How do you film a sweeping TV miniseries called ``Hemingway'' but avoid at least some of the clich'es about the great writer? It helps to have Stacy Keach in the title role. All over the world while he was making the six-hour show - from Africa to Idaho to Key West - ``I carried a footlocker of books by him and about him around with me,'' said the thoughtful and impressively talented Mr. Keach when we chatted here recently.
The results - being syndicated on many stations during the next few months (check local listings) - show up in the insightful mix of attitudes Keach finds in Hemingway as the writer goes through four wives, several decades, and a universe of personal and artistic troubles.
That kind of research is how Keach deals with famous figures he's portraying - and he's played many with striking success, from Buffalo Bill to one of the Wright brothers. ``I love playing historical characters,'' he explains. ``It may be something that was born out of my classical training, or maybe vice versa. I read my way in. The imagination becomes enriched by historical data.''
In the case of Hemingway, Keach was especially mindful of the reading and thinking it would take - how he would need to clarify his own attitudes and find things an actor could latch onto. ``I think Hemingway's appetite for life is something I share,'' he notes, ``and his sense of humor. I also discovered I share a love for nature. I'm not a hunter, as he was. But I'm a fisherman.
``He was a very insecure person. He never felt he accomplished much. I can identify with certain aspects of that, because I think any artist strives for perfection, and some are more secure than others. In his case, he was always trying to find the mantle of confidence. I think the bravado and the drinking and all of that was born out of lack of confidence.
This show - based on ``Ernest Hemingway - Collected Letters 1917-1961'' and on Carlos Baker's ``Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story'' - is primarily an overview, Keach feels. But he says it ``focuses on Hemingway's relationships with the women in his life, trying to catch a glimpse of how he worked as a writer, how those relationships helped to mold his work, how the environments in which he lived helped to direct him toward certain things in his writing.
``Also it shows how his particular appetites, his love of bullfighting and hunting and boxing contributed to the body of his work.''
Keach has always been a Hemingway admirer. ``I got to know him as a writer before I got to know him as the American myth,'' Keach recalls. ``I started reading him when I was in high school. When I got to Berkeley I was a lousy English student, but I began to read a little bit more Hemingway and I began to take an interest in his work. It sort of saved me from flunking out of Berkeley.
Yet, ``Objectively, there are things about Hemingway I didn't like as a man,'' Keach says. ``But when an actor takes on any role, it's very dangerous to make moral evaluations. You have to suspend those for the moment. Stanislavsky once said, `An actor must love the character he's playing, even if it's Iago.'''
Keach even looks something like the writer, and he has the build and the physical talent to make you accept him in the daredevil exploits Hemingway found so irresistible.
But ``I was intimidated when I started,'' Keach admits. ``How can anybody fill those shoes? I was happy the first scenes were Hemingway in action. But in Switzerland, I tried to learn how to ski on those skis they used in the '20s and '30s that have no edges. I'm not a great skier anyway, and we were up on this glacier 10,000 feet above St. Moritz, where they had to fly us in by helicopter. We were skiing down, and the director said, `Cut!' I just kept right on going.''
As he filled out the role, Keach began discovering things about this legendary character he was portraying.
``We went to France and were shooting a scene where Hemingway was involved in the landing on D-Day and the liberation of Paris, and I got a glimpse into a child inside this man. He really thought he was General Patton. He was out in the backyard playing guns. What I discovered was a child in need of attention. Hemingway was playing out his fantasies, not only in that war, but in his relationships with people. It was something I could hold onto as an actor.''
It's also something viewers can hold onto. Through all the domestic scenes and the action, there's something burning behind Hemingway's eyes - his impatience with the phony, his stubbornness in seeking the ``one true sentence'' he felt a writer's goal should be. Keach retains a certain tenderness of voice and manner through the worst displays of bravado. He looks hurt even when he's truculent.
What does Keach think Hemingway would have made of this series, which was written and directed by Bernhard Sinkel and is a co-production of Alcor Film and Daniel Wilson Productions?
``I don't know,'' he concedes. ``He loved the limelight, but I don't know that he would approve of any film about him, even though I must say I had a very warm feeling when we were filming down in Key West one afternoon, as if he was smiling over my shoulder.
``But I remember getting a haircut one afternoon and seeing these pictures of him in Look magazine, and it was an article on Hemingway, particularly on his experience as the consultant on the film of `The Old Man and the Sea,' which he was very disenchanted with. He didn't like the big rubber fish. He didn't like any of his movies as made. The only movie he really liked was `The Killing,' which was Stanley Kubrick's first movie. He just didn't like Hollywood generally, although he did develop a good relationship with Gary Cooper, who was one of his close friends.''
Keach himself never knew Hemingway but learned about him from those who had - especially in Key West and Sun Valley, Calif. - another shooting location. ``Everybody had a different opinion of him, except that he was unmistakably one of the most charismatic people they'd ever come across. In my own life I had the pleasure of working with John Huston and Orson Welles, and I used them as models of men that had that larger-than-life quality.''
What reaction to Hemingway does Keach think viewers will leave the series with?
``I would hope after people watch this it would raise questions rather than answer them - that it will be provocative and make people go out and read Hemingway, or reread him. Particularly his letters. They became the most important foundation for my work. I had no idea he was so prolific in that respect. There you saw the sensitivity of the man. You felt this tremendous need for attention. He always closed with `Please write, I need your letters.' It was an enigma. He was that kind of a man - complicated.
``So it's frustrating to me, because you can only tell so much of his story. Even though it's a six-hour experience, it still just scratches the surface.''