“Hi, it’s Harvey Keitel here… “

Harvey Keitel by George Taylor, 1999
Harvey Keitel by George Taylor, 1999

You don’t get long-service medals when you are a journalist which is a shame really because after 25 years as a hack I could use a ribbon to brighten up my lapel on the odd occasion when I sling on the suit and thread the tie.

No matter. What we get instead, apart from a lacerated liver, is a host of stories, some of which may once upon a time have found their way into print but many of which stayed locked in the notebook or an ever-fading memory. Sometimes, these are moments when you wonder if what just happened happened.

Falling into this category, and in no particular order, were my brief encounters with Harvey Keitel, Nelson Mandela and Jo Stalin. I know, Stalin is dead and has been so since before I was born but I swear his spirit glided across my face and gripped me by the throat one grey, muggy Sunday afternoon in Gori.

The Keitel incident was not particularly odd, just unexpected. And ultimately, not one of my more glorious moments. I was working for Blendon Communications, a small magazine publishing company in the old docklands of London, in the late 1990s and had taken over as editor of Skylines, an in-flight magazine. It was a shabby little rag when we got our hands on it but with a small grain of imagination and a good sales team we had turned it round. From a bi-monthly taking about ten thousand pounds in ad sales, we had turned it into a monthly pulling in about fifty thousand and rising per issue.

The Millennium issue of Skylines which featured Harvey Keitel. The cover design was specially commissioned from Osnat Lippa and shows 100 of the most influential people of the 20th century
The Millennium issue of Skylines which featured Harvey Keitel. The cover design was specially commissioned from Osnat Lippa and shows 100 of the most influential people of the 20th century

We had, of course, gone commercial. We still found room for small features of the Classic Aeroplane Stamps of Benin and Get To Know Your Joy Stick ilk but fronting up were our slightly sexier celeb interviews. And one of the first we did was on Keitel which featured a superb cartoon by George Taylor of the great man in Reservoir Dogs pose – or is it Pulp Fiction pose? No matter, it is a great ‘toon.

I had met George a couple of months before at a book launch in Notting Hill. It was a beautiful summer’s evening in west London, a time of optimism as the 20th century took its last breaths before handing over to the 21st.

George was a friend of the author, Robert Templer, who also happened to be the brother of my sister-in-law, which is how I ended up sipping champagne in a Notting Hill garden that steamy summer evening. He was introduced to me as a musician and we began chatting. It emerged that apart from his regular line of business as one half of fratelli brothers – they were doing a lot of work in television at the time for series such as All Around the World, God of Short Strings and East & West – he was also an artist.  (He now operates under the banner noh1 and you can hear his music here)

Fast forward a couple of weeks and George came around to the Blendon office in Hanway Street where we went through his portfolio. Impressive isn’t the word. We repaired to the alternate office, Bradley’s Spanish Bar, across the road and struck a deal in cold Czech lager. His first cartoon appeared in the millennium issue.

As the airline was almost strictly north European in its destinations, it was somewhat of a surprise when, many weeks after Skylines had the flightpath, I got a call from New York; it was someone from Keitel’s production company The Goatsingers, asking if they could possibly get their hands on the original “for Harvey”.

After checking with George and feeling flushed by the flattery, we parcelled it up and popped it in the post.

I didn’t expect any kind of response and the weeks and issues duly passed. Keitel was long gone; we were on to Bridget Fonda and Will Smith and who knows who else.

So when the phone rang late one evening, I was slightly baffled by the voice at the other end.

Keitel phone (3)“Hi, it’s Harvey here.”

Pause

“Er, Harvey who?” (come on, who is this?)

“It’s Harvey Keitel. In New York.”

Pause

“Uh huh.” (this has to be a set-up)

“Am I speaking to (pause at his end this time presumably as he double-checked with his flunky that mine was a genuine name and not some spoof set-up) Bar-knee Spen-der?”

“Ye-eeees”

“And you are, like, the Editor of Skylines?”

“Yes that’s right, I am indeed the Editor… ” (no bloody “like” about it matey)

“OK, just wanted to be sure I was talking to the right man. ”

Pause

“And let me get this right, you are Harvey Keitel.” (thinking still this cannot really be Harvey Keitel although it does sound just a little bit like him so kudos to the impersonator)

“That’s right. I just wanted to call to thank you for sending the picture…”

Oh crap. It was Harvey all right. He couldn’t stop gushing and thanking and going on about the bloody picture. A normal Tuesday evening at the office, I thought, leaning back in my chair and putting up my feet, ready to gas with my old friend Harvs.

He was charming. He has a reputation for being a decent skin, thoughtful and genuine. And he certainly lived up to his billing which is why I still feel bad about how I handled the next phase of our conversation as it turned toward his latest film, U-571.

U-571_movieNow, I am not against Hollywood fine-tuning history, greasing the edges in order to slide it into a well-oiled plot. But I do draw the line at what might be called reconditioning history.

For example, Ernest Rutherford is widely credited with splitting the atom in 1917. Now, it might not suit Hollywood that Rutherford was a New Zealander so in their take we airbrush him out and replace him with, say, Eugene T Booth, an American. Okay so he was only born in 1912 but we can fiddle the dates to suit our story and, oh his name’s Booth, let’s say he was a relative of John Wilkes Booth. Should drag in more viewers in the US, anyhow.

Well this is rather what the makers of U-571 did. They claimed that it was an American submarine that was responsible for capturing the Enigma decoding machine which was one of the key factors in the Allies beating Hitler.

It was, of course a British submarine HMS Bulldog that retrieved the Enigma cipher off a different U-boat (U-110) in 1941 – before the Americans entered the war.

“…and I am afraid Harvey this is a bit of a sensitive issue with me because you see my father spent much of the war in the Royal Navy in submarines

“Well…

“And I have got to say Harv that what the producers have done shows total contempt for men like my father who did actually do this. Can you see that?

“Well…

The crew of S-33 gearing up for U-571
The crew of S-33 gearing up for U-571

“You are trying to rewrite history Harvey. And that is a slippery slide into nationalist propaganda where you take all the great stories of the world and pass them off as American. It is totally lacking in respect…

“Well…

“And the problem is that it will rebound on the United States. We hear stories of how inward-looking the young people are now in the US and how ignorant they are of the world around them. But if they are learning their history via the movies, if their general knowledge, their education is being shaped by what goes up on the screen and you choose to feed them a pack of lies, then you can hardly be surprised, can you.”

Eventually I did let him speak. He explained that they had made it very clear that this was a movie and not history, even putting a disclaimer at the end of the film to clarify that it was a British submarine.

“I wouldn’t know about that Harv,” I responded petulantly. “Because there is no way I am paying a tenner to go and see such a pile of old tosh.”

Now I am not sure that the Americans use the phrase “pile of old tosh” or not. Hopefully not because I quickly realised that my reasonable stance had tottered into pompous arsishness. It was something I immediately regretted, all the more so once I realised that Harvey had served with the US Marines, taking part in Operation Blue Bat in Lebanon. He had more understanding than most actors, and indeed the well-populated ranks of well-oiled, desk-round magazine men, of what it takes to serve. All credit to Harvey, though who remained gracious throughout.

“You know this has been really fascinating but I have to go. I have a conference call booked and I need to get on to it. It was really great talking to you. Thank you again for the picture – and if ever you are in New York please stop by the office and say hello.”

When I had put the phone down I looked around the office. There was no one there, no one with whom I could relive the bizarre sensation of being called up by a Hollywood A-lister and having a matey 35-minute set-to. No one.

Five minutes later, as I sat alone in the Mill Street Café and chugged a cold Peroni, I wondered if it had really taken place at all. But it did. And when I do get to New York, I will certainly stop by Harv’s office and reminisce with the great man about our friendly discussion.

And apologise for my rudeness.

©Barney Spender 2014

** Osnat Lippa is an Israeli artist now living in Canada. I first met her in London in 1990 when she designed a number of covers for the International Tax Review and subsequently commissioned her to do the Skylines front cover for the Millennium issue. You can discover more about Osnat and her work here.