When I asked Stacy Keach if there is any connection between Lyman Wyeth, the Republican bigwig and former movie star he plays in Other Desert Cities, and his own life, Keach answers immediately: "Lyman's very much my father. I came from a staunch Republican background, so I understand Lyman very well." Keach continued: "Playing him is a purgation for me, because of my parents."
Later during my conversation with Keach, which took place in his dressing room before a matinee, he revealed other personal familiarities with the world of the play. "I grew up in southern California, and my family spent time in Palm Springs" - the setting for Other Desert Cities - "when I was growing up, in the late 1940s and 1950s. It was a very family-oriented place then. I remember that we belonged to a place called the Shadow Mountain Club. It was a private club, though you could pay to get in."
Keach also has history with Nancy Reagan, who is mentioned in Other Desert Cities. "I had the great privilege of meeting Mrs. Reagan," Keach said, "and working with her on her Just Say No program." How did that come about? "I had a very public incident with my own drug use -- cocaine -- in 1984. Afterwards, Mrs. Reagan graciously and kindly contacted me and asked if I'd like to help her with her program." Keach added: "I had been working with her for two years or so when there was a banquet honoring her at Universal City, in Los Angeles. I took out an ad in the banquet's program, praising her and thanking her. Frank Sinatra, who was the emcee for the evening, called attention to the ad. As he did so, I slid down in my chair and said to myself, 'Oh, no, here it comes.'" Instead of being criticized, however, Keach was singled out by Sinatra for dealing with his problem - he was, in effect, welcomed back into the Hollywood fold.
"Mrs. Reagan - and Frank Sinatra - saved my ass and my career," Keach said. That career has been long, rich, and varied. Keach has been directed by John Huston (the 1972 movie Fat City) and, on television, he has played Hemingway in Hemingway and Mickey Spillane's detective Mike Hammer several times.
Keach admitted, however, that "if you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose between movies, TV, and theater, I would choose theater." He is a superb Shakespearean actor, having played Edmund to Lee J. Cobb's Lear years ago, and the king himself, to acclaim, much more recently.
Keach's theatrical history extends to the opening of the Vivian Beaumont space, on October 21, 1965, when the actor appeared, with James Earl Jones, in Buchner's Danton's Death. Remarkably, Other Desert Cities marks Keach's debut with Lincoln Center Theater. (LCT did not exist in its current form until 20 years after Keach first played the Beaumont.)
"It certainly doesn't feel like a debut," said Keach, "given my association with this place." And in spite of the fact that Other Desert Cities marks the first time Keach has done a Jon Robin Baitz play in New York, there is history between the actor and the dramatist. "I did Robbie's play 10 Unknowns at the Mark Taper in L.A. I got to know and love his work then."
Keach said that, in their discussions about Desert's Lyman Wyeth, "Robbie told me that, in terms of function, if not specific details, my character resembles John Gavin." Gavin, for those of you unfamiliar with Hollywood history, is an actor known in the 1950s and 60s for handsome-leading-man roles. President Ronald Reagan appointed him the U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, a post Gavin held from 1981 to 1986.
But back to Other Desert Cities. Keach said that one of the things he especially appreciates about the play is that, in it, Baitz "doesn't have a political bias. He uses politics to tell the story." Keach added: "I appreciate that. Personally, I don't have a sensibility geared to one political party or another. I'm an independent."
I can't conclude this blog entry without giving a shout-out to Lights Out, the new F/X television program in which Keach appears as the Irish-American father to a boxer. It airs at 10 pm EST on Tuesdays, with repeats throughout the week. And who plays Keach's daughter on the show? Elizabeth Marvel, who is Keach's daughter in Other Desert Cities.
"This is becoming a habit," said Keach, affectionately.
Brendan Lemon is the American theater critic for the Financial Times and the editor of lemonwade.com.