You acted in “Who’s that Knocking at My Door?” and “Mean Streets.” What was it like working with Marty so early on? What kind of director was he like to be around when he was working?
Working on Marty’s first feature was thrilling and practical. Being a theatre actor, I had perceived scenes as arcs. Working on film was more simple. Drive the car up ways. Hit the mark. Stop. Back up. Do it again. All the elements of the rape scene were shot in pieces. I learned that film was shot in pieces and you had to sustain the emotion through all the stops and starts. There were just a few people on the set. Marty in a navy knit cap. Michael Wadleigh shooting the film and two or three other people. It was like D.W. Griffith shooting a scene in the snow. The beginning of cinema. Marty was the centre. Everyone knew he was a born filmmaker. Marty was then, and on every film that I worked with him, sensitive to the actors. He always made sure that the set was just right for the actors. He protected his actors. Marty loves his actors.
Marty cast me as The Soldier in “Mean Streets.” In the script, my character, Jerry, was dressed in a suit, at his homecoming party. He sat at a table. Charlie (Keitel's character) came up to him and later Jerry falls over drunk. A passive character. I had an idea to turn a passive character into an active one. I told Marty that I wanted to wear an army uniform, to make me look different from the others. I also said that I would destroy the cake, tear up the table and attack a chick. Marty loved it. I had heard Scorsese tell an interviewer, “Violence always erupts in the background.” So, while Charlie and the others were philosophizing, I would turn their picnic into a nightmare. There were only two cakes. I told the cinematographer, Kent Wakeford, to please keep me in frame. The scene went well. I remember one time Marty came up to me before the scene was shot and I said, “Marty, I have no lines.” He said, “Don’t worry, film is visual.” Vincent Canby, in The New York Times, wrote, “The scene when the Vietnam Vet destroys his own homecoming is one of the most sorrowful and mysterious scenes in recent cinema history.” I worked three days on the film. We shot my scene at a bar on 6th and Westlake, in L.A. The violent scene was juxtaposed with the tender scene of Charlie dancing with the girl.
I am the only actor to have acted in Scorsese’s first six feature films and his first TV show, “Amazing Stories” (“Mirror, Mirror,” episode).
How did you end playing Doughboy on “Taxi Driver”?
I got a call from Scorsese’s office to go to Columbia to see him. In the office with Marty were Sandra Weintraub and Larry Cohen. Marty said, “My first three choices for Travis Bickle were De Niro, Harvey and you. I went with De Niro. I would like you to play Doughboy.” I said yes. He gave me the script. “The dialogue’s too direct; you know the way we like to work – sideways.” He also said, “I am going to shoot the film in garish colours like the 1950’s B- movies” and “I am going to turn ‘Taxi Driver’ into a Gothic horror story,” which he did.
About a week later, I received a phone call from an assistant of Marty’s and was asked to come in to the studio and read Travis Bickle’s lines into a tape recorder so that De Niro, who was shooting “1900” in Italy, could study my Midwest accent.
What was De Niro like on the set?
Robert De Niro was Travis Bickle. He didn’t engage in any small talk. But he was always open for any new improvisation. He was kind and friendly and had a good sense of humour. He’s the best actor of his generation.
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