Stacy Keach’s dance card is quite full these days.
“I have done four sitcoms in five weeks!” said the 72-year-old actor, who first demonstrated his comedic chops as Cheech and Chong’s nemesis Sgt. Stedenko in the 1978 stoner comedy “Up in Smoke.”
Just last week, he appeared in the L.A. Theatre Works production of Chekhov’s “Uncle Vanya” at UCLA, and on Sunday he’ll be narrating Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” at the “EEK! At the Greek” Halloween concert with the Symphony in the Glen Orchestra.
Keach brought poignancy to his role as a veteran plane named Skipper in “Planes,” Disney’s animated hit — he’ll be back for the sequel — and he has a showy supporting role as the boorish former business partner of Woody (Bruce Dern), an elderly man who believes he’s won $1 million in a sweepstakes, in Alexander Payne’s “Nebraska,” opening Nov. 22.
“I’m sort of the bad guy,” Keach said with a smile during a recent interview at his publicist’s office in Beverly Hills.
The actor’s schedule is already mapped out for the next several months. He is about to fly to Vancouver, Canada, to start a movie, and come spring, he’ll play Shakespeare’s larger-than-life rapscallion Falstaff in “Henry IV, Parts I and II” in Washington, D.C.
“Falstaff — oh, I love him,” extolled Keach, whom the New York Times once described as “the finest American classical actor since John Barrymore” because of his memorable portrayals in Edmond Rostand’s “Cyrano de Bergerac” and Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” “King Lear,” “Macbeth” and “Richard III.”
His dedication to theater is legendary. As a drama student at Yale, Keach was so disappointed in the school’s “archaic approach to theater” that he started his own acting class. Needless to say, he reports, his professor “despised me — with justification.”
Four years ago, while appearing at L.A.'s Ahmanson Theatre in the play “Frost/Nixon,” Keach suffered a minor stroke. He was back onstage in just 10 days.
“That’s how minor it was,” Keach said. “I wanted to get back onstage as soon as possible.”
Keach is one of those rare actors who has been able to combine a life in the theater while maintaining a career in film and TV. But it hasn’t been easy.
“I always wanted to combine classicism with pop art,” he said. “It was always a struggle to convince agents and producers that you could do that. They wanted you to be this or that way. They don’t want you to do both.”
Between all of the acting projects, Keach managed to find time to write his autobiography, “All in All: An Actor’s Life On and Off the Stage,” which was just released.
Keach doesn’t shy away from discussing in the book the darkest period in his life — when he became addicted to cocaine. In fact, the opening chapter chronicles his arrest in 1984 at London’s Heathrow Airport for smuggling a little more than 1 ounce of cocaine in a can of shaving cream that had a false bottom.
He decided to “tell it head on” because “it was a major event in my life,” he said. “I paid my debt.”
Keach was starring as Mickey Spillane’s famed gumshoe in the popular CBS series “Mike Hammer” when he was arrested.
“I was zipping in from Marseille in the south of France, where I was shooting the TV movie ‘Mistral’s Daughter,’ to London for ‘Mike Hammer’ voice-over work,” Keach writes in his book.
“It was one day’s work, but I was deep enough in the grip of the White Lady that going empty-handed for even a short jaunt seemed unbearably long.”
He served six months in prison.
Keach is also refreshingly honest about his rocky romance with singer Judy Collins in the early 1970s, his three failed marriages and finally finding happiness with Polish actress Malgosia Tomassi, who had been a guest star on “Mike Hammer.” The actress, whom he married in 1986, stood by him when he was incarcerated. They have two grown children, son Shannon and daughter Karolina.
“She’s my rudder,” he said with a warm smile.
Keach will be discussing his career and his autobiography Friday evening at the American Cinematheque’s Aero Theatre in Santa Monica between screenings of two of his best films: William Peter Blatty’s surreal “The Ninth Configuration” (1980), which finds the actor portraying an outrageous commanding officer at an old castle-turned-asylum for U.S. soldiers, and John Huston’s downbeat “Fat City” (1972), in which Keach is heartbreaking as a washed-up pugilist.
“He was a legend,” the actor recalled of Huston. “He had two directions: ‘a little more’ or ‘a little less.’ That was it.”
Where: Aero Theatre, 1328 Montana Ave., Santa Monica
When: 7:30 p.m. Friday
“EEK! At the Greek”
Where: Greek Theatre, 2700 N. Vermont Ave., L.A.
When: 5:30 p.m. Sunday