Here's Harvey Keitel, tough guy, snarling all the way to the bank: "I don't care what image I present. The only image I have to preserve is to be the most I can be."

OK, he's not really snarling when he says this, though he usually seems on the point of becoming very, very intense.Keitel is a spiritual guy, who worships Goethe and Marlon Brando in addition to the lesser gods.

He's an intellectual guy, too. He refers to the scripts he works from and the dramas he inhabits in academic parlance, as "texts."

Mostly, though, he's a bad guy. That's what he plays (with some exceptions: His latest role, as an outback illiterate with a heart of gold in "The Piano," at least offers a measure of nobility to gild the savage). Keitel was a charter member of the Martin Scorsese "Mean Streets" gang, and though he has a kind of radar for picking talented directors to work with - from Scorsese through Quentin Tarantino ("Reservoir Dogs") and now Jane Campion ("The Piano") - he's best known for playing creeps. Scorsese cast him as Judas in "The Last Temptation of Christ," and Abel Ferrara cast him in the title role of "Bad Lieutenant," about the worst cop in the motley history of law enforcement. In both cases, it was typecasting.

Not long ago Keitel was leaving a test screening of his next film, which is tentatively titled "The Pet" and is (now for something COMPLETELY different) a G-rated fairy tale for kids. Naturally, Keitel plays the witch, but still, it's a gentle little piece. On the way out of the screening, one child allowed as how he liked the movie but wondered why Keitel's character didn't get shot in the end. This makes Keitel laugh.

"The little brat," he says, taking a major hit off his cigar and pushing back from the table where he's sitting, in a New York hotel room with a handsome view of midtown though no view at all of either the deep-downtown neighborhood of TriBeCa, where he now lives, or the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn where he grew up.

He can laugh now, of course. And he can afford good cigars. "The Piano," which opened Friday, shared the top prize at Cannes back in May and has received a bunch of good reviews. It may be an art film, but it comes close on the critical success of "Reservoir Dogs" and "Bad Lieutenant." Just two years after Keitel was nominated for an Oscar for his performance as mobster Mickey Cohen in "Bugsy," there is talk that he'll be nominated again for "The Piano." There is talk that he might even win.

This is nice talk for a man who less than 10 years ago was wondering where his next decent role would come from. Keitel and Robert De Niro may have gotten their main breaks in Scorsese's "Mean Streets" in 1973, but it was De Niro who became the big star. Keitel become one of his generation's ferociously dedicated character actors, a background player in films from "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" to "Saturn 3," a performer who seemed to have a kind of non-stick surface to the fat of celebrity - fame bounced off him and spattered all his pals instead. When he was the star, in bombs from "Mother, Jugs and Speed" to "The Two Jakes," more often than not Keitel was the best thing in a bad movie.

This is no longer true. As of this fall, word is out: Keitel is bankable. How does it feel?

The cigar tips up, the smile widens. "It's liberating, yes. I get to say `No.' But I find that it's harder to say `No' than to be said `No' to."

Yes, he would find that, even if it didn't sound like Zen stuff. Keitel, who played Judas as a raver with a Brooklyn accent and who spent much of his screen time in "Reservoir Dogs" cradling a fellow crook who was bleeding to death, has now worked himself into something approaching a paternal devotion to film and its glorious properties. Just a few years ago, he was a dangerous character on the margins, a kind of East Coast Dennis Hopper. Now he gets movies made - small movies, maybe, but good ones - on his say-so.

Quentin Tarantino told everyone who would listen about how Keitel bailed him out when he ran out of money to finish "Reservoir Dogs." This is true; Keitel became executive producer of "Reservoir Dogs" (as he did with "Bad Lieutenant").

"I put my name to it. At one point Quentin was going to drop out because we had run out of money, and I said I wouldn't do it without him. I have a million dollars worth of power, I guess, because that's what we raised."

OK, so he's not quite De Niro, even now. But Keitel is an actor of comparable intensity who has come into his own. At 54, he finally has Hollywood weight. And since he has always had taste, the combination is heady.

Keitel was there for Scorsese when Scorsese was still a student at NYU; the result, "Who's That Knocking on My Door?" which starred Keitel, goes down as the most significant student film of all time. Keitel was also there for Ridley Scott ("The Duellists"), Alan Rudolph ("Remember My Name"), James Toback ("Fingers") and Tarantino's "Reservoir Dogs," all first films. He was there for Abel Ferrara, too, though Ferrara had been doing B-movies for years. Still, the collaboration with Ferrara on "Bad Lieutenant," in which Keitel played a cop deeply addicted to drugs, abusive sex and, it seemed, corruption for its own sake, inspired critics to hail Keitel's "courage." It was not a role many actors would have taken.

Ask him about this and you get a typical Keitel circumlocution: "I think maybe humility prevents me from discussing it. But, yes, I know what they're talking about."

Of course he does. Keitel is one of the few American male actors willing to "do nudity" on screen (full frontal nudity, that is, not the mincing pseudo-revelation of a coy rump shot), and perhaps no other American actor so strips himself emotionally, either.

Ask him about this and he resorts to an anecdote he has used a number of times before. Keitel joined the Marines when he was 17 and earned his high school equivalency diploma while on active duty in the late 1950s. It was in the Marines, he says, that he started reading books. And it was in the Marines that he saw the light, through the dark.

"I had my first spiritual enlightenment as a young Marine. There was a class in night combat training. It was so dark you couldn't see your hand in front of your face, and we heard the voice of a Marine instructor: `You are all afraid of the darkness because we are all afraid of what we don't know. And I'm going to teach you about the darkness, so you will no longer be afraid of it."'

Keitel sometimes says things like this that don't seem directly connected to the question at hand. But he has a way of circling back on himself later on, answering the question after all. Later, talking about his craft, he will say:

"It's not that acting offers you so many different roles to play; it's that it offers you work that can take you deeply into a place if you choose to go." So you will no longer be afraid of it, perhaps.

Fear and struggle in deep, dark places are constant themes in Keitel's work. They are every bit as constant in the way he talks about that work. He sold shoes for a while after he left the Marines and then worked as a court reporter; it was while he was doing this that a friend persuaded him to take acting lessons. He wound up studying acting under Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler - a struggle to overcome all manner of fears, including a bad stutter when he was young. And so performing has taken on a kind of redemptive force.

"Acting is religious. Doing work - painting, writing - is religious. I can see worshiping Dostoevsky's work, Goethe's work, as being holy. I can see worshiping some of Marlon Brando's work as scripture."

This is an actor whose choice of projects, even now that he has a very wide choice indeed, is so eccentric as to beg parody. His character in "Bad Lieutenant" was utterly unsympathetic, a complete grotesque; at one point the lieutenant performed a kind of verbal rape on two girls he had pulled over for an imagined offense. His character in "Reservoir Dogs" may have been the best of a bad lot, a crook with heart, but he was still a murderous lout and spent the last half of the movie cradling that fallen comrade in a steadily expanding pool of blood. These are not roles that bring one glory or Oscars, even when they should. Still, Keitel seeks them out.

He describes the process as a kind of search for that moment in the dark - only this time, it comes from the pages of a script.

"There's a reaction to words on paper that provokes you. You're aware of being in a place you'd like to be. It's not the physical place. It's the universality of the ideas that are embodied by the text. It's the need to care for someone, whether they be bleeding and spitting their guts out. If you care for someone you will hold them.

"Quentin," Keitel says, "had these themes in his text."

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Ah, yes. The text.

Keitel happily displays the reverence for letters of the self-taught, the autodidact's knee-jerk respect for learning. Reading, he likes to say, saved his life. He reads scripts for fun, he also says, making him virtually unique in his trade, which is run by extravagantly paid men who hire others to read scripts for them. Keitel does his own reading and does it very well - that's one reason why he has seemed so prescient. Still, it's all a learning experience.

When he first read the script for "Bad Lieutenant," Keitel put it down a few pages in. He remembers thinking, "I'm going to get a lead role, and it's THIS?" But he picked the script up again and finished it, and now he says he understands: "Abel Ferrara's thought to make it was his talent, just in his thinking."

Keitel was supposed to star in Francis Ford Coppola's "Apocalypse Now," in the role that eventually went to Martin Sheen, but he and Coppola didn't get along. Keitel wound up in Ridley Scott's first film, "The Duellists," instead. Scott got his start making commercials for British TV, and at first Keitel didn't want anything to do with him. But he learned, he learned.

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