!"

Stacy - [laughs] I think I *barked* at him - - I gave him the old GLARE! [laughs] He liked that. He said, "*There's* Dad!"

I guess it did the trick!

Two Ken TitusesKen Titus, Christopher Titus, and the TV Ken Titus, Stacy Keach

Stacy - A couple of times during rehearsals every week, he says, "That moment just reminded me so much of my Dad!" And I think because, and it was quite by coincidence, I picked up these glasses that his dad wears. There's a picture of Christopher and the real Ken Titus and myself in my dressing room. He's a great guy, by the way. I just think the real Ken is just super. And he's so happy for his son's success. I asked him, "How is it - how do you like seeing yourself *maligned* like this, week-after-week?" He said, "Well, as long as he doesn't get *too* angry."


Stacy - And we *forget* that he's been seeing himself "maligned" by Christopher for the past 15 years in Norman Rockwell is Bleeding - - and he's always been a big supporter of that. So, he has never *abandoned* the one thing he's always had, which is *love* for his kids - - he wants his kids to succeed. And he's very happy for the success of this show.

That seems to be the core of it.

Stacy - I think, because of that, this show has a real shot. It's grounded in *love* - - and that's absolutely, fundamentally *key* essence to the survival of this show. If it loses that, if it's just mean-spirited and angry, we're dead.

It's cruel, but it's done with love.

Stacy - Absolutely. Cruelty - - with love.

In November of 2000, the National Fatherhood Initiative named the Ken Titus character as the "Worst TV Dad" on television.

As a rule, I avoid the politics of single parenthood: there are too many hurt feelings and many sides to many stories. My feeling is that kids need as many loving parents involved in their lives as they can get.

That being said, I don't agree with NFI's poor rating of Ken Titus. The character is much more complex than being defined as "cruel." Ken's children receive come-uppences as a natural consequence of their rebellions against their dad. Ken Titus is no more benignly malevolent than the Reverend Camden is benignly benevolent on 7th Heaven. The commonalities of Ken Titus and Eric Camden are that they are both interested in the development of their children's common sense - their methods just differ. Maybe the NFI will ponder the role of TV dads in the lives of their TV children, and realize that the opposite of love between child and parent is not abuse but indifference.