The Success and Suicide of Steven Keats

Steven Keats (1945-1994) was a ubiquitous presence on screens big and small when I was a kid in the ’70s. My clearest association is the campy 1977 scifi movie The Last Dinosaur with Richard Boone. Nowadays my first thought is of Joan Micklin Silver’s Hester Street (1975), maybe Keats’ best film role. But as he made many guest appearances on TV shows I watched avidly, I certainly knew him from being EVERYWHERE. He had that “ethnic” handsomeness that was very much in favor in the ’70s. He was a Jewish guy from the Bronx, but was sometimes cast as Latinos, Italians, etc. This was the age of Barney Miller‘s Gregory Sierra and Welcome Back Kotter‘s Robert Hegyes. Keats’ gapped front teeth made him resemble the latter especially, though Keats was much more striking. His shaggy mane of hair made him seem countercultural. He had the makings of a leading man, but almost never got cast that way. I associate him with edgier parts. I’m assuming that was typecasting. Maybe that’s why this story ends the way it does.

Keats pursued acting from his youth. He attended New York’s High School for the Performing Arts. He then did a yearlong tour of duty in Vietnam (1965-66), followed by a year at the Yale School of Drama (1969-70). He then joined the cast of Oh, Calcutta! on Broadway midway through its original run (1971-72), leading up to his first film role, in Peter Yates’ The Friends of Eddie Coyle (1973), with Robert Mitchum and Peter Boyle. Keats was fourth billed in this major Hollywood film — not a bad screen debut at all! Most of his early films were action or crime pictures, such things as Death Wish (1974) with Charles Bronson, The Gambler (1974) with James Caan, Sky Riders (1976) with James Coburn, The Gumball Rally (1976), Black Sunday (1977) and Silent Rage (1982) with Chuck Norris.

On TV, Keats was on all the cop shows, and as I mentioned, this is where he achieved true saturation in terms of visibility, for he was on all the big shows: Kojak, The Streets of San Francisco, Cannon, The Rockford Files, The Rookies, Starsky and Hutch, S.W.A.T., Cagney and Lacey, Murder She Wrote, Magnum PI, etc etc. He was in historical TV mini-series and TV movies like Seventh Avenue (1977), The Awakening Land (1978), Greatest Heroes of the Bible (1978), Voyagers! (1982), and The Yellow Rose (1983). He was in The Executioner’s Song (1982) with Tommy Lee Jones, one of the top TV movies of all time. He probably enjoyed his greatest career satisfaction when around the late 70s when he actually starred and co-starred in some TV movies, such as Zuma Beach (1978) with Suzanne Sommers from Three’s Company, a 1979 remake of Where’s Poppa? (1979) directed by Richard Benjamin, Ghost of a Chance (1980) with Shelly Long, and then he played the lucky lucky man who is shipwrecked on the Mysterious Island of Beautiful Women (1979). He also co-starred with Jack Palance in the preposterous 1980 TV movie The Ivory Ape.

By the late ’80s I’m guessing he could see the writing on the wall as far as the future of his career was concerned. He was working as steadily as ever in the grind of guest shots on major TV shows, but in feature length projects, he was back to a supporting parts. He had a recurring role as a defense attorney on Law and Order in the early ’90s, and was third billed in the TV movie Lies of the Heart: The Story of Laurie Kellogg (1994). But there are signals of a decline at around this time as well. He took jobs on the soap operas All My Children and Another World. His last character, in the pilot for the Dick Wolf show New York Undercover (1994), didn’t have a name — that’s always a warning signal.

And of course there was always theatre. In 1992, he appeared with Hal Holbrook at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in a play called Hotel Oubliette. As the latter passed away just a few days ago, it seemed fitting to share this picture:

In 1994 Keats mysteriously died by his own hand at the relatively young age of 49. I have not yet turned up anything about the reason. Was it the state of his career? Did it have something to do with memories of his war service? Or something like survivor’s guilt? (His father was a Polish Jew who had fled the Holocaust) Was he always depressed? There is little to be found online — I haven’t even turned up anything about the method, even. Ultimately of course it is none of our business. But one is always curious, especially when you are a fan who VALUED the person’s work, as I certainly did and do. But not nearly as much as this lady, who devoted an entire blog to Keats, called “Greatest Actor Ever”. If you are inclined to jump down a deep rabbit hole of Steve Keats-O-Mania, you may do so here.