Howard Keel, Musical Star, Is Dead at 85
Sun Nov 7, 2004 07:55 PM ET
By Duane Byrge
CHICAGO (Hollywood Reporter) - Howard Keel, who sang and danced to stardom in the heyday of MGM musicals, died Sunday of colon cancer at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 85.
With his full-throated baritone and 6-foot-4-inch frame, Keel was a romantic figure in such classic musicals as "Annie Get Your Gun," "Showboat," "Kiss Me Kate," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" and "Kismet." He was paired with the most glamorous of leading ladies: Esther Williams, Doris Day, Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell.
When the studios veered away from musicals in the late 1950s, he picked up in action pictures and dramas, including "The Big Fisherman" and "The War Wagon" with John Wayne. More recently, he co-starred for 11 years as Clayton Farlow, husband of "Miss Ellie" Ewing, on the hit show "Dallas."
Keel was 66 and presumably nearing the end of his career when "Dallas" made him a television star.
Harry Clifford Leek was born April 13, 1919, in Gillespie, Ill. His father, once a naval captain, became a coal miner and drank to soothe his bitterness. During drunken rages, he beat his children. His mother, a strict Methodist, forbade her two sons from having any entertainment.
After his father died, his mother moved the family to California. Keel's first job after high school was as a singing busboy, but later he took a job at Douglas Aircraft, where his handsome looks and affable personality fitted well with his job as a "manufacturing representative."
At 20, he was befriended by a woman who took him to a Hollywood Bowl concert featuring baritone Lawrence Tibbett. Keel was inspired, and he started taking vocal lessons at 25 cents an hour.
He won several singing contests, and his talent caught the attention of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Keel was signed to replace John Raitt in the Broadway production of "Carousel."
With his surname now Keel -- he reversed the spelling of Leek -- he excelled on the stage, which led to movie roles, beginning with "The Small Voice" (1948).
Keel achieved stardom in 1950 with his second film, "Annie Get Your Gun," in which he played a singing cowboy who was Betty Hutton's love interest. His stunning turn in "Annie" vaulted him to stardom at a time when MGM boasted of having "more stars than there are in the heavens."
From 1951-55, Keel starred in the top MGM musicals: "Show Boat," "Lovely to Look At," "Kiss Me Kate," "Rose Marie," "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, "Kismet" and "Jupiter's Darling," in which he played Hannibal invading Rome.
After his musical run, Keel often performed with touring companies and in nightclubs, where he was a popular figure. He also took sporadic movie roles, including a turn as a seaman battling a carnivorous plant monster in the British sci-fi film "The Day of the Triffids" (1962).
During the '70s, Keel appeared frequently as a TV guest star on series including "The Love Boat," "Here's Lucy," "The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour," "Murder, She Wrote" and "Walker, Texas Ranger."
Keel was married three times and divorced twice, first to actress Rosemary Cooper (1943-48), then to dancer Helen Anderson (1950-70). He and Anderson had three children: Kaija, Kristina and Gunnar.
In 1970 he married former flight attendant Judy Magamoll. They had one daughter, Leslie.
He also is survived by 10 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter.
The funeral will be private, with a memorial service to follow.