Harvey Keitel Was So Dedicated To Taxi Driver That They Had To Change The Script

Harvey Keitel gave an inspired performance as the devious pimp in "Taxi Driver," but the actor almost had a different part entirely. Keitel was originally cast in a larger role but insisted on playing the pimp. His dedication motivated director Martin Scorsese and screenwriter Paul Schrader to expand the part.

Keitel was initially cast as a campaign worker — the part that eventually went to Albert Brooks. It was a much more prominent character than the pimp when Keitel turned it down. In fact, the pimp originally had only five lines, Variety reported in 2019. But the actor wasn't as intrigued by politics as he was by sex work. "It's the whole idea of a man selling a woman, what is that?" Keitel explained to Fresh Air. "To me, it's such a horrible thing. I wanted to learn about that, I wanted to know about that ... What is their emotional makeup, their psychological makeup?" Some of Keitel's performance drew from his personal biases. "A lot of it came from my own conflict about women," he explained, "having questions about my own sexuality and about the sexuality of women."

The actor's curiosity arose from late-night walks through his neighborhood. "I had lived for a number of years at that time in Hell's Kitchen in New York and [...] had been nightly walking home passing all the pimps and prostitutes," he recalled. "Taking them in all those years, there were some ideas I had about a pimp and it interested me to play one." 

Keitel decided to ask one of these men to help him prepare for "Taxi Driver." "He said he was an ex-pimp, but I always thought he was lying," the actor told Variety. Keitel's work with this (ex) pimp would convince Scorsese and Schrader to change the script.

He worked with a real pimp to prepare for the role

Keitel spent weeks working with a pimp from his neighborhood to inform his "Taxi Driver" role.

"We spent two weeks working in the basement of Actors Studio. He taught me how to dance with the girl. First I played the girl and he was the guy, and then we switched roles. He taught me how to be a pimp. At one point he says, 'Oh, and you love the girl.' I said: 'Yeah but you don't really love her.' He said: 'No, you love her.' He repeated it several times. I still get the chills today remembering it. And he had a point."

This improv was so successful that it would inform Keitel's most powerful scene — his slow dance with Jodie Foster, who plays the young sex worker Iris. "I showed the improvisation scenes to Marty and Paul Schrader and they incorporated them into the script," Keitel revealed.

This wasn't the only thing that Keitel brought to the role himself; it was also his idea to wear long hair and clunky accessories. Perhaps this was to alienate the actor from the character or the character from his victim. Either way, it was a successful disguise — Keitel's own father didn't recognize him when he visited the set.

Few actors are as unafraid as Keitel to dive into the psychology of the villainous characters they play. He knew that the best way to play a pimp was to truly understand one. The result was one of the most unforgettable, bone-chilling performances in cinematic history.