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Keith David is one of the most recognizable character actors, both visually and aurally. David’s voice won him Emmys for narrating the work of documentary maker Ken Burns; it is currently scaring little kids at The Princess and the Frog and talking to gamers in video games like Call of Duty 2. David’s towering image, 6’2” of intimidating, Harlem-bred Black man, has been used for both comedic and dramatic effect by various directors. He is perhaps best known for his work with John Carpenter; more on that in a second.
At the same time Keith David was starting his career, David Keith was starting his. David Keith actually had more immediate success than Keith David, earning a Golden Globe nod for his heartbreaking work in An Officer and A Gentleman. I used to get their names confused, though it’s pretty impossible to confuse the two visually. David Keith is a tall White dude from Tennessee. I did a search on imDB to see if the two enemies of dyslexics ever worked together. They have not. There have been no Keith David-David Keith movies. I wonder if casting directors have ever confused them. Imagine being a fly on the wall if the makers of Barbershop wanted Keith David to play the movie’s ‘hood villain, but called David Keith instead. Or if Mark Lester sent out for David Keith to play Drew Barrymore’s dad in Firestarter, and they brought in Keith David.
The actors themselves seemed like they wanted to confuse you. Keith David has a role in Eye for an Eye, and David Keith was the star of White of the Eye. So it’s odd that, on the imDB, only David Keith’s bio has the warning not to confuse him with Keith David. This unique type of warning belongs on both actors’ listings.
Confused by me saying Keith David and David Keith repeatedly? Good! Look up at the title of this piece and remind yourself who the subject is.
I saw Keith David onstage in two shows that highlighted his flexibility as an actor. First, I learned he had a great singing voice in his Tony-nominated turn in Gregory Hines’ Jelly’s Last Jam. Later, as I went through my cycle of August Wilson plays, I saw David as the lead, Schoolboy Barton, in Seven Guitars. The former netted David a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actor. In both, David’s commanding use of his voice vibrated the audience. Like Sam Elliott, I could listen to him read the phone book.
The mainstream first took notice of Keith David in Oliver Stone’s 1986 war film, Platoon. The film won Best Picture, and more has been written about its Oscar nominees Tom Berenger and Willem Dafoe, but people took notice of David’s excellent work as a veteran who befriends Charlie Sheen. Rita Kempley at the Washington Post called him “big and magnificent” in the role. David’s work is one of the few things I remember about Platoon, a movie I considered extremely overrated. David’s experience with Ollie Stone led to work with directors like Spielberg, Spike Lee, the Hughes Brothers, Sam Raimi (whose camera showed Gene Hackman framed through a huge hole in David’s head), and Michael Bay.
Cult movie lovers like me first took notice of Keith David in two John Carpenter movies: The Thing, where he played opposite Kurt Russell, and They Live, where he and Roddy Piper engage in the greatest fight ever lensed. In numerous films, there was a lot of violence when Keith David showed up onscreen, Dead Presidents and Clockers immediately spring to mind, which makes his early appearances on the Land of Make Believe segments of Mr. Rogers Neighborhood all the more ironic. Keith the Southwood Carpenter was a nice guy; we wanted him to choke that annoying ass cat with the “meow meow” vocal tic.
David tended to play tough characters who were easily irritated and/or incited to violence, but he could also use his scariness for comedic purposes. The Farrelly Brothers give him a memorable entrance in There’s Something About Mary, and his role as husband of Night Court’s Markie Post and stepdad of Cameron Diaz is comic gold. It is he who scares the shit out of Ben Stiller, then a few minutes later gets Stiller out of a tuxedo zipper nightmare. “What am I lookin’ at? Is it the frank or the beans?” he asks Stiller. “I don’t know,” says Stiller, “a little of both, I guess.” Whatever it is, David gets it out of that zipper. Later, he shows up during the closing credits, acting silly and flashing that goofy smile of his.
David’s latest work has him turning a horny prince into a frog through the power of voodoo. Disney’s contribution to Black-themed animation makes David the villainous Dr. Facilier. His voice is sexy and seductive one minute, filled with anger and rage the next, and his big Randy Newman number is as good as it is creepy. Even more creepy is his comeuppance; David’s voice really sells his fear and terror. On the PatF website, David says he loved singing and playing the role of the evil doctor, who looks less like him and more like an anorexic version of the WWF’s old Papa Shango wrestling character.
If you watch Ken Burns’ doc on Jack Johnson, Unforgivable Blackness (and you should), you’ll bear witness to what Keith David does best: Narration. His voice has been compared to Orson Welles’, and whether he’s voicing Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn or leading us through seven documentary episodes on WWII, he is in full command of his masterful voice. We’ll get to hear that voice, and see the man who owns it, in no fewer than 5 movies in 2010.