Actor Phillip Keene is a person of queer perseverance

"Major Crimes" and "The Closer’s" star Phillip P. Keene photo by Kei Moreno

“I am going to be taking a lot of [COVID-19] things into consideration”

COVID-19 has been an interesting trip for Major Crimes and The Closer’s star Phillip P. Keene and husband, writer, producer, and director James Duff. Navigating the safety of each other has been important.

"Major Crimes" and "The Closer’s" star Phillip P. Keene
“Major Crimes” and “The Closer’s” star Phillip P. Keene photo by Kei Moreno

“My husband and I have been together for 27 years. He has been HIV positive for 33 or 34 years so there is a lot more to consider than just my own safety,” Keene said. Keene feels that a lot needs to be looked at by professionals qualified to ensure the health and safety of production on set. “When I do get the opportunity to audition or work on a show, you can believe that I’m going to be taking a lot of these things into consideration.”

As a child, Keene split time between Nicaragua, Costa Rica and California. He notes the dysfunction of his family growing up but encourages leaving that detail there, making Keene a survivor of his situation and a person of queer perseverance.

“I always appreciated women, but not in the way I was taught by my family and society,” Keene said of his adolescence. “I kept it inside, I was not able to really express myself until I was a little older.”

Somehow the truth always seems to peek its head out, be it ugly, freeing, violent, relentless, or all of the above. For Keene, it was when his mother found a Valentine’s Day card from his then-boyfriend. Though he found an unexpected advocate in his stepfather, his mother rejected him for being a gay man.

“I had come home between double shifts,” Keene said of the confrontation with his mother. “I was coming home to change uniforms, and I had to go back to work.”

Keene would soon encounter more discrimination when looking for an apartment with his partner in Riverside, California, circa 1985. “We were denied housing. They told us flat out, ‘we do not rent out one-bedroom apartments to two men’.”

Though Keene’s immediate family was in California, much of his extended family lived in Costa Rica. “I have uncles and cousins and aunts who live there but that association was more of an extended family. My aunt’s second husband was from that part of the world. That’s how I ended up there because I went to live with her while my mother was getting her life together.”

Keene was at one-time an employee of Pan American World Airlines. He has an extensive collection of the carrier’s memorabilia and took his last trip with the famous airline to Costa Rica in 1991. “Since then, the country has changed quite a bit. It has become more liberal and it’s always been a nice place to be,” Keene said. “[Pan Am] was a real growth period for me.  I think a lot of people hold fond memories of their college years. I took a different route: I got the job at Pan Am when I was 21-years-old and I traveled most of the world with the exception of Asia.”

When Keene was first hired at Pan Am, he was terrified coming aboard as a gay man. “This was a huge corporate entity, and I wasn’t exactly sure how I would be received,” he said.

Having kept much of his identity under wraps in his training process, Keene would eventually come out to his co-workers and peers. “After I got the job, I felt comfortable enough with my coworkers to come out to them, and I never had one bit of negativity thrusted at me.”

By the time the actor was working and coming out as a Pan Am employee, the year was 1988, otherwise known as the peak of the AIDs epidemic. During this time, Keene found his ‘chosen’ family, something rare that many folks didn’t experience in a time of death and prejudice. “To have that family embrace me was wonderful,” Keene said of those he is still close with.

"Major Crimes" and "The Closer’s" star Phillip P. Keene
“Major Crimes” and “The Closer’s” star Phillip P. Keene photo by Kei Moreno

Nurtured by community and traveling the world, Keene had a newfound confidence in himself. After Pan Am, Keene enrolled at UCLA taking on a double major of history and art history.

“The pursuit of that degree had nothing to do with career opportunities in the field that I was studying,” Keen said. “It was a challenge. I didn’t initially think I was smart enough to enter college.” However, Keene’s now-husband, James Duff, creator of The Closer, would encourage him. “What I learned at UCLA is how everything is connected—nothing stands alone.”

Keene graduated in 2004, which would also be the kickoff of his career as The Closer’s Buzz Watson, a crime video surveillance tech that would eventually graduate into a reserve officer in The Closer spin-off, Major Crimes. The two shows have a combined airtime of 13 years.

“With everything going on I have been looking at how the police community at large has been portrayed. And I have to say, personally, there have only really been two or three experiences—again I’m saying this as a white man—that have [been] negative,” Keene said. “A few of them are from when I was younger, just hanging out with the wrong kids, being in someplace I shouldn’t have been, but my experience with the police has been mostly positive. Just to see the outreach that so many of these officers have and the causes they donate to… We are all humans. I don’t know if it does us any good to paint an entire group of people with one brush.”

Additionally, Keene feels that Major Crimes brought to life the after effects of certain things. “A lot of the stories, we reveal how the justice system works and how it doesn’t work,” he said. “They tried to lay bare the flaws and inadequacies of these kinds of things. Certain departments feel their hands are tied because some of the laws need to be changed, the way things are dealt with need to be altered. We need to take a look at these things and really examine them, and look at the root causes of the actions that are taken by certain individuals.”

Lana Leonard
Lana Leonard (they/them) is a graduate from The College of New Jersey with a degree in journalism and professional writing. They work at the GLAAD Media institute and freelance for publications like LGBTQ Nation while working on their journalistic theory of change project: Late Nights with Lana, a talk show based out of 10PRL film studios in Long Branch, NJ. Lana's mission, in all their work, is to focus on people, their collective truths and how those truths form a community of knowledge towards change.