Cold War, Modern Day

Why Was Harvey Keitel Sacked From Apocalypse Now?

War movie classic Apocalypse Now wouldn’t be the same without Martin Sheen, who starred as Captain Benjamin Willard. His perspective is essential to the intense journey the audience goes on, as Willard heads deep into the jungle of Cambodia to confront the monstrous Colonel Walter E. Kurtz (Marlon Brando).

That said, Willard could have looked very different. Harvey Keitel was originally cast in the part, before director Francis Ford Coppola replaced him with Sheen. Why did Keitel leave the production? The answer, like Willard’s quest, is eye opening and also a little confusing. Let’s see what the principal players had to say for themselves in this behind the scenes drama.

Harvey Keitel before Willard

Before we venture too deeply into the dense working environment of Apocalypse Now, it’s worth looking at how Keitel came to be cast in the first place. Today he’s known as a character actor, typically associated with crime movies, such as those by Martin Scorsese. It wasn’t always that way however.

Rare photograph’s of Keitel on the set of Apocalypse Now. The smiles weren’t to last. Credit: American Zoetrope/United Artists

Born in New York in 1939, Keitel was raised by his Jewish immigrant parents, Harry and Miriam, in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn. They were small restaurant owners, and it wasn’t necessarily the background you’d expect an actor to spring from.

The young Keitel soon made an impression with up and coming talent in the American movie business. He studied under Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, two names who are legendary in the field of realistic screen acting. That training, combined with his brooding presence, made him a natural for cinema. At the same time, his friend and colleague Robert De Niro was working his way to the top.

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Interestingly, Harvey Keitel’s first experience of a big movie was via 1967’s Reflections in a Golden Eye. The military setting and Keitel’s role as a soldier, not to mention the film’s star Marlon Brando, seemed to foreshadow the young actor’s future involvement in Apocalypse Now.

Organised Crime

That same year, he worked with Scorsese for the first time, in the drama Who’s That Knocking at My Door. It was a proper introduction for audiences, as his role in the previous film was uncredited.

Over half a decade later, Keitel starred in Scorsese’s Mean Streets, an unforgettable portrayal of young men caught up in organized crime. This memorable production established creative partnerships that still continue today. De Niro played alongside Keitel, and their chemistry was plain to see. It was a breakthrough flick for all concerned.

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As a contemporary of Scorsese’s, Francis Ford Coppola knew and cast some of the same individuals. When he was putting together Apocalypse Now, based on the 19th century novella by Joseph Conrad, he needed someone to play the main character of Willard. Harvey Keitel was on his radar, though it took a while to actually hire him. It turned out he wasn’t the only person Coppola had in mind however.

Shooting the wartime odyssey

The original novella took place in the Belgian Congo, during a very different time period. Yet there was much that screenwriter John Milius and director Francis Ford Coppola saw in the material that translated to a burning issue of the 1970s – namely, the war in Vietnam. Though it ended several years before Apocalypse Now was released, it left a lasting legacy.

Apocalypse Now
Original movie poster for Apocalypse Now. The casting was as confusing as the poster!

Milius wanted to sign up for the Army at the time, but couldn’t due to his asthma. Coppola was on board as producer initially, with Star Wars creator George Lucas wanting to direct. It was reportedly Lucas, plus his pal Steven Spielberg, who urged Milius to write a screenplay about Vietnam. The writer envisioned an adaptation of Heart of Darkness, with the action relocated to another jungle territory.

Assembling the cast proved to be a challenge for Coppola. When it came to the character of Captain Willard, he wanted to use Steve McQueen. A reportedly reluctant McQueen came with a whopping price tag… $3 million.


He then offered to play Colonel Kurtz, which was a more attractive proposition for him due to the shorter filming time. His fee for doing so? Still $3 million. This version would have potentially seen Clint Eastwood play Willard.

The director didn’t want to go out of his way to stump up the cash it seems. As mentioned by Variety, Coppola had mixed feelings about his chosen star anyway. He realized that McQueen’s name “would have boosted box office”. Ultimately however, Coppola felt the large sum “would set a dangerous precedent for filmmakers”. He then set his sights on a younger star… Martin Sheen.

Francis Ford Coppola
Francis Ford Coppola in 1976. It was his decision to sack Keitel from the movie.

Yes, Sheen was wanted for the role at an early stage, but there was a snag. He was busy on another project. Harvey Keitel looked to be the perfect next choice, and so contracts were signed. Depending on which reports you read, Keitel either spent a week or several weeks on the production before being let go. After so much work casting the part of Willard, why did Francis Ford Coppola change his mind…?

Why was Harvey Keitel replaced?

Variety reported that Keitel “exited over a ‘contract dispute,’ balking that Coppola agreed to a filming hiatus. The delay in shooting was down to the casting of Brando as Kurtz. While many on the production may have been excited at Brando’s arrival, they weren’t so impressed when he presented himself. The legendary star had piled on the pounds, and reportedly wasn’t prepared.

Eventually he would improvise his dialogue, and be shot in shadow. This created a sense of mystery but seemed more to do with Brando’s sensitivity over his appearance. Either way, the effect was electrifying.

Less compelling to Coppola was Keitel, whose performance wasn’t hitting the right note. Collider writes that Keitel’s Willard was “deemed insufficient for the director’s vision of the character”. It was a tough decision but, despite filming a “significant amount of material”, Coppola took his leading man off the picture. He viewed the character as passive, and felt Keitel didn’t have the tools needed to convey that quality.

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Speaking to Insider in 2021, Keitel opened up a little about his experience. He doesn’t hold any ill will toward Coppola, stating he “did what he felt he had to do”. So what precisely happened regarding the dismissal? That’s less clear cut. One thing’s for certain – Keitel was unhappy about one of the explanations offered. Insider got to hear his take on the story.


Various documentaries and books are available which detail the filming of Apocalypse Now. It was a heady time, fueled by drugs, fear and chaos, that took a heavy toll on Coppola and the team. The cast alone were a handful and a half. Aside from Marlon Brando, you had Dennis Hopper, whose performance as a photojournalist wasn’t exactly achieved through healthy living!

Hearts of Darkness
Film poster for documentary Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse

Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse (1991) is one of the best known sources of information, however in the book Coppola’s Monster Film (2016), which Insider refers to, the director is quoted regarding Keitel’s suitability for the role.

To him, the actor appeared uncomfortable on location in the Philippines. Coppola speculated: “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?”

Keitel wanted Insider to know that he very much was not afraid. You see, he’d had prior experience in that type of environment. As the man himself puts it, “Harvey Keitel spent three years in the United States Marines Corps in the jungle.”

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While Coppola got the impression his star wasn’t up to the rigors of jungle life, the object of his concern disagreed with extreme prejudice. He didn’t fear the jungle. He’d lived through it!


 So what ultimately led to Keitel departing Apocalypse Now? The most likely explanation is that his face didn’t fit. In that sense, Coppola had to follow his instincts and find someone who would better articulate his vision for Captain Willard.

Speaking to Yahoo Movies, editor Walter Murch said that it was hard for Keitel “to sit still, which is one of the requirements of what that character does”. Bearing in mind that Keitel was at peace with the decision, then it seems no harm was done. Though the director appears to have ruffled some feathers by expressing the views he did.

No movie on this scale goes off without a hitch. Especially Apocalypse Now. The film was expected to be a celluloid folly of epic proportions, yet it became a financial success and is still talked about as a definitive war movie in the 21st century.

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One reason behind its popularity is the performance of Martin Sheen. When Keitel left, the team was able to hire him after all. This didn’t mean Coppola was out of the woods, or in this case the thick jungle. If he breathed a sigh of relief that Sheen was in place, he soon realized the star would bring a whole new set of problems.

Harvey Keitel’s first big movie was Reflections in a Golden Eye in 1967. Marlon Brando was the lead in the same film.

Martin Sheen had his own problems

Sheen nearly died while making Apocalypse Now. As if the terrible weather, drug-taking, debauchery and sense of barely-controlled chaos wasn’t enough, the production nearly claimed the life of a rising star. Coppola famously went on to compare the movie to the Vietnam War itself. In that context, Sheen almost became a major casualty of the conflict.

It began when Sheen suffered from heat stroke. He’d had a hell of a time, reportedly being a quarter of a mile away from any help when the condition struck him down. Thing is, it wasn’t heat stroke.

Sheen had actually experienced a heart attack at just 36. The intense lifestyle that came with shooting Apocalypse Now caught up with him big time. An excuse of heat stroke was used so as not to spook investors.

Sheen used the role to confront his issues with alcoholism and mental health. A well known scene shows Willard punching a mirror and cutting his hand. That wasn’t in the script. He’d injured himself but wanted to keep shooting, in spite of Coppola’s reservations. Talking to Bob Costas about the sequence, Sheen revealed: “I had done that scene at bars, I had done that scene at home…I had to exorcise that out of myself”.

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The actor was playing out his own breakdown and it was all going on film. Amazingly, after letting Keitel go for not being passive enough, Coppola found himself with a star who was passive onscreen but a whirlwind behind the scenes. Keitel didn’t disappear from the movie altogether though. Walter Murch revealed that he can be seen in long shot during a helicopter shot of a boat.

How did being fired from ‘Apocalypse Now’ affect Harvey Keitel?

Following his dismissal from the film, Keitel kept working. He’s a familiar face in a range of productions, many of which were made with Robert De Niro and Martin Scorsese. Keitel is in demand as an actor in gangster movies, yet also played roles such as Judas Iscariot in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) and George Baines in The Piano (1993).

Another notable role in a movie with a troubled production was as Julius Berman in Chinatown sequel The Two Jakes (1990). This saw him playing opposite Jack Nicholson, who’d reportedly been approached for the lead in Apocalypse Now.

Keitel is no stranger to war movies, appearing in the likes of controversial World War II drama U-571 (2000) and Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009).

Want to know more about the making of Apocalypse Now? Our article about Joseph Conrad and Heart of Darkness will enlighten you even further.