Saving Grace: Keith David
Keith David is a man who appreciates clichés.
Someone told him very early on that the race was not for the swift, but for those who can endure. And endure he has in a career that has spanned three decades in Hollywood and included work in such blockbuster films as “Armageddon”, “Platoon”, “Road House”, “Dead Presidents”, “There’s Something About Mary”, “Barbershop”, “Head of State” with Chris Rock, “Crash”, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith”, “Transporter 2”, “First Sunday”, “All About Steve” and most recently, “The Princess & The Frog”.
“You have a lot of sprinters who make a great movie here and have a big splash and their career is then over,” says David, who views himself as more a marathon runner. “I consider myself among a great breed of character actors who endure. It doesn’t mean we don’t get to play lead roles because we do. But even when I’m playing a lead part, I’m still a character.”
A particularly good villain at that, as demonstrated in his most recent role as the voice of Dr. Facilier in what is Disney’s first film to feature a black princess in a cast that includes Anika Noni Rose, Oprah Winfrey, Jenifer Lewis and Terrence Howard.
“Villains are especially wonderful because I get to exercise that part of my imagination so I don’t have to come home and beat my wife and kick the dog,” he jokes. “I get all that energy out in the studio at work”.
Yet for all of his tough guy roles, one would hardly guess that Keith David was a church boy who at one time aspired to be a minister while growing up in New York City.
Recalls David, “My relationship with God started very early on in my life—from the time I was about seven when I was saved. Both of my grandmothers were very prominent in their respective churches. One died a deaconess. My other grandmother used to ask me everyday, ‘did you pray this morning? If I hadn’t but told her yes, I would hang up the phone and pray immediately so I wouldn’t make a liar out of myself.
“She was my best friend and always kept me in check with having a relationship with God. And both of them made it very clear to me how important it is to have and maintain a relationship with Him.”
Today, the actor—who has done at least one film a year since landing a key role in the Oliver Stone’s critically acclaimed 1986 war film, Platoon, with Johnny Depp, Willem Dafoe and Forest Whitaker—understands the importance all too well.
“I can do nothing without the grace of a good God. God comes before everything I do and everything I’m able to do I am able to through Him. The only credit that I can take is to try to be available to the opportunities that come before me. But I have no control over what those opportunities are.”
It wasn’t so easy to reconcile at first.
“I used to get very anxious,” David recalls. “My very first film was “The Thing” and I thought after getting some decent reviews I was going to have a life in the movies, but I didn’t work in film again for four years until “Platoon.”
“Nobody’s promised a life in this business,” he continues. “I’m fortunate enough to get paid to do this, but on some level, I’m compelled to do it, whether I’m paid or not. “
A love for acting came early.
“I knew I wanted to be an actor when I was 2,” David reveals. “I also wanted to be a minister, a lawyer, a bank president and a pediatrician. As an actor, I could be all those things.
“Theatre in the Greek tradition actually started in the churches, —also in the African tradition. So the theatre for me has always been a very sacred place, filled with spirit, not religious necessarily, but very spiritual.”
His most recent role in Disney’s “Princess & The Frog” showcases not only his skill at narration and animated voices, but another talent as well: singing.
“I was a singer before I was an actor,” states the twice-married 53-year old native New Yorker who grew up singing in church and in 1992 received a Tony Award nomination for Best Supporting Actor in a Musical, for his performance in Jelly’s Last Jam.
“I used to sing with the All-Borough Chorus in junior high school and I also used to sing in synagogues and at Bar Mitzvahs. I just liked to sing and whenever I got an opportunity to do it, I did it and at this point in my life, I want to sing more and I am finding more opportunities to do that. I’m been doing my nightclub act—a tribute to Nat King Cole—for a couple of years now and hopefully in 2010 I’ll be doing a couple of symphony jobs and expand my horizons.”
Constantly evolving as an artist is what prompted his initial move to the West Coast in 1988 and for the next decade and a half would move back and forth between California and New York until settling permanently in Los Angeles nine years ago with his second wife, Dionne, who is also an actress.
Though always up for a challenge, David refuses to do roles that conflict with his Christian beliefs or uphold long held stereotypes about African American men.
“There are things I absolutely will not do. One of the things I won’t do is a black man as some stereotypical idea that has no redeeming quality and perpetuates what you’re always thinking a black man is.”
Thus far, he states unequivocally that he has neither complaints nor regrets in a career that has spanned the Broadway stage, more television and voiceover work than he can recount, video games and documentaries like Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, which earned him an Emmy Award for Outstanding Voice-Over Performance.
“And the fat lady hasn’t sung yet. I’ve got miles to go before I sleep and I’m sure that there’s plenty of stuff for me to do, some of which will be of my own creation, and the rest from other people’s creations.”
In a twist of irony life comes somewhat full circle for David with his next film, “Pastor Brown”, which is set for release this year. In the film directed by Rockmond Dunbar and featuring Salli Richardson, Nicole Ari Parker, Tasha Smith, Tisha Campbell-Martin, Ernie Hudson, and Creflo Dollar, David plays “Pastor Brown”.
Other upcoming projects include comedies such “Lottery Ticket” with Ice Cube, Mike Epps, and Bow Wow and “Death At A Funeral” featuring Zoe Saldana, Martin Lawrence, and Danny Glover; and the dramas “Now Here” with Mickey Rooney and “Stomp The Yard 2: Homecoming.”
Faith and a close relationship with his family have helped to keep him grounded.
“My relationship with God is my saving grace,” David states. “My relationship with my family is my saving grace, especially my wife, children, and my mother. But I don’t leave my father out because I have a very decent relationship with my father and in the time that we have we’ve enjoyed some years now repairing our relationship. It hasn’t always been that way.”
Adding to his success is the contentment for David that comes with knowing he reached his goal of being a professional actor while both of his beloved grandmothers were still alive.
“Praise God, I’m living my dream and they got to see that.”