Actor Phillip Keene is flying in the face of the Coronavirus

By Timothy Rawles, September 2020 Issue.

I used to think being a native Californian was a rarity. And to be born in Hollywood, well that was truly exceptional; much like actor Phillip Keene who calls it his hometown.

The first thing you notice about the 53-year-old is how handsome he is. He stands tall, beams with boy-next-door charm and looks like a Nautica model. That’s on the surface. Underneath, he’s well-educated, loves Pan Am collectables and speaks several languages, He has garnered a number of Screen Actors Guild nominations while spending 13 lucky years of his life, collectively, on two of cable’s most popular detective shows.

He played surveillance expert Buzz Watson on both police procedural TNT series The Closer and its spinoff Major Crimes. The latter ended in 2018.

I talked to Keene via telephone to discuss Project Wingman, a program that helped get medical personnel away from the frontlines of the coronavirus. Thankfully that program is no longer needed, but we’ll get to that a little later.

He was a little preoccupied with the excitement of getting a delivery from a Swiss photographer friend. Apparently, his friend flew a drone over Los Angeles during the pandemic capturing images of empty streets, businesses and freeways and made a book called Lockdown L.A. It’s a historic moment.

While he waited for FedEx we discussed other interesting aspects of his life including his time as a flight attendant, what he’s doing during the pandemic, and his acting career.

If you didn’t know, Keene is also an out, gay actor. Today, that revelation doesn’t really have as much of an impact as it would, say, 10 years ago. Still it’s important because there was a time when being out and proud in Hollywood as an actor meant limiting your roles. So rather than risk your livelihood, you just stayed in the closet.

Keene says the industry has changed and being gay is no longer a deal-breaker. “I don’t think it’s as much of an issue — if at all — as it has been in the past,” he said with assurance; sexuality was never a concern. “I only say that because of the number of guest stars that we had coming through and knowing some of the casting people who, you know, recommended these actors.”

Curious what he thinks about straight men playing gay roles, I asked him if he agreed with activists who feel gay roles shouldn’t go to heterosexual men. 

He doesn’t have a problem with that. “I think as long as they respect the character and they’re the best person for the role,” he said. “If they bring what it is that the director or the writer are looking for then that’s what it is. So, I don’t see that as an issue as long as everyone has been given an opportunity. And those who are qualified to come in and audition. Let the best person get the role whoever it is. I say that about straight roles, as well.”

As mentioned before, Keene is a commercial airline enthusiast especially when it comes to Pan American World Airways (or Pam An for short). Before the company went under in 1991, they were not only the largest international air carrier, but a pop culture icon. Enthusiasts were enamored by the company’s archetypal blue globe logo and branded merchandise. They were like the Disney of the airline industry.

Before Keene became an actor, he was a flight attendant for Pan Am. In fact, he worked on the second 747 ever made for commercial use. He still collects memorabilia from the historic company.

We talked a little bit about how the air travel experience has changed over the past two decades. As ticket prices become affordable, domestic jets seem more like cattle cars than luxury excursions. The era of American five-star flying is over.

Keene says that getting to your destination used to be part of the adventure. It was part of the fun. Flip-flops and tank tops were not considered flying attire and in-flight service uniforms were fashion statements not examples of bland retail frippery.

“Whether you were seated in the back or the front, the service was pretty good, and they took care of you,” he says. “They had to entertain you whether it was through food or service or the attendants on board or the amenities of the cabin, but now everybody’s got their own personal devices and don’t want to be spoken to. They don’t want to be interrupted for, you know, cruddy food that they’re serving in plastic.”

In the Pan Am era passengers were treated as royalty. “That aspect has changed a lot and the passengers have changed,” he says. “When I was flying, there was maybe one or two incidents of passengers misbehaving.  Granted I only flew for four years when I was flying internationally.”

Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, Keene is grounded and isn’t taking as many trips as he’d like to these days, and for good reason.

“My husband of 27 years has been HIV-positive since probably 1982. So we’re extra careful,” he says. “I’m just keeping to myself and not going out into the world.”

Even small excursions are limited. He tells me he’s only gone to the grocery store about half a dozen times since March and is fortunate that almost everything can be delivered to the doorstep. Still, he makes time for a few friends who he trusts, having them adhere to fixed precautions.

“We have this little bubble. We have a couple of friends who are more terrified than we are but they got tested and they came to stay with us for a a week.” His voice seems happy discussing seeing friends in his space. “So now we’ve maintained this pact if you will — with about four or five of our friends and we are all interested in the same rules. We have other friends who are a little looser with their ideas of what quarantining is so we let them do their thing on their time and their space. We don’t hang out with them because their idea is different than ours.”

What helps him get through home confinement is exploring his culinary side. COVID-19 house arrest has given him some inspiration to sharpen burgeoning skills in the kitchen, “It allows you to be creative and I’m doing something where I can see a positive result at the end.”

Not everyone is as lucky during this time in history.

Which brings us to the people who have to literally face the pandemic head-on; the medical workers. Keene decided to help those who are risking their lives to help others. He took his love of air travel and applied it to New Yorkers in something called Project Wingman, where pop-up lounges inside hospitals were makeshift locations of Zen.  

“Let me preface this conversation by saying it is just ended because the number of patients in New York has gone down so much that they don’t need those lounges anymore,” he explains. “So, there were two of them in New York; the bigger hospitals, staffed by airline personnel.”

The idea was to create a place staffed by volunteers who work as flight attendants. It was a place where medical professionals could relax, have refreshments and just unwind. “Flight attendants are famous for being called ‘jump seat therapists.’ So if you sit down with a complete stranger, a flight attendant, within 20 minutes, you know, the two of you are best friends and you know all the ins and outs of each other’s lives. So that’s kind of what that was about. It was providing a space for healthcare professionals to unload and relax and be ready to go back and fight in the trenches again.”

As for what Keene has planned in the future, he is working on something he wrote for television. He and his husband, television writer, producer and director James Duff, are collaborating on a comedy.

“So, he wrote a little outline and registered with the Guild and we had a couple of meetings with some producers who think it’s a great idea,” he tells me. “So, if we can get that off the ground in some form or fashion, that would be amazing.”

Speaking of getting off the ground, as we wrapped up, I was curious to see if that parcel that contained his friend’s book had arrived. “No, not yet,” he said. I couldn’t help but notice the merriment in his voice as he answered. The man born in Hollywood who has probably seen the cityscape hundreds of times from the sky, will see it in an entirely new perspective for the first time. Sometimes you don’t need to travel that far to see an entirely new world.  

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