Singer with a winning smile who stood up to JR Sheila Whitaker Tue 9 Nov 2004
Howard Keel, who has died of cancer aged 85, was a gutsy baritone with a cheerful swagger and a wonderful smile who gave larger than life performances in film musicals such as Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951) and Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954). He had shoulders that any woman would want to swoon on, and Hedda Hopper, the notorious gossip columnist, described him as a "big hunk of masculinity".
Forceful and energetic, Keel's performances and songs were imbued with a vibrant joie de vivre and bravado, but also a gentleness that never allowed them to collapse into braggadocio. The tragedy of his career was that he was never able to really show what he could do as a straight actor: the success of it is that, despite this, his place in the history books is assured, added to which anyone who sees any of his musicals will never forget him.
Yet in 1981, he regained his star status, albeit of the television variety, when he joined the TV series Dallas as Clayton Farlow, husband of Miss Ellie, the mother of JR Ewing. It was a role he retained until the show closed in 1991. He is reported as admitting that he did this for the money, but the success of the series was matched by his performances, as he won back Miss Ellie and angered JR.
- Note: Many sources say "He was born Harry Clifford Leek" but his father and grandfather's last name is Keel.
His father, a sometime naval captain, had become a coal miner and an alcoholic, and his mother was a devout Methodist, who disapproved of entertainment. After the death of his father, when Keel was 11, the family moved to Fallbrook, California.
It was, he recalled, a terrible childhood and he grew up mean, rebellious, and with a terrible temper. On leaving school, where he was a creditable baseball player, he worked as a motor mechanic. Then, as a 20-year-old living in Los Angeles, he went with an older woman to hear baritone Lawrence Tibbett at the Hollywood Bowl. A new world opened up: he took singing lessons, entered singing competitions - in 1938 winning a George Walker scholarship - and worked in evening shows at the Pasadena Auditorium and elsewhere. He had a stint as a singing busboy at the Paris Inn restaurant in Los Angeles for $15 a week and two meals a day.
With the second world war, Keel found work with Douglas Aviation and North American Aircraft as a mechanic. He also participated in Douglas factory entertainment and was sent on the road to entertain employees of customers and suppliers.
It was while giving recitals that he was auditioned by Oscar Hammerstein II to play Curly in a touring production of Oklahoma!. He got the job, and was then hired to replace John Raitt in the role of Billy Bigelow in Carousel, where he was credited as Harold Keel. He then played Curly for the opening of the London production of Oklahoma! in 1948.
It was in London that he made his film debut in the British thriller The Small Voice (1948), opposite Valerie Hobson. In 1949, he secured a contract with MGM, who changed his name to Howard. He made his very successful American screen debut as Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun, with Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley.
Pagan Love Song (1950) with Esther Williams and Three Guys Named Mike (1951) were followed by Show Boat and Lovely To Look At (1952), both opposite Kathryn Grayson. After some rather less memorable films, in 1953 he won acclaim in Calamity Jane, despite not being on screen that much, as a rivetingly athletic Wild Bill Hickok, the guy who tames Doris Day. The same year, in Kiss Me Kate, he gave a fine central performance with a nicely ironic rendering of Shakespearian acting, and was again opposite Grayson. In 1954, came his own favourite film Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, which had, he observed, a fine cast, was fun to make, but was shot on terrible film stock - "they did the whole damn thing on the cheap". For Keel the key ingredient was cinematographer George Folsey, who took the stock and made the musical look, according to Keel, like a Grandma Moses painting. Keel's last film musicals were Jupiter's Darling and Kismet, both in 1955.
Despite describing himself as "a dramatic actor who sings", Keel had made such an impression in musical roles that he could never be viewed as being able to play anything else. His straight roles included performances in the British movie The Day Of The Triffids (1962) and The War Wagon (1967) with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas
He continued successfully in the theatre, including appearances in Saratoga, No Strings, Camelot, The Most Happy Fella, Man Of La Mancha, Plaza Suite and On A Clear Day You Can See Forever. He also spent much of the 1960s on the nightclub circuit, often appearing with Kathryn Grayson, appealing mainly to middle-aged women, in between some more B-movies and various TV series. He also appeared in a BBC TV special of Kiss Me Kate in 1963 and on other British TV programmes. In 1971 he played at the Talk Of The Town in London, and followed this with a role opposite Danielle Darrieux in Ambassador, the somewhat disastrous musical of Henry James's The Ambassadors at Her Majesty's Theatre and on Broadway.
He then returned to London to sing at the Palladium in 1974. Then, in 1981 came Dallas, which, he recalled, changed his life again. "From being out of it, I was suddenly a star, known to more people than ever before. Wherever I went crowds appeared again, and I started making solo albums for the first time in my career." The first of these was And I Love You So in 1984, the same year that he appeared at the Royal Variety Performance. He toured Britain in Oklahoma! in 1993.
Keel ensured that his private life remained largely private . He did admit to heavy drinking at the time of his break-up with his second wife, and to being an avid golfer.
He was married first to actor Rosemary Cooper, from 1943 until their divorce in 1948; secondly, to former dancer Helen Anderson Randall (1949-70); and from 1970 to Judy Magamoll, a former airlines steward. She survives him, as do three children from his second marriage, a daughter from his last marriage, 10 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
Harry Clifford Keel (April 13, 1919 – November 7, 2004), known professionally as Howard Keel, was an American actor and singer. He starred in many film musicals of the 1950s. Keel starred in the CBS television series Dallas from 1981-91. But to an earlier generation, with his rich bass-baritone singing voice, he was known as the star of some of the most famous MGM film musicals ever made.
Born in Gillespie, Illinois, to Navyman-turned-coalminer Homer Keel (1885-1930), and his wife, Grace Margaret (née Osterkamp) Keel (1887-1971). It was falsely stated—by the MGM publicity department of the 1950s—that Keel's birth name was Harold Leek. Harry had an elder brother, Frederick William Keel (1913-1982); the brothers spent their childhood in poverty. One of his teachers, Miss Rosa Burke, noticed one day that Harry had no lunch. From that day forward, Miss Burke would pack two lunches – one for herself and one for Harry. When he became famous and would perform near Gillespie, Burke always received tickets to attend his performances. After his father's death in 1930, Keel and his mother moved to California, where he graduated from Fallbrook High School at age 17. He worked various odd jobs until settling at Douglas Aircraft Company as a traveling representative.
In 1943, Keel met and married actress Rosemary Cooper. They were divorced in 1948, during the London run. Keel met Helen Anderson, a member of the show's chorus, and they married in January 1949. Keel and Helen were separated in 1969 and divorced in 1970. Keel married airline stewardess Judy Magamoll in December 1970.
Keel had four children: three with second wife, Helen Anderson: two daughters, Kaija Liane (born 1950) and Kirstine Elizabeth (born 1952), and a son, Gunnar Louis (born 1955); one by his third wife of 34 years, Judy: a daughter, Leslie Grace (born 1974); and ten grandchildren, including the actor Bodie Olmos.
Keel died at his Palm Desert home on November 7, 2004, six weeks after a bout with colon cancer. He was cremated and his ashes scattered at three favorite places: Mere Golf Club, Cheshire, England; John Lennon Airport, Liverpool, England; and Tuscany, Italy.
Keel made his film debut as Harold Keel at the British Lion studio in Elstree, in The Small Voice (1948), released in the United States as The Hideout. He played an escaped convict holding a playwright and his wife hostage in their English country cottage.
Additional Broadway credits include Saratoga, No Strings, and Ambassador. He appeared at The Muny in St. Louis; as Adam in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1978); Emile de Becque in South Pacific (1992); Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady (1996); and as General Waverly in White Christmas (2000).
From London's West End, Keel went to Hollywood in 1950 where he was engaged by the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film studio. He made his musical film debut as Frank Butler in the film version of Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun (1950), co-starring with Betty Hutton. The movie was a big hit and establish Keel as a star.
MGM put him opposite Esther Williams in Pagan Love Song (1950) which was successful, although not as profitable as most Esther William films because it went over budget. Keel had a third hit in a row with the comedy Three Guys Named Mike (1951), supporting Van Johnson and Jane Wyman.
Keel was reunited with Williams in Texas Carnival (1952). He had his first flop at MGM with the comedy Callaway Went Thataway (1952) co-starring Fred MacMurray and Dorothy McGuire. A reunion with Grayson, Lovely to Look At (1952), based on the stage musical Roberta was popular but lost money.
MGM tried him in an adventure film, Desperate Search (1953) which was poorly received. So too was the comedy Fast Company (1953). More popular was a Western with Gardner and Robert Taylor, Ride, Vaquero! (1953).
Warner Bros borrowed Keel to play Wild Bill Hickock opposite Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953), another hit. Back at MGM he and Grayson made a third musical together, Kiss Me Kate (1953), which again was liked by the public but unprofitable. The same went for Rose Marie (1954) which Keel made with Ann Blyth.
However, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) was a huge success and made MGM over $3 million in profit. It also starred Jane Powell, Jeff Richards, Julie Newmar (Newmeyer), Matt Mattox, Ruta Lee (Kilmonis), Marc Platt, Norma Doggett, Jacques d'Amboise, Virginia Gibson, Tommy Rall, Betty Carr, Russ Tamblyn, Nancy Kilgas.
Keel was one of many guest stars in Deep in My Heart (1954). He and Williams made a third film together, Jupiter's Darling (1955) which lost MGM over $2 million - the first Williams movie to lose money. Kismet (1955) with Blyth also lost over two million dollars, and Keel was released from his MGM contract.
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