Stacy Keach Calls -- The Veteran Actor's Role Touches On The Family Bonds He Cherishes

Stacy Keach is best known for playing tough guys. Hard guys.

Swaggering, hard-boiled TV detective Mike Hammer. Hard-drinking, hard-writing, hard-playing Ernest Hemingway in the 1988 TV miniseries about the author.

Heck, his Broadway debut was as the hard-riding Buffalo Bill.

But those characters merely skim the surface of Keach's repertoire. To theater buffs, the square-jawed, resonant-voiced actor is known for his three Obie Awards for Off-Broadway performances and his nearly three decades in professional theater, acting in everything from "Hamlet" to "The King and I" to "The Kentucky Cycle." He also has studied drama at the University of California at Berkeley, the Yale School of Drama and the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, where he was a Fulbright Scholar.

A touring role

Keach will bring his wealth of experience to Seattle when he stars in the touring production of "An Inspector Calls" at the Paramount Theatre July 23 to Aug. 4.

Keach plays Arthur Birling, the family patriarch, in J.B. Priestley's play about a police inspector who uncovers the wealthy Birling family's collective guilt and shame over their roles in a young woman's suicide.

"It's a morality play disguised as a mystery," Keach said in a phone interview from Minneapolis, where the play is currently performing. "Priestley believed that ultimately we all have to take responsibility for one another."

Keach first saw this production on Broadway in 1994, and was "overwhelmed by the ingenuity and non-traditional way this play was presented by the company," he said.

Billed as "American film noir meets Edwardian England," the production has won numerous awards for set design, lighting, music and special effects.

Keach's character, he said, is "deeply committed to the principle that you commit to yourself and your family, and everyone else can screw themselves."

"When my agent called me and said the show was coming to L.A. and had a role for me," Keach said, "I leapt at the chance, because I love the play and I also get to spend more time with my family."

Keach is a far cry from the hard-punching, straight-shooting character he portrayed in the popular 1984-85 series "Mickey Spillane's Mike Hammer." What gets him excited is talking about his family - his 8-year-old son, Shannon (who, Keach proudly points out, recently won an academic award in his second-grade class), his daughter, 5-year-old Karolina, and his wife of 10 years, Polish-born actress Malgosia Tomassi.

His family will be with him during the first week of the play, perhaps taking in some sights at the Seattle waterfront. Keach's only prior stint in Seattle was seven years ago, filming the movie "Class of 1999."

Fans of Keach's portrayals of tough characters needn't despair, however. He'll play the commander of a police force in the Kurt Russell action movie "Escape from L.A.," scheduled to be released in August. And there's talk of bringing back "Mike Hammer" as a series, with a younger sidekick.

He's also moving into production. A history buff, Keach is working on a 27-part "maxi-series," as he puts it, about the family of John Wilkes Booth, President Lincoln's assassin.

"The Booth family were really responsible for Shakespeare coming to America," Keach said. "They were the premier actors of their day."

His voice grows animated as he talks about the minutiae of the Booth saga: about the theory that Booth was never assassinated and lived a long life in Texas; about how actors were reviled after Booth's assassination of Lincoln.

He waxes philosophical about his love of history and acting: "I think the whole dynamic that exists between illusion and reality is one way of looking at history. And I think acting, in that respect, is a good metaphor for human events."

Not exactly the kind of words we're used to hearing from the likes of Mike Hammer. And all the better.