Sporting a Brooklyn accent and bulldog features, Harvey Keitel first gained recognition with a series of gritty roles in the early films of Martin Scorsese, and he was for a long time cast as one lowlife thug after another. His career experienced a renaissance in the 1990s, when roles in such films as Thelma & Louise, Bad Lieutenant, and The Piano demonstrated his versatility and his willingness to let it all hang out (literally) in the service of an authentic characterization.
A product of Brooklyn, where he was born on May 13, 1939, Keitel grew up as something of a delinquent. At the age of 16, his truancy was put to an end when he was sent to Lebanon with the Marine Corps. Upon his return, he sold shoes and nurtured an interest in acting. He studied the craft with Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler and began appearing in off-off-Broadway productions. When he was 26, fate struck in the form of a casting ad placed by Scorsese, at that time a fledgling student director at New York University; Keitel's response to the ad began a collaboration that would last for years and produce some of the more memorable moments in film history. Keitel and Scorsese made their onscreen feature debuts with Who's That Knocking at My Door? (1968), in which the former played the latter's alter ego. Five years later, they collaborated on Mean Streets; that and their subsequent collaborations of the '70s, Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore (1974) and Taxi Driver (1976), were some of the decade's most memorable films. Unfortunately, despite these achievements, Keitel's career suffered a great blow when he lost the lead in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now to Martin Sheen. He spent much of the '80s appearing in obscure and/or forgettable films, save for Scorsese's controversial The Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and by the time he was cast in Thelma & Louise in 1991, he was in a career slump.