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The reason why Francis Ford Coppola fired Harvey Keitel from 'Apocalypse Now'

Hollywood is full of tales in which actors have been recast or even outright fired from roles they were originally set to play. Due to the director normally embodying a character type that fits somewhere between auteur and control freak, their dedication to a vision is so steadfast that when it comes to making a film, actors, just like shots, lines and scores, are expendable. 

The reasons why roles get recast are innumerable. This could be the actor’s death, such as Richard Harris, who played the first iteration of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter franchise. Or perhaps it could be the result of a falling out, such as when Val Kilmer and Joel Schumacher physically clashed on the set of Batman Forever. Still, it could even be for more inexplicable reasons, such as how Laurence Fishburne was not “invited” to reprise his iconic role of Morpheus in the upcoming Matrix reboot, Resurrections.

The world of film and TV is a strange one. Full of weird and wonderful characters, it is understandable that it is full of bizarre stories, such as our topic today, of why Harvey Keitel was fired/kicked out of Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 epic, Apocalypse Now. In fact, one would argue that this is one of the most shocking recastings in movie history due to the tenuous reasons Coppola cited for letting go of Keitel. 

Many people do not realise, but it was Keitel who was first hired to play Willard, the film’s protagonist who is brought in to assassinate Marlon Brando‘s rogue Colonel Kurtz. After a week of shooting in the Philippines, Coppola ditched Keitel and hired Martin Sheen for the role of Willard, a decision that effectively made the movie we all know and love. Of the major slight, Keitel recently told Insider: “I’m not sad about anything or resent anything except there has been a blurring of the truth.” 

He continued: “I’m not upset with Francis. He did what he felt he had to do… But there’s a blurring of the truth and I don’t feel good about that.”

Keitel then revealed that it was specifically a quote of Coppola’s in the book Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of ‘Apocalypse Now’ that he wanted to set straight. “I believe in the book on the making of the movie they said Harvey Keitel didn’t like the jungle; didn’t want to stay in the jungle,” he said. “Well, Harvey Keitel spent three years in the United States Marines Corps in the jungle.”

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The biography outlines Coppola’s efforts in making the film and pays close attention to his efforts searching for an actor to play Willard. After only a week of principal photography, Coppola realised that Keitel was not the man for the job. In 1990, he was quoted as saying that the actor “found it difficult to play him as a passive onlooker”. 

In the book, Coppola expanded on his reasons: “I could see (Keitel) was very uncomfortable about conditions in the jungle… And I thought, not only do I think he’s wrong casting, but what’s it going to be like for six months in these difficult conditions in the jungle for a city guy who’s afraid of it? I just decided to make this tough decision.”

The director did admit that it was a “difficult” decision and that he felt bad about it. Ultimately though, he feels: “I made the right decision for the picture.”

There exist images of Keitel in the role of Willard, and it is a strange visual experience. It’s difficult to imagine him in the role of Willard pertaining to just how perfect Sheen proved to be. Ironically, it would be he, not Keitel, who would have to suffer the most notorious moments on the film’s protracted shooting, including raging typhoons, heart attacks and other things as depicted in the documentary Hearts of Darkness.

Furthermore, film critic Walter Murch revealed that a shot featuring Keitel did actually make it into the film. In 2016, he told Christopher Sykes: “Tangentially, there is a shot of Harvey Keitel in the film, for those who are interested, and it is the shot of Willard walking from the helicopter to the boat and he sits down on the front of the boat with his rifle by his side kind of sticking up in the air.”

He explained: “That’s Harvey Keitel because that was a big shot to get. The sunset is just perfect. It was a big production to make this happen and they had shot it with Harvey Keitel. And unless you know, there’s no reason to reshoot it with Captain Willard, with Martin Sheen. But in fact that… Harvey Keitel is in the film and he’s in that shot.”

Listen to Murch discuss the film below.