“Major crimes” & missed demeanors – Phillip Keene

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Phillip Keene photo by Benjo Arwas
Phillip Keene photo by Benjo Arwas

For fans of TV crime dramas, and even those who are not, I highly recommend watching Major Crimes on TNT. Major Crimes is the spin-off series of The Closer, which ran from 2005 until 2012.

Actor Phillip Keene has played the role of Buzz Watson on both series. Buzz is the LA Police Department’s civilian techie doing electronic surveillance, and analyzing crime scene videos.

Phillip Keene
Phillip Keene

Phillip grew up between South America, and California, and this influenced his childhood in many ways. “Actually, I lived in several different California cities, and two different Central American nations. I went to Nicaragua for a year when I was three, and Costa Rica for a year when 12. When I returned to the U.S. the first time from Managua, I only spoke Spanish! I had to re-learn the whole concept of English. Looking back on my childhood I would say the experience of living in other countries and learning two languages at a young age increased my own personal view of the horizon. Having lived in so many places, I wasn’t afraid to imagine living almost anywhere.”

Phillip said, “I came out when I was 17, though I knew from the age of five that I was attracted to boys. I didn’t actually plan on telling my parents while I was living at home, but while I was at work, my mother found a Valentine card (to me!) from my boyfriend. I popped home to change for the next half of my double shift at the restaurant, and Mom confronted me. She also slapped me really hard across the face, and told me to get out of the house, which was fine because I had to get to work. Two things happened that day. I discovered that my stepfather, of whom I’d always been a bit fearful, was more of an ally than I expected. And I resolved never to hide who I was again, from anyone, for any reason. I had been bullied at school, beat up on my way home, called a faggot, and denied the lease to an apartment; all because I was gay. But I never saw myself as a victim; I saw myself as an idea that could never be extinguished. In retrospect, though I didn’t come out the way I was going to, and I didn’t know it at the time, I was part of a movement. And I wouldn’t change having been part of that movement for anything!”

Phillip Keene photo by Benjo Arwas
Phillip Keene photo by Benjo Arwas

Before his acting career, Mr. Keene worked as a flight attendant for Pan Am. He is also a major collector of Pan Am memorabilia. He said he became a flight attendant “at the ripe old age of 21. I had already been working full time for nine years in restaurants, as an electrician’s apprentice, in retail, and bookkeeping, but every job I took seemed like another step in the wrong direction. I had no college education, so that critical step up always seemed out of reach. In desperation, I picked up a Sunday edition of the LA Times, which was the very first time I’d ever purchased a newspaper, and trolled through HELP WANTED. In the corner of one page, I stumbled across an ad for Pan Am flight attendants. Remarkably, I had all the listed qualifications, and so I applied, not very hopefully, but then I was hired, and my whole life changed. My work at Pan Am started an adventure that I’m still living.

For the next four years, I flew throughout Europe, the United States, Central and South America, and the Caribbean. I soared over the North Pole, saw the Aurora Borealis from the cockpit of a 747, experienced a double engine fire midway across the Atlantic, put out an on board fire, and administered oxygen to a fallen passenger, all while maintaining an outwardly calm demeanor. In between, I served caviar, and carved Chateaubriand (cooked to order) for some of the most legendary people on earth. I met many celebrities, heads of church and state, and could order a beer in five languages! And while Pan Am helped passengers travel from one international city to another, it helped me find my place in the world. It taught me that if I applied myself, I could do quite nearly anything. I don’t know if I would ever have found the courage or the tenacity to go to college in my thirties if I hadn’t flown around the earth in my twenties.”
On his collection of Pan Am memorabilia: “I started off collecting small items, mostly advertisements, and matchbooks. I so loved the history of the company, and all its firsts.” The first to cross the Pacific, first to cross the Atlantic, first around the world commercial flight, and first with the 707, the 747, etc. I have always loved history, and this was just a natural fit being that Pan Am helped make aviation history. Also, I had always dreamed of being a part of something bigger than myself. It may sound funny to some people, but holding on to Pan Am, was like holding on to a part of my identity I never wanted to lose.”

Phillip Keene photo by Benjo Arwas
Phillip Keene photo by Benjo Arwas

Phillip also said, “I probably would have stayed with Pan Am had the company not gone bankrupt. Though, I have to say, I think I would find it very hard to adjust to the changes in the commercial aviation industry. I was lucky to have caught what I call the tail end of flying’s glory days. People weren’t crammed into seats, everyone in all cabins had a choice of what they wanted to eat, and passengers were much kinder to flight attendants than people are today. “

Mr. Keene is married to James Duff. Phillip said he almost didn’t get the role of Buzz Watson. “James, my husband and creator of The Closer and Major Crimes, was opposed to me being in the show. No nepotism. But Michael Robin, my friend, and executive producer wanted the same person in Electronics managing the monitors (because that’s kind of how it would be) and if they had gone to anyone even slightly better established, they would have had to pay the actor thousands, and thousands of dollars more than they paid me. In the end I got the role because it was small, and I was inexpensive (I won’t say cheap). I’ll add that almost immediately after graduating college, I started taking acting classes, and James was very supportive of that.”

Phillip met James he says, “Sort of at the YMCA in London. My boyfriend at the time was, shall we say, very generous with his affections. He was flirting with someone else, extreme flirting, and we fought about it, and I stormed off. Years later, I was showing James pictures of my life in London, and he pointed to a single shot of my ex-boyfriend. “Hey,” he said to me, “I know that guy! He tried to pick me up once at the Y.” I couldn’t believe it. James was the guy my boyfriend had been hitting on! Thank God he said no, and here we are 24 years later!”

On the legalization of gay marriage, he said, “The idea of two people of the same gender marrying had never even occurred to me as a possibility. I still have days when I wonder if it’s real.”

On balancing living and working together, and advice for other couples doing it, Phillip said, ”Separate sinks seem to be a key component to living well together. As far as working together, that’s a bit more complicated. We work on the same show but in different departments. We really do try to keep our respective spheres as separate as possible. Well, I do not come home and talk about work. He might discuss stories or editing or things of that sort. Every now and then I will tell him that I either wasn’t as good as I had hoped, or better than I expected. The key to everything is respect for the other person and, recognizing that you are equal partners. There is no junior executive in a real marriage.”

“We have other interests that keep us occupied. We are both avid readers of history, and biographies. James loves to play cards when he has time. I collect Pan Am memorabilia, and am always looking for time to sort through and catalog my collection”.

Being married to the show’s creator, Phillip said he has no input on the writing of the show.
“That is a definite no. Well, maybe a word change here and there, but no stories, and I’ve tried.”

Besides playing the role of Buzz Watson, Mr. Keene said if he could play another role, he’d love to take on the part of a super hero villain. “ I love seeing actors like Hugo Weaving, and Kevin Bacon play bad guys or conflicted people. I guess all actors want to play something that most people wouldn’t expect to see them do.”

On Buzz Watson, and the similarities between his character, and himself, he said, “I am so not a techie in real life! I think if you plug something in, it should just work. I still have rotary dial landlines at our home because I don’t like cordless phones. We have earthquakes, and I may need a landline that functions. Buzz and I are similar in that neither of us is interested in vulgarity in any of its various forms. But Buzz is more earnest and, I feel, more damaged than I am. As tough as my life was, I think Buzz had it harder. I think Buzz took it harder too. Also, I’m a whole lot more judgmental than Buzz.”

“Buzz has changed a lot over the years. He went from someone who was slightly disappointed in his life, someone who didn’t actually pursue either of the careers that appealed to him, to someone that decided he wanted to follow through on some of the dreams he’d had when he was young. I guess he’s a little like me in that, too, because (in career terms) I’m a late bloomer. Buzz is a late bloomer, too. But he’s an intrinsically good person, and that’s what I truly love about him. Buzz will stand up for people and put himself out there, and give of his time, and heart without asking for much in return.”

Mr. Keene said he feels his responsibility to the LGBT community as a gay actor is, “Living my life openly, especially in the acting profession. There are still a lot of actors who are in the closet, or afraid that coming out will limit their career options. There are people who are out, and there are people who are out loud. I’m out loud. Also, I volunteer with The Sunshine Kids, an organization dedicated to helping children with cancer, and I give of my time, and resources to Covenant House, which helps get our youth off the streets and into a safe place where they have the opportunity to make positive changes in their lives. Over forty percent of homeless teens are LGBTQ, which is out of all proportion to their percentage of the population as a whole, and I think helping young people is a serious responsibility that could really use some more adult help. I also serve on the board of The Pan Am Museum Foundation, which is curating the company’s history, and its contributions to aviation, like hiring openly gay people in positions where they were, in essence, the public face of the airline.”

He said, “The biggest challenge facing the LGBT community, in my opinion, is continuing to fight for human equality all around the world. I am extremely conscious that, living in LA, I’m inside a bubble where people, like Mayor Eric Garcetti for example, fight every day for human rights. But that is not so in Chechnya. That is not so in Uganda. That is not so in Egypt. While there are people being persecuted for their identity, we need to be fighting back. And we need a national government that cares about human rights more than it does cutting Medicaid.”

When Mr. Keene is not acting, he loves to cook, garden, and travel whenever he can. He said,” I still travel when I have the time. James and I keep saying that we are going to Italy, but never seem to get any further than France! This summer for the first time in fourteen years, we actually have six days off, and we’re going to the beach, and plop.”
Philip said his career plans for the future are, “To keep on learning more about my profession. I am currently taking classes at The Groundlings, and hope to shadow one of our directors in the not too distant future. I am beginning to look at directing as a possibility as I grow older.”

What interview of a star would be complete without asking for some show spoilers? Mr. Keene was happy to divulge a secret or two. “I can promise you one thing for sure: if you tune in to Major Crimes, you will see dead people. Some are more dead than others. Also, you are going to see some bigger stories than we have ever told before. And our three new cast members, Daniel Di Tomasso, Jessica Meraz, and Leonard Roberts, are rocking it out of the park.”

I know I’ll be tuning in to see how it all works out!