Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.
The actor: With training from Juilliard and a voice that commands respect, Keith David has rarely failed to make an impression as an actor, no matter what part he’s been called upon to play. Over the course of his career, David has done comedy (There’s Something About Mary) and drama (Platoon), sci-fi (They Live) and biographies (The Tiger Woods Story), and even a stint on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Currently, David is assigned to Fox’s new military-themed sitcom, Enlisted.
Enlisted (2014-present)—“Command Sgt. Maj. Donald Cody”
Keith David: The first thing that comes to mind is “hooray.” [Laughs.] Hooray and hooah! You know, it’s been a wonderful time and a great association so far. I’m having a ball. A lot of times, we have military shows about being in battle, on the field, and I think one of the things that makes us distinct is that this is about the field at home. I don’t think enough emphasis is put on the stresses of the families of the guys who are deployed, and this is an homage to that. We’re honoring them. And I love that. It’s kind of wonderful and very American, you know what I mean?
The A.V. Club: There seems to be somewhat of a Stripes vibe to it.
KD: Well, I… [Hesitates.] I wouldn’t say that initially. But whatever floats your boat. If that makes you happy, okay. As long as it’s a good association!
AVC: Is there a better point of reference, from your point of view?
KD: Well, to me, it’s sort of like M*A*S*H meets Scrubs, kind of? I mean, we have fun, but we also have moments where we deal poignantly with the matters at hand.
AVC: Was this a case where you auditioned for the role, or did they reach out to you specifically?
KD: I was reached out to. It was wonderful. That’s always a wonderful feeling.
AVC: Had you been looking for a full-time series role?
KD: I’m always looking for work. And as far as doing TV, if there’s a role that I feel that, if it lasted longer than the pilot and I could do it and have fun with it, then that’s all the better. This happened to be one of those. And I think Donald Cody’s a great guy. I like him. There are aspects of him that, when I grow up, I’d like to be like. [Laughs.] He’s a leader and a listener, and he cares about these people. I think he cares deeply about these people.
AVC: And he has a white foot, apparently.
KD: And he has a white foot. [Laughs.] Which is always a conversation piece that he doesn’t hesitate to bring out whenever he wants to.
AVC: Have you enjoyed the way the character’s been evolving since getting beyond the pilot?
KD: Oh, he’s evolving wonderfully. We get to see him as a parent, we get to see him as somebody who’s a recent divorcé, trying to date. We see him as a parental figure with the boys. And we see him in a command capacity, as a leader. So we get to see a few sides of Donald Cody.
AVC: Is there any more detail offered about his past relationship with the brothers?
KD: Just in the manner in which they relate to each other, you know that this is not the first time that they’ve met, and that they have some history. Some of that comes out, and hopefully next season we’ll get to see more of that kind of stuff about their history.
The Pirates Of Penzance (1980)—“Chorus”
AVC: In trying to find your first on-camera role, there is a recurring online rumor that you are an uncredited club patron in Disco Godfather.
KD: Um… [Very long pause.] You do a lot of projects. And a lot of them get renamed after the fact. Now, if that’s so, I don’t remember it.
AVC: This would’ve been in 1979.
KD: Well, 1979 was quite a little while ago. But now that you mention it… I don’t remember that name, but…
AVC: So maybe, maybe not?
KD: Maybe, maybe not. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, in that case, the earliest confirmed on-camera role seems to be when you were in the chorus for The Pirates Of Penzance.
KD: I was in the chorus of The Pirates Of Penzance! When we started the original production, I was almost freshly out of school. I’d been out of school something like a year, maybe two. And Kevin Kline, who was a schoolmate… well, we didn’t go to school together, but we were both Juilliard grads. But I was his understudy. And, you know, it was a musical, and I’m a singer, so it gave me a chance to sing and dance with Graciela Daniele. And I got to understudy Kevin Kline! So I got to watch his wonderful stuff and try to make it my own. I never got to actually go on, but I did learn some great music and great moves.
AVC: So how did you find your way into acting in the first place? Was there a background of acting in your family?
KD: No. I’ve wanted to be an actor my whole life, but to me, it’s more than just an inclination. I mean, I think actors as artists... [Hesitates.] It’s a calling. There are different journeys of that calling—entertaining, performing—but actors as artists, it’s something that, for a few people, it’s the way that they express their way in the world. Everybody needs a way to express themselves. This is the way we do it. Although there’s no substitute for training. I believe that even the best actors in the world have to be trained. You just can’t circumvent that. There is on-the-job study, and that used to be the old way, with apprenticeships and those kinds of things. Nowadays, all we have are acting schools, although there are wonderful pockets of teachers who teach the craft… because it is a craft. Nowadays everybody thinks they can be funny and be bubbly with a personality, and that makes them an actor. Well, just because you have an acting job doesn’t necessarily make you an actor. But that’s just my humble opinion. I don’t begrudge anybody getting a job, but I have deep respect for the craft, because I do feel that it’s a calling.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1983-1985)—“Keith The Handyman”
KD: [Long laugh.] Now you’re digging! That was my very first job in TV, and that was… My God, that was back in the early ’80s. I was a recurring guy on Mister Rogers, and when I got that job, I was working in Pittsburgh at the Public Theater there. When I first got there, I was playing Oberon [in A Midsummer Night’s Dream] at the Public, and then somehow that job came up, and then I kept coming back periodically. A wonderful director, Paul Lally, was the director. And Mr. Rogers was a wonderful cat. He really was.
When I first met him, it was kind of surreal, because he had just come out of the makeup chair, and he had these tissues coming out of his shirt, and he walks over to me and says, “Hi, I’m Fred Rogers, welcome to the show.” And it was just, like, “Okayyy…” [Laughs.] But when you think that he was a Presbyterian minister whose ministry was focused on children 2 through 6 years old… I mean, very young kids. When you think about that, it was phenomenal. I had a friend who had… well, in those days, they called them “hyperactive” kids, and he was all over the place. He was never stopping, always doing something. But when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood came on, you could hear a pin drop. And if you made noise in the room, Brian would go, “Shhhhhhh! Mister Rogers!” For that period of time, he was completely still and completely focused. It was the most amazing thing I’d ever seen in my life.
I’ve grown to have a great appreciation for Mr. Rogers, because he did not placate. He didn’t talk down to them. I remember my favorite episode was one called “War And Peace,” and he talks about the beginnings of war and conflict and how they start, and it was very kind of complex, but it was also simple. And he was fun, too, with the puppets. I was just, like, “Wow, okay, I get this.”
KD: Goliath was one of the most fun things I’ve ever done in my life. When I grow up, I want to be like Goliath, too! [Laughs.] A man with deep family values. A man who cares about his neighborhood, his environment… He’s a protector—as father, as neighborhood watch—but never one to abuse his power. If I have any regrets, and they’re very few and far between, it’s that Gargoyles didn’t last longer, because the messages that were innate in those episodes were always wonderful. Love and honor and integrity, all those kinds of values that in our society today… [Sighs.] They seem to be absenting themselves. Extincting themselves. But that’s what Goliath was always about. These days, it seems like politeness is a sin. People don’t even say “excuse me” anymore. Personally, I find that appalling. It’s two very simple words, and if you just say “excuse me,” I’ll immediately move away from wherever that voice is coming from, so that I can give the right of way to whoever said it. Today, people bump into you, step on your feet, they don’t even look at you, or else they look at you like you’re crazy!
The Tiger Woods Story (1998)—“Earl Woods”
KD: A grand pleasure, working with [director] LeVar Burton. And it was one of the first times I’d gotten to play someone who was still alive. I was hoping at the time to, you know, put on the fat suit and all of that. [Laughs.] But it wasn’t necessary. I liked playing him because I love stories about fathers and sons, and men with values. The one thing that Earl tried to do for his son was instill him with a sense of values, as well as focus, to have inspiration. The relationship between fathers and sons, even at its very best, is complex, so any time I can work on something that sheds some light on that relationship, that gives some insight into that relationship, how to make it better or what not to do… That’s part of that mission I was talking about, in being called to this profession. Artists have something to say, and this is how they say it. But when you have great writing through which to say it, when that syncs up, it’s wonderful.
Article 99 (1992)—“Luther Jermoe”
KD: Platoon was my first military role, and it was a fantastic time. You know, I’ve been very lucky, I think, because I’ve gotten to play some really wonderful roles in some great films and to work with some really wonderful actors. Forrest Whitaker, Willem Dafoe, Johnny Depp, John McGinley… these guys were all in Platoon. And it’s been 30 years since Platoon, but many, many, many of us have moved on to have quite wonderful careers. It’s been a blessing to continue to know these guys, to see their work and careers grow, and to know that 30 years later we’re all still here. And we’re still doing it. That’s a blessing.
AVC: You’ve done more than a few military-related films in the past, including one that took place during peace time: Article 99.
KD: Yeah. Which Forrest and McGinley were also in.
AVC: It’s one of those films where everyone who was in it seems to have enjoyed it, but it’s not as widely known.
KD: Well, you know, there are things to which we have some control over, and then there are other things which we have absolutely no control over. [Laughs.] One of the reasons I did the film… I was actually commissioned to do something else, and I turned that down and instead chose to do Article 99. And I’m glad I did. But it didn’t make a big splash. But that’s okay! It’s all good, man, you know? I mean, the fact that you remember it means something.
The Cape (2011)—“Max Malini”
KD: Oh, dear God in heaven, that was some of the best fun I’ve ever had in my entire life. I’ve always wanted to play a guy like High John The Conqueror. So far, Max has been the closest I’ve come to High John, and I absolutely loved working on it. The Cape was one of the red letters of my career. I just had a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful time. It was a great experience. You know, it’s too bad that it didn’t work out, that NBC didn’t support it and go along with it. But that happens. But, again, the fact that you’re mentioning it… [Laughs.] We did do something. We made some kind of an impact.
AVC: You know you’ve made an impact when you’re a reference on Community.
KD: [Laughs.] Yeah, I guess that’s true.
KD: Yeah! Another one of my favorite experiences!
AVC: What was your knowledge of the character going into the project?
KD: Of Spawn? I was aware of the comic book. In fact, I think it’s still one of the largest comics in the world, as far as people knowing about it. I really enjoyed that experience. Having come from playing Goliath on Gargoyles, Spawn was like… For me, he was like Darth Vader working his way back from the dark side, making his way back to the Force. He was kind of evil, but he wound up doing good in spite of himself. And I loved that, too, because in all of the characters I play… You know, if it’s an “evil” guy, if there’s any good in him, you try to find it. I’m not gonna say there’s nobody you can’t do that with, because there are some people who are just pure evil. But most people have a little bit of both. You’re not just one thing. So I try to find the good in the evil characters and find a little bit of the naughty in the good characters. [Laughs.]
AVC: Did Todd McFarlane steer you in any direction with the voice you used, or was it just a case of “what you’ve got, we want”?
KD: I think it was a good little bit of both. Todd didn’t actually direct any of the episodes, but he certainly approved. But I worked mostly with Jack Fletcher, and he was the guiding force with the voice.
The Princess And The Frog (2009)—“Dr. Facilier”
Coraline (2009)—“The Cat”
AVC: You’ve done a lot of great work as a voice actor, but 2009 was a particularly great year for you on that front.
KD: And what’s not to like about The Princess And The Frog and Coraline? [Laughs.] First of all, I get to be in the pantheon of great Disney villains. Now I am there! Facilier was delicious. I got to sing and I got to dance when you look at him onscreen. He got to be just wonderfully evil and magic at the same time, and I got a great song written by Randy Newman… There was nothing not to like about that project. I got to work with Anika Noni Rose, who I met when she was a student at A.C.T., and it’s really wonderful to see her career blossom and to see the wonderful actress she’s grown into… and continues to grow into. She’s a wonderful actress and a great singer. So it was just a great project. And I got work with my old friend Jenifer Lewis, who I’ve known since I was a student!
And Coraline was great as well. Henry Selick and I had some different ideas about the voice for the character, but I had to trust his judgment, and he was right. And I had a wonderful time. Another guy who, if ever I got a phone call from him saying, “Listen, I’d love you to play this part,” I’d be there in a heartbeat. He was a wonderful, wonderful man to work with. And the project… it was very different. The stop-motion animation was different. The stop-motion was tedious, and you had to be meticulous, but I appreciated him for his meticulousness. My daughter, when she was much younger, was a little bit frightened about it. [Laughs.] Particularly the button eyes, and the sort of 3-D, in-your-face aspect. But, as you say, it was a great year in my life for animation.
There’s Something About Mary (1998)—“Mary’s Father”
KD: Oh, great fun to be had by all. It was great working with Ben [Stiller]. I’d worked with Ben a couple of times. He directed me in… oh, what’s the name of that movie with Winona Ryder? Reality Bites! Ben’s a genuinely funny guy, so we had some great outtakes. [Laughs.] The brothers Farrelly are very funny, too. I love those guys. I’d relish working with them again.
AVC: You hadn’t really done a huge amount of comedy up to that point. You’d done some, but you were mostly known for drama and action.
KD: Yeah. Any opportunity I get to be a little funny is good for me.
They Live (1988)—“Frank”
KD: John Carpenter called me up and asked me to co-star in it. He called me and asked me to read his script and said if I liked it, it was mine. Which happens very rarely, so that was a very nice thing. And I did like it. I got to work with Roddy Piper, who at the time was huge, and that was very cool. We got to do a fight scene that is in the history books. [Laughs.] I didn’t know it at the time. I knew that it was based on a wonderfully historic fight. It was based on the fight by John Wayne and Victor McLaglen in The Quiet Man, when he just kicks his ass all over town. So it was based on that fight, and it was great because—like that fight—our fight had a story involved. It wasn’t just two guys brawling. It was a story that escalated. Even within the fight it escalated. When I watch it, that’s the fascinating thing for me. I watched the South Park spoof of it, and, you know, they keep that aspect of it: It’s part of a story. And that’s really fun to watch.
AVC: How long did it take to choreograph that sequence?
KD: It took two weeks to choreograph and rehearse before we shot it.
AVC: Before you actually saw how it unfolded on scene, was there ever any point when you thought it might be too much?
KD: No. It was just such fun to work on that it was, like, “Man, this is great. I love this!”