The woman is Brooke Shields, and the backdrop her admission that she had gone to a psychiatrist for help in dealing with postpartum depression, a move that Cruise attacked back in 2005.
O’Keefe, a Zen Buddhist, goes on the offensive in “Mission Impossible,” explicitly referring to Cruise’s much-publicized belief system. “Scientology is the perfect plan to drive man insane,” he writes.
The 54-year-old Westchester, N.Y., native who starred recently in “Michael Clayton” described Cruise as a friend. “I feel good about my relationship with him,” he said, “but at the same time I did not like what he was saying about Brooke in the press.”
Shield reportedly got an apology from the “Top Gun” star, but she welcomed O’Keefe’s support. “I sent it to her,” he said of “Mission Impossible,” the poem. “She was very happy.”
O’Keefe is the most senior member of that trio of stars. He was a member of the Screen Actors Guild from age 16 and had starred in numerous 1970s TV shows, from “M*A*S*H” to “The Waltons,” before being cast opposite Robert Duvall in “The Great Santini.” He won an Oscar nomination, at age 24, for that role as the oldest child of overbearing Marine Corps pilot Lt. Col. Bull Meechum (Duvall). O’Keefe quickly followed up playing Danny Noonan in “Caddyshack” alongside Bill Murray.
Elements of his biography have cropped up in his movies, though usually by accident. There is, for instance, the difficult father-son relationship in “The Great Santini,” and the Zen theme in “Caddyshack.” In “Michael Clayton” (from Irish-American director Tony Gilroy), he was a top lawyer in a firm whose shadowy “fixer” of the title role is played by George Clooney. We are told that the Westchester-raised Clooney character went to Fordham Law School, where the real-life father of O’Keefe was on the faculty.
O’Keefe senior was an alcoholic who, according to one of his son’s poems, “celebrated his 35th birthday without the benefit of a doorknob on his side of the door.”
The poet cautions that 90 percent of his narrative poetry is invented. “I’m not reporting,” he said. And yet all of it is true.
“I guess what I was trying to do was evoke something in those poems that was consistent with what I was feeling,” he said of the work, some of which deals with his relationship with his father, who gave up drinking when the future actor was 11 and became a well-known speaker on the AA circuit.
“I loved my father, but I think it was Joyce’s saying that in Ireland in order to bury your father you have to dig a very deep hole,” said O’Keefe, who traces all of his ancestral roots to the country.
“It definitely has a cathartic element,” he said of his writing. “[But] I wouldn’t say that I was trying to work it out as much as I’ve already worked it out. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have been able to write about it.”
O’Keefe has been influenced by Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, William Carlos Williams and Frank O’Hara, who he happily acknowledges was the inspiration for the structure he used in “Mission Impossible.”
Of the O’Hara brand of poetry, he said: “It’s very basic, but there’s something deceptively powerful about that kind of simplicity.
“My poetry does not require a degree. It’s accessible.
“I know the difference between a poet and actor who has written some things that could called poetry,” added O’Keefe, who got a Masters of Fine Art degree from Bennington College in 2006.
After graduating high school more, he went to NYU “for about 15 minutes,” but dropped out when he got an opportunity to act at the Public Theater.
“You have to have enough conviction and ambition and drive to put yourself forward to give yourself a shot, but that doesn’t mean it didn’t surprise the hell out of me that it worked out – and it still surprises me,” he said.
He’d never seen “The Great Santini” in its entirety until the cast went to Beaufort, S.C, where it was filmed, for a 30th anniversary celebration. The next day Pat Conroy, who wrote the original novel, signed books in a local store.
“I don’t have a Michael O’Keefe film festival at my place every weekend,” he said.
“I’m not particularly enamored of show business – of the way the business works. But after 40 years I still love acting,” said the star who was married to singer Bonnie Raitt for 10 years.
He has his other life. A follower of Zen Buddhist teacher Bernie Glassman, he was ordained a priest in the 1990s. “It’s not a religion for all who practice,” he said, pointing to the example of his friend the Jesuit priest Bob Kennedy, who concelebrated at his father’s funeral in 2006. “But it definitely is a religion for me.”
Poetry played its role. As a teenager he devoured the literary works of Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac and Gary Snyder, the Pulitzer prize-winning poet who spent 11 years in a Japanese monastery.
This week he’s attending a year-end six-day Rohatzu retreat in which participants sit for 8 hours daily. As part of religious practice, too, he visits at least twice a year the Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast, which he helped found.
Yet, he’s still the “Irish Catholic kid, who went to Irish Catholic schools and lived in an Irish Catholic neighborhood.” Family is part of that.
“I’ve six brothers and sisters – all of them thriving in various roles and lifestyles around the country,” he said, adding also that he has 11 nieces and nephews. Three of his siblings live near his mother in Westchester.
“There’s no way I don’t perceive myself that way,” O’Keefe said of his Irish Catholic identity. “It’s just not the religion I practice.”
“Swimming From Under My Father,” by Michael O’Keefe is published by Noble Swine Press. For more information go to www.michaelokeefe.com.