Denis Makarenko /
Have you ever been fired? Not from a job in the real world, which is difficult no doubt, but have you ever been taken off the set of a movie, from the stage of a theatrical play, or even jettisoned from a commercial shoot? If so, you know of the unique sting and inexorable heartbreak of being rejected … after you got the gig! Hurts, right? But can you imagine losing the lead on one of the most anticipated movies in cinema history, with an Academy Award-winning director at the helm?

Such was the plight of the Bad Lieutenant himself, Harvey Keitel, on the set of Francis Ford Coppola’s dystopian Vietnam war epic Apocalypse Now. After a long, Quixotic casting process, Harvey was cast to play Captain Willard, the would-be assassin going up the river to terminate a rogue officer’s command in the jungles of Saigon … “with extreme prejudice.” By any standard, this is an outstanding role tailor-made for a young actor looking to step up to A-list distinction—a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity passed down by the gods themselves. And just like that, it got taken away from old Harvey in less than a week’s time. Imagine that plane ride back to New York. Cocktail please!

Coppola replaced Keitel with a then 36-year-old Martin Sheen, and the rest is history. In fact, it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role of Capt. Willard as Sheen all but embodied the alcoholic military man with haunting realism. When asked about his fateful casting decision, Coppola explained that he thought Keitel was an excellent actor, but he just wasn’t right for the role. He saw Capt. Willard as a calm, almost passive observer of the madness all around, as well as a soulful narrator. It makes sense that Keitel’s manic energy and alpha-male persona would not fit into the director’s vision. Think about the silence of Sheen in Apocalypse Now; it’s extraordinary.

So, if you’ve ever been dropped from a choice acting gig, or rejected by producers in possession of your dream role, just know that it doesn’t necessarily reflect on your acting prowess or your ability to deliver an unprecedented performance. There are so many elements at play behind the scenes that have nothing to do with you. For example, one of the reasons Francis bounced Harvey is because Keitel grew up as a city kid and Coppola didn’t feel like his urban vibe would work in the Philippine jungles. Objectively, that shouldn’t have anything to do with anything, as kids from all different walks of life ended up in Vietnam. But there you have it; sometimes show business doesn’t make any sense. And you have to be okay with that. Look at Harvey Keitel; he went on to have a storied career. He didn’t let one particular spasm of misfortune stop him. He soldiered on—not in the jungles of southeast Asia, but in the casting rooms of New York and Los Angeles.

And as to the contretemps of his infamous rejection at the hands of Francis Ford Coppola, Keitel says, “’Apocalypse Now’ was not a bump, it was an experience. And a valuable experience, because I learned a lot by getting involved with ‘Apocalypse Now.’” Although sometimes challenging, it helps to have a good attitude and a healthy perspective on life and career.

The attached video Why Harvey Keitel Was Fired from ‘Apocalypse Now’ is posted on CinemaTyler, a YouTube channel dedicated to the appreciation and deconstruction of great films throughout history in order to glean valuable information about the film-making process—and to simply geek out on cool movies as well. According to the channel itself: “Here at CinemaTyler, we take an in-depth look into the construction of some of cinema’s greatest movies. This channel is devoted to understanding filmmaking through watching, researching, and analyzing movies.” Tyler is an amiable host, and he uses everything under the sun to analyze these celebrated films, including wit, humor, cutting-room-floor clips, behind the scenes interviews, and esoteric history. Very interesting stuff!