Harvey Keitel says he’s upset by ‘a blurring of the truth’ about why he was famously recast in ‘Apocalypse Now’

Martin Sheen in the jungle with Dennis Hopper
Martin Sheen (center) in ‘Apocalypse Now.’ United Artists
  • Keitel is upset the perception is that he was recast because he couldn’t work in the jungle.
  • “Harvey Keitel spent three years in the United States Marines Corps in the jungle,” he told Insider.
  • After a week of shooting, Keitel was replaced by Martin Sheen in the movie.
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

One of the most famous movie recastings in Hollywood is when Francis Ford Coppola changed up the lead actor for his 1979 war movie “Apocalypse Now.”

Originally Harvey Keitel was cast in the role of Willard, who’s on the hunt to assisinate a rogue Army Special Forces officer. Still, after only a week of shooting, Coppola brought in Martin Sheen for the role and the rest is history. Both the movie and Sheen’s performance have become landmark works.

Over 40 years later, Keitel is still a little upset by what happened on the Philippines set.

“I’m not sad about anything or resent anything except there has been a blurring of the truth,” the 82-year-old Keitel told Insider while promoting his latest movie, “Lansky.”

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

When asked to explain what he meant, Keitel said he would give a “little piece of it.”

Harvey Keitel on the set of Apocalypse Now
Harvey Keitel (left) on the set of ‘Apocalypse Now.’ American Zoetrope

“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.”Insider reached out to reps for Coppola on Keitel’s comments, but didn’t get a response.

Keitel is referring to the book “Coppola’s Monster Film: The Making of ‘Apocalypse Now.’” It chronicles Coppola’s journey to find an actor to play Willard, the soldier in the movie who is tasked with having to go behind enemy lines and assassinate Kurtz (Marlon Brando), a colonel who has lost his mind.

Originally, Coppola wanted Steve McQueen to play Willard, but when that didn’t materialize he tried booking Sheen. However, Sheen wasn’t available. So Coppola turned to Keitel, who impressed in Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets” and “Taxi Driver.” (Coppola and Scorsese were good friends.)

Harvey Keitel with sunglasses on
Harvey Keitel. Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic

But once they got to the Philippines to shoot the movie, Coppola had a change of heart about Keitel.”I could see [Keitel] was very uncomfortable about conditions in the jungle,” Coppola is quoted as saying in the book. “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.”

“Harvey’s always been gracious about it, so I’d say that this was just one of the most difficult things that happen,” the director continued. “But I feel I made the right decision for the picture.”

Coppola flew back to Los Angeles and convinced Sheen to star on the movie.

Thankfully things worked out for Keitel after the recasting. He went on to build a legendary career, starring in movies like “Bad Lieutenant,” “Reservoir Dogs,” “Pulp Fiction.” He also earned an Oscar nomination for playing gangster Mickey Cohen in “Bugsy.”