“That Guy” file #5: Keith David

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March 3, 2011 by abbyo

Where you’ve seen/heard him: The Cape, Platoon, Crash, The Princess and the Frog, Death at a Funeral (Labute), Coraline, ATL, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Requiem for a Dream, The Chronicles of Riddick, Pitch Black, Dead Presidents, The Quick and the Dead, the go-to narrator for Ken Burns docs including “Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson,” “Mark Twain,” “The War,” and “Jazz.”

Keith David is a creepy looking guy. At least, I’ve always thought so. He just looks like he could beat you down and not even break a sweat. His deep, gravelly voice doesn’t help matters, nor does the fact that he first came to my attention as drug dealer/pimp Big Tim in “Requiem for a Dream.” It’s hard to shake a rep like that. In fact (or maybe this is just me), Big Tim (and characters like him) is the definition of the kind of acting David does best. It’d be hard to think of a person better suited to that role, simultaneously a threatening bruiser and a smooth-talker, the kind of guy who can get away with anything he wants. You see that same kind of dual intensity in many of David’s roles—he’s played cops, crooks, federal agents and soldiers, men who lead tough lives and are used to getting by through intimidation.

I’m much more comfortable with David’s voice work, both as an actor and as a narrator. In the 90s, he lent his voice to the kids’ show “Gargoyles,” (a show I rarely missed as a child), and, more recently, to “Coraline,” where he played a world-wise cat, and “The Princess and the Frog,” going back to creep-out mode as a villainous witch doctor. On the Documentary front, David’s won Emmys for his work on Ken Burns’ movies, and has become a defining feature of the director’s films. Weirdly enough, that voice that gives you the willies normally is actually pretty pleasant by itself, informative, dynamic and even (at times) comforting.

In the schools of “That Guy,” I’m going to put Keith David in the Vincent Schiavelli area: a ubiquitous, easily recognizable actor with a distinctive face and voice that color the kinds of roles he gets. It runs both ways. In acting roles, he can play the intimidator. In voice work, he can come across as authoritative and interesting. In either case, they’ve added up to a long, diverse career.

Special note: I’m volunteering at the True/False Film Festival in Columbia, Missouri this week, starting tomorrow! I’ll try and have a special post next week detailing my adventures.

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One thought on ““That Guy” file #5: Keith David

  1. […] plays sad-sack losers and frustrated, cartoonish characters. James Urbaniak plays smart people. Keith David plays threatening ones. So, what does Michael Rooker play? […]

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