Career Tribute: The significant “acting truth” of Keith David

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by Chris LaMonica
November 25, 2012

The artistic performances of veteran actor Keith David extend for more than three decades across multiple genres and mediums of entertainment with noted influence and importance warranting merited recognition.

Through memorable character portrayals via films such as The Thing, They Live, Platoon, Dead Presidents, Crash and Barbershop coupled with countless voice over works including Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, City Confidential, various Kenny Burns documentaries as well as video games Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 and Halo 2 & 3 in addition to commercial work with U.S. Navy recruitment and UPS “What can Brown do for you?” television commercials, the Harlem born actor’s commanding omnipresence has made an indelible impression on popular culture.

The voice, which may not be readily associated with the face and films of the famed Julliard School trained actor, undoubtedly resonates throughout the scope of the 56 year-old actor’s filmography with a mass appeal, the extent to which perhaps is not even truly grasped by the actor himself.

“I’ve never really thought about it like that,” responds David when prompted as to his cinematic cultural contribution explaining, “All we do is try to go out and do good work and hopefully people enjoy it.”

One of his early films people enjoyed was the 1986 Oliver Stone directed Vietnam war movie Platoon starring Tom Berringer.  “He knew it was going to be a big hit,” said David crediting Berringer with the foresight as the film’s, “elder statesman … [who] knew something special when he saw it,” revealing himself at the time as, “not having any idea to the impact it would ultimately have,” when inquired of his intentions with the role prior to filming having lived through and experienced the actual Vietnam War torn time period of the 1960s and 70s.

“I can say that after Platoon my movie profile changed … [since then] I’ve had at least one movie role a year,” explained a grateful David now 26 years removed its release, labeling it as the signature defining moment across the expansive landscape of his career at that time ending a surprising four year absence from the silver screen having gained notoriety for his role as Childs in John Carpenter’s science fiction horror film, The Thing.

Platoon, praised for its authenticity, David categorizes the required physical preparation for his role as, “a phenomenal experience … hikes up and down mountain sides and through water; we did some military training for two weeks, it was great!”

Four years later, David would be reunited with Platoon co-star Charlie Sheen in the 1990 comedy Men At Work to which he laughs to having had another “great time,” delivering the line, ‘Somebody through away a perfectly good white man,’ while again depicting the Vietnam War era from the angle of a returning home, intense war vet working as inspector Louis Fedders in charge of Carl Taylor (Sheen), a sanitation worker uncovering an illegal toxic dumping operation leading to a political murder in the Emilio Estevez directed film.

“I had a great time.  Are you kidding me?” expressed the African-American actor adding, “How many times you get a line like that?”

Five years following that film, David would to return to deliver far less comical but more potent, indicting lines in the Vietnam themed 1995 Hughes Brothers produced and directed film Dead Presidents.  Cast as Kirby, a street-wise second father to returning soldier Anthony Curtis (Larenz Tate) from a four year tour of duty, the film is set in 1973 post-war Harlem, NY examining the treatment of and conditions faced by homecoming minority soldiers to what became demonized in the media as an unpopular war.

“The one thing that was great about that story, it was based in a lot of truth,” stated David furthering, “Dead Presidents was one of those pieces that evidenced that reality and you got to see how difficult it was to come back and get a job.”

And it is a ‘reality’ that, “We as Black men have been facing that same dilemma since the Civil War,” charges David explaining, “After leaving home under sketchy socio-political circumstances where you’re not fully being respected as a human being and then you go fight and  …you join the Army so you can distinguish yourself and carry yourself to the full height of a man and you come back and you’re treated like a second class citizen.”

And arguably eluding to an even greater fight transcending race which pitted ‘human’ verse ‘alien’ in the 1988 John Carpenter directed They Live, David and then WWF wrestler turned actor Rowdy Roddy Piper staged a memorable seven minute fight scene which David attributes, “a logical story,” along with two weeks of rehearsal for its success.

“Roddy was the ultimate guy to have that fun with … I was stage fighter, he was a wrestler; we just used all those skills,” added David.

Ironically, but all the more to the point of the strength to which David’s artistry is interwoven and uniquely facetted across American culture, the actor again, subtly connected with wrestling fans performing the voice over introduction for WWE Wrestlemania XXVIII on April 1, 2012.

But 34 April Fools days later, a retrospective of the film today cleverly, or perhaps clandestinely, evidences a ominous future to which it may have forewarned.

“I think the film has far more significance today than it did at the time,” offered David suggesting the film to be, “precognitive in that way; who knew that … we would be in a situation economically now that the world does look like the world of They Live where there are aliens ruling the world telling us how to control our money,” pausing to further question, “And if they’re not aliens from outer space, they’re certainly alien to our own planetary well being.”

It can certainly be maintained that the under lying ‘subliminal’ messages of They Live hinted at the perils of advertisement programming intertwined with the manipulating masters of monetary policy that have in part wreaked havoc on the economy resulting in dire straits with stark consequences for numerous Americans.  Moreover, it is these compounding factors that have produced the conditions for David’s forthcoming role in Bailout: Age of Greed starring Dominic Purcell and directed by Uwe Boll.

“I think people will like that film because … here was a good man drawn to do some drastic things … and he gets taken advantage of by the big guys,” explains David of the film portraying the consequences of the mortgage crisis and banking failures of the mid 2000s when a man is faced with the loss of a job and surmounting debt complicated by the unexpected death of his wife.

The bankers not displaying, “any compunction about screwing [the character Jim] (Purcell) over,” David explains cause Jim to, “decide to react for himself in a way that anyone of us would want to do succinctly when those feelings are conjured up in anyone of us at any time especially when something adverse happens.”

Eerily similar to the circumstances Larenz Tate’s character faced in Dead Presidents three decades earlier trying to make ends to meet to feed a family.  And it is the painful truth of that cold, harsh reality of art imitating life which many Americans empathize with as David plainly states,  “It calls you to what kind of person are you going to be; where is your character?”

Despite the relatability, fortunately these characters fictitious fates are relegated to the confined ink and pages of the writer‘s pen and script, but to a greater extent, the ‘character’ attributes of David’s non-fictional voiceover roles have consistently offered strands of truthful reality that strike an equally harmonious accord with a vast audience.

“I think there are people who really appreciate documentaries and biographies and things like that,” offered David surmising that, “For some people, that’s the bulk of their watching so they would recognize that more,” adding, “it is a specific audience, but it also a very inviting audience because you’re flipping channels one day and all of a sudden you see something that peeks your interest.”

And for the actor, who unlike Alexander The Great, has not yet wept as he has more roles to conquer, his interests would be peeked by the opportunity to portray, “Othello again; I’d love to play Paul Robeson,” adding in a quiet, passionate, almost with a sense of ancestral duty, “I’d love to play Frederick Douglas;” reinforcing, “There are some parts out there I’d love to play.”

But for now, the gifted actor’s collective body of work, film and voiceover alike, is a testament to longevity and a time capsule of American history not to be overlooked for its societal contribution.

And of his craft, the veteran actor dictates,  “As far as when acting is concerned, it is always a matter of taste and chemistry … fame is what they give you, success is what you give yourself.”