You may not know his name, but you almost certainly recognize his face — and you might even know his voice too: Since the early 1980s, Keith David has been one of the most prolific actors in the business, scoring roles in a dizzying array of films, lending his voice to cartoons and videogames, and even singing when he feels like it. Heck, he even popped up on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood during the 1980s, appearing as Keith the Southwood Carpenter. You’ve heard of “that guy” status for actors? That’s Keith David in a nutshell — and since you’ll be hearing his voice in The Princess and the Frog this weekend, we thought now would be the perfect time to give this ubiquitous thespian the Total Recall treatment!
Pitch Black was Vin Diesel’s coming out party, the perfect vehicle for a hulking bruiser with a menacing glower. But Richard B. Riddick’s resolute refusal to put faith in anything wouldn’t have meant half as much if the movie hadn’t contrasted his nihilism with the unshakable religious beliefs of Abu al-Walid, the imam played by Keith David. The character — usually referred to simply as “Imam” — wages a philosophical battle against Riddick as their plucky band of space-marooned travelers fights for survival against a planet full of bloodthirsty creatures, lending a smidgen of subtext to a movie that, as far as most filmgoers were concerned, was in theaters simply to add a couple hours of solid action fare to the bleak February release schedule. And okay, so it’s kind of a stretch to imagine anyone saw Pitch Black for its script — but David’s character had enough mojo to return for the sequel, and the interstellar thrills were sufficient to win the approval of critics such as Hollywood.com’s Ted Murphy, who wrote, “Some hard-core science-fiction fans might nitpick over details in Pitch Black, but for the average moviegoer looking to be entertained, this roller-coaster of a film should not be missed.”
Sam Raimi doing a Western sounds like a can’t-miss proposition, especially when the cast of the Western in question includes Gary Sinise, Lance Henriksen, Pat Hingle, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, and Gene Hackman. Unfortunately, 1994’s The Quick and the Dead missed in a big way, only earning back about half of its $35 million budget and going down as one of the biggest commercial whiffs of the year, thanks in part to a promotional campaign that focused on Sharon Stone’s character instead of the ensemble surrounding her. Based on its dismal grosses, you’d think Quick and the Dead was a mess, but most of the critics who saw it found favor with Raimi’s half-cracked take on the well-worn genre, as well as Simon Moore’s script, which pits a crew of would-be gunslingers against Hackman’s John Herod in a rootin’ tootin’ tourney with a $123,000 cash prize. As competitor Sergeant Clay Cantrell, Keith David doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but he does score a scene that manages to sum up a large chunk of his appeal:
Cantrell: Sergeant Cantrell.
Shemp: How do you spell that?
“Raimi’s movie borrows heavily from classic spaghetti westerns,” admitted Jeffrey M. Anderson of Combustible Celluloid, “but Raimi has a style of his own, and plenty of it.”
Even for an actor as prolific as Keith David, 1995 was a big year, giving him screen time in the Hughes brothers’ Dead Presidents, Sam Raimi’s The Quick and the Dead, and Paul Aster and Wayne Wang’s Blue in the Face — along with Spike Lee’s Clockers, which cast David as a take-no-prisoners housing authority cop nicknamed Andre the Giant. When your police partner is Harvey Keitel and you’re still the most menacing member of the duo, the bad guys had better be careful — a lesson painfully learned by “Strike” Dunham (Mekhi Phifer) in one of the film’s most memorable sequences, a three-minute clinic in unfiltered rage led by David as he makes it clear to Phifer that he doesn’t approve of Phifer’s illegal activities. Overlooked at the box office, Clockers nonetheless earned the praise of critics such as Boxoffice Magazine’s Shlomo Schwartzberg, who wrote, “Spike Lee’s adaptation of Richard Price’s powerful novel about a drug dealer and a cop pursuing him for a crime captures the story’s essence, evoking a melancholy world in which the chances of surviving and staying on the straight and narrow are small.”
Warning: NSFW — language and violence.
Clint Eastwood’s tribute to Charlie Parker, Bird is mostly a showcase for Parker’s music and Forest Whitaker’s outstanding performance as the legendary saxophonist, but Eastwood is smart enough not to skimp on the supporting players — and when you care enough to send the very best, you get Keith David, who shows up here as Parker’s (fictional) mentor, Buster Franklin. While not a major element of the film, Franklin certainly had a significant influence on Parker’s career, and that’s reflected here in sequences that illustrate the ways both men struggled to remain true to their respective muses. Eastwood was criticized for dwelling on the more sensationalistic aspects of Parker’s life and times, but the glimpses we’re afforded of Franklin — as well as the way David carries the character during his limited screen time — illustrate that fading away can be just as painful as burning out. Roger Ebert was one of the many critics impressed with Bird, writing, “Whitaker occupies this world as a large, friendly, sometimes taciturn man who tries to harm nobody and who cannot understand why the world would not let him play his music. Neither can we.”
A bleak, horrifying sci-fi thriller as cold and dark as the Antarctic climate in which it takes place, John Carpenter’s The Thing represented Keith David’s first big break — not only was it the first major role for an actor whose biggest part to that point was an uncredited role in 1979’s Disco Godfather, but it also openly flouted the unspoken rule that the black dude is always the first one to get whacked in a horror movie. In fact, David and Kurt Russell are the last men standing in The Thing — and if Carpenter ever gets his way, their frostbitten faces will someday be seen in a sequel. That doesn’t seem terribly likely at this point, but even if it never comes to pass, David will always have the distinction of starring in the movie that eFilmCritic’s Rob Gonsalves says “contains everything you could want to know about horror filmmaking.”
Like the Hubert Selby, Jr. novel from which it’s adapted, Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream is certainly not for everyone. An unflinching look at the misery of addiction, Requiem follows the hellish descents of a widow named Sara Goldfarb (Ellen Burstyn), her son Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), and Harry’s friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). After 102 minutes, all four characters have been pretty well run through the wringer; Burstyn winds up institutionalized, Leto loses an arm, Wayans has to go cold turkey in a jail cell — and Connelly crosses paths with Big Tim, played with thoroughly skeevy elan by Keith David. Good taste prevents us from getting into the exact nature of their relationship; suffice it to say that Connelly’s character arc demonstrates that some people will do just about anything to get their fix, and David’s performance reminds us that other people will stoop at nothing to take advantage of an addict. “Never have we been taken this close to the edge, and never have the characters teetering over it elicited so much sympathy,” wrote Eugene Novikov of Film Blather. “Requiem is difficult to watch, but it richly rewards those who stay with it.”
He isn’t often asked to do comedy, but Keith David can be very funny in the right situation — like, for instance, when he’s scaring the wits out of an unfortunately tuxedoed Ben Stiller in the opening scenes of 1998’s There’s Something About Mary. David’s role as the stepfather of Mary (Cameron Diaz) was one of his smaller parts, but it’s no less memorable for its brevity; after all, how many cinematic father figures are called upon to help an anguished teen coax his mangled frank and beans out of a zipper? Only Keith David, ladies and gentlemen, and his looks of disgusted incredulity in that scene helped turn Mary into the movie that USA Today’s Susan Wloszczyna called “A gut-busting blast of tasteless tomfoolery.”
Charlie Sheen and Willem Dafoe took the lion’s share of the spotlight for Platoon — and not without reason — but Oliver Stone’s harrowing look back at the Vietnam War is really an ensemble feature, and it wouldn’t have attracted half of the critical acclaim it enjoyed without strong across-the-board performances from a large, impressive cast that included Tom Berenger, John C. McGinley, Johnny Depp, Forest Whitaker, and (of course) Keith David. As a soldier known as King, David acts as a gateway for the wide-eyed Private Chris Taylor (Sheen) into the world of the “heads,” a group of soldiers who blow off steam in an illicit underground clubhouse. It isn’t a leading role, but it’s a crucial one, as Taylor’s descent into the brotherhood of the heads helps foreshadow his transformation from wide-eyed idealist to haunted shell of a man. “Platoon is like the Wall,” wrote Rita Kempley of the Washington Post, “a dark and unforgettable memorial to the dead of Vietnam and an awesome requiem to the eternity of war.”
Bubblegum, anyone? John Carpenter liked David’s work on The Thing so much that when he was writing the screenplay for 1988’s They Live, he penned the role of construction worker Frank Armitage specifically for him — and in the process, gave David a major part in one of the most quotable cult classics of the 1980s, not to mention one of the 20 greatest fight scenes ever. Carpenter’s sci-fi actioner, in which a homeless man (Roddy Piper) discovers the human race has been infiltrated — and is being subliminally directed by — freaky-looking aliens, was initially regarded as something of a dud (the Washington Post’s Richard Harrington accused Carpenter of “trying to dig deep with a toy shovel” and said “it makes V look like Masterpiece Theatre“), but like the director’s Big Trouble in Little China, its legend has grown over the years. Frank Armitage is one of David’s bigger roles, and it helped establish him as a go-to actor for the sort of no-nonsense tough guys he’d go on to play in everything from Men at Work to Crash. The movie’s a lot of fun, too: in the words of Filmcritic’s Christopher Null, “They Live [is] Carpenter’s best film — I don’t care what you say.”
Warning: NSFW — language and violence.
He’s best known for playing cops and military men, but David has also parlayed his distinctive voice into a career behind the scenes of cartoons and video games; you may not know it, but you’ve heard his voice in games such as Fallout and Saint’s Row, as well as the opening moments of albums (including Ice Cube’s Raw Footage), and the narration of multiple Ken Burns documentaries (including Jazz and The War). In Henry Selick’s stop-motion animated feature Coraline, David gave voice to The Cat, a stray feline who acts as Coraline’s guide through the dark, wacked-out world of The Beldam (Teri Hatcher), an insectile witch with a thing for replacing children’s eyes with buttons. “The results are simply astonishing,” wrote Anton Bitel of Little White Lies, adding, “Selick has created a richly detailed, beautifully realised set of parallel worlds and allows us to become as lost as Coraline herself in and between their exquisite textures.”
In case you were wondering, here are David’s top ten movies according RT users’ scores:
1. The Thing — 95%
2. Platoon — 95%
3. Requiem for a Dream — 93%
4. Coraline — 91%
5. They Live — 85%
6. There’s Something About Mary — 83%
7. Pitch Black — 82%
8. Bird — 82%
9. The Princess and the Frog — 80%
10. Clockers — 75%
Finally, here’s David paying musical tribute to the great Nat “King” Cole: