Lords Spells Stardom for David Keith, a Tennessee Boy Turned Big-City Bachelor

updated 03/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/14/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

For several years he owned one of those distinctly memorable but un-namable what-else-did-we-see-him-in faces. The answers, and performances, were impressive: TV films such as Friendly Fire and The Golden Moment; features ranging from The Rose to Brubaker, Back Roads and The Great Santini. Still, critically solid and busy as he was, David Keith, 28, remained the other guy in somebody else's movie. Redford, Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones were always hogging the close-ups.

Native-Knoxvillean-turned-Manhattanite Keith has changed all that since last summer. Though Richard Gerri had top billing in An Officer and a Gentleman, Keith nearly stole the show as his suicidally heartbroken pal and won a Golden Globe nomination. Now Keith is starring in two new movies. In Independence Day, he's a small-town race car driver in love with Kathleen Quinlan. And in The Lords of Discipline, based on Pat Conroy's controversial 1980 novel about mid-'60s racism in a Southern military institute, Keith is back in uniform as a cadet who uncovers a secret racist clan on campus.

Many critics thought that Keith's acting in Lords carried the film, but he knows another corn-pone soldier role could catch him in a typecasting trap. "It's best I stay out of uniform for a while," he says with a smile. He objects fiercely when some confuse him with the red-neck roles he plays. "Nigger was a four-letter word in our house—you didn't say it." But he did see prejudice firsthand. "There were these stupid seventh graders in my school who were glad when Martin Luther King was killed. I was horrified."

Keith's boy-next-door charm can turn steely when he is challenged. Independence Day co-star Cliff De Young calls it his "energy shift. He can play a soft bumbly kid and then you see that fire ignite in those eyes. He can be dangerous." Long before he had star prerogatives, Keith argued with directors about giving his characters dimension. "I don't want to leave people thinking they've merely seen another actor using his same bag of tricks and fake charm," he says. His problem now is working on the Smoky Mountains drawl. "It's not that strong," he protests, "and it's going away normally. But when I go home, it does get thick and worse."

Football and basketball seasons at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee, don't help. Keith is proudly tied to his Knoxville home and parents, Lem, a TVA worker, and Hilda, a purchaser for the school board. "I love just lying on the floor at home watching games with my dad. No pressures, just being me."

Being him wasn't always such a pleasure. "From sixth grade on I was a real Pillsbury doughboy," he recalls with a smirk. "Overweight, long hair, thick glasses." Keith played sports in school, studied hard, but switched from sports to being a hippie "when the girls gave up jocks for more aesthetic types. I took off the baby fat, got lenses and my dating life finally picked up steam at about 19."

At UT he studied theater with Ralph Allen (a writer of Broadway's Sugar Babies) and that contact and stage experience got him his Equity card. In 1977 he split for New York just short of a B.A. with $600 left from "turning over guitars and cars on campus—not illegally."

There was one fateful detour to L.A. for a TV series called Co-ed Fever. It flunked out in prime time but he caught the eye of Bette Midler's then manager, Aaron Russo—and Keith's career started to bloom with The Rose in 1979. "I gave myself 10 years to make it," he says, "and then I figured I'd run a fishing charter in Florida. I could be happy doing that."

Keith sometimes dates girls back home, but he's quite happy doing his cruising these days around Manhattan's West Side. All that female companionship is helping Keith mend from a split, after five years, from L.A.-based actress-comic Pamela Matte-son. "It's better for us to be apart. I repeat that to myself 80 times a day," Keith says. "Still, it hurts. I miss her very much."

Keith says he wants a "wife and babies" in the future, but for now his passions run to sushi, bluegrass and the Dallas Cowboys. Playing movie star hasn't become too big a drag yet, though the street recognition "can get to you. Fame means so little about somebody when you come right down to it," he says. "Today's women get jaded so fast. After you get to know a star, he isn't a star anymore, is he?"

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