‘The Irishman’ Actor Harvey Keitel on Classic Comics, Political Protests, and Curing a Broken Heart With Sinatra

Harvey Keitel at the 2019 Governors Awards in Los Angeles
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP / Shutterstock

Risk-taking actor Harvey Keitel, now co-starring in Martin Scorsese’s new crime drama, The Irishman (on Netflix), talks classic comics, political protest, and curing a broken a heart with help from Sinatra—all for the latest column of Life Advice.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

I was a 17-year-old Marine in training on Parris Island. During a night combat course, the instructor shouted out to all of us, a couple of hundred Marines, “We’re all afraid of the dark. We’re all afraid of what we don’t know. And we’re going to teach you to live in the darkness so that you won’t be afraid of it.”

Who were your heroes growing up?

Superman, Captain Marvel, Plastic Man—and particularly Wonder Woman.

What attracted you to comics?

The classic comics seemed to have a strong relationship with reality. I had had enough of Bugs Bunny and eating carrots.

How should a man handle criticism?

With a bat.

How should a man handle getting older?

You don’t. It will handle you.

Who has been the biggest influence on your life?

You know, that’s a question that needs to be answered over a drink. What do you drink?

If you’re buying, I’ll have a bourbon.

And I’ll have a tequila. And then we’ll learn the answer.

What book most changed your life?

Not long after I came out of the Marines, I was sort of supporting our effort in Vietnam. A friend of mine was very angry with my position, and he gave me a book called The Arrogance of Power, by William Fulbright. It spoke exactly to its title—that power in the wrong hands can be very arrogant.

Did it change your feelings about the war?

Yes—I began to protest it. I remember some demonstrations that were in favor of the action in Vietnam, and they were chanting, “Your country: Love it or leave it.” That disturbed me because I kept thinking, “What if I love my country but I disagree with it?” Was leaving it the only option? I decided, no, that protest was also an option. We seem to be in that position right now.

What adventure most changed your life?

Being a Marine. It challenged my spirit in a way that it hadn’t been previously. And it comes along with learning about sacrifice and courage. It changes you as a person.

What human quality do you most admire?

Generosity.

And which do you most deplore?

Arrogance. Selfishness. Bigotry.

What is the best cure for heartache?

Heartache is a terribly aching, wonderful emotion to cope with. I mean, what were all those beautiful love songs written about?

Is there a song that works especially well?

“Don’t Worry ’Bout Me,” by Frank Sinatra.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Learn and accept that there will be suffering in your life. And don’t smoke.

What is the most challenging thing about raising children?

Nothing. It’s an honor—the most divine thing I can think of.

How do you want to be remembered when you’re gone?

Never say “gone” to an old actor.

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