Filled Under: Howard Keel
Howard Keel was an American actor and singer who starred in some of the most famous MGM film musicals ever made. Keel is probably best remembered by modern audiences for his starring role in the CBS television series “Dallas” from 1981 to 1991, as Clayton Farlow, opposite Barbara Bel Geddes’s character Miss Ellie Ewing.
Keel was born Harold Clifford Keel on April 13, 1919 in Gillespie, Illinois, to a hard drinking ex-Navy man turned coal miner Homer Keel and his wife, Grace Osterkamp Keel. Young Keel spent his childhood in poverty and 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 he found work during WWII at Douglas Aircraft in Los Angeles. Keel’s naturally untrained voice was discovered by the staff of the aircraft company and soon he was performing at various entertainments for the company’s clients. He was inspired to sing professionally one day while attending a Hollywood Bowl concert, and quickly advanced through the musical ranks from singing waiter to music festival contest winner to guest recitalist. Oscar Hammerstein II ‘discovered’ Keel in 1946 during John Raitt’s understudy auditions for the role of Billy Bigelow in Broadway’s popular musical “Carousel” and was immediately signed for the role. Keel managed to understudy Alfred Drake as Curly in “Oklahoma!” as well, and in 1947 took over the rustic lead in the London production, earning great success. British audiences took to the charismatic singer and he remained there as a concertist while making his non-singing film debut in the British crime drama “The Hideout” (1949).
With the onset of film musicals becoming such huge fare in the United States, MGM was looking for an answer to Warner Brother’s Gordon MacRae when they discovered Keel in England. MGM offered him a contract and he returned to the United States, changing his stage name to Howard Keel. Keel became a musical film star with his very first role, playing sharpshooter Frank Butler opposite brassy Betty Hutton’s Annie Oakley in the film version of the Broadway musical “Annie Get Your Gun” (1950). After the great success of “Annie Get Your Gun” Keel would be showcased in several of MGM’s biggest and most classic musical extravaganzas; “Show Boat” (1951) with Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner, “Kiss Me Kate” (1953) with Kathryn Grayson and Ann Miller, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” (1954) opposite Jane Powell, and “Kismet” (1955) opposite Ann Blyth. On loan to Warner Brothers in 1953, Keel played Wild Bill Hickok in “Calamity Jane”, a highly popular Oscar winning musical starring Doris Day in one of her most famous screen roles. The film was Warner Brothers’ answer to “Annie Get Your Gun” and included the smash hit song “Secret Love”.
With the decline of popularity in musicals in the late ’50s, MGM did not renew Keel’s contract. The musical star managed to stay busy, moving effortlessly into rugged, if somewhat routine action fare, appearing in such 1960s films as “Armored Command” (1961), “Waco” (1966), “Red Tomahawk” (1967) and “The War Wagon” (1967), which starred John Wayne and featuring Keel as a wisecracking Indian. During 1970s Keel returned to his musical roots, resumed a routine of nightclub, cabaret and summer stock jobs. Some of his summer stock and touring productions included “Camelot,” “South Pacific,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” “Man of La Mancha,” and “Show Boat,” often reuniting him with some of his former MGM leading ladies, including Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell. He also worked a Las Vegas nightclub act with Kathryn Grayson in the 1970s.
Howard Keel also made many television appearances with his first in 1957 on the TV series “Zane Grey Theatre”. Other television appearances include television movie adaptations of “Roberta” (1958), “Kiss Me Kate” (1964), and in TV series such as “Death Valley Days”, “The Red Skelton Hour”, “Here’s Lucy”, “Fantasy Island”, “The Love Boat”, “Murder She Wrote”, and “Walker Texas Ranger”. In 1980, Keel became a household name when he joined the hit television show “Dallas” as the dignified and hot-tempered oil baron Clayton Farlow. Keel started with an appearance during the fourth season with his character being meant as a semi-replacement for the patriarch from the series’ Jock Ewing played by Jim Davis, who had recently died. However, his portrayal of Clayton Farlow was such a hit among viewers that Keel was made a series regular and stayed on until “Dallas” ended in 1991.
Howard Keel was married three times. His first marriage was to actress Rosemary Cooper in 1943. That marriage ended in divorce in 1948. His second marriage was to Helen Anderson in 1948. They had three children together, two daughters, Kaija Liane (born 1950) and Kirstine Elizabeth (born 1952), and a son, Gunnar Louis (born 1955). Keel and Anderson divorced in 1970. Later in 1970, Keel married his third wife Judy Keel who was twenty five years his junior. They had one child together, a daughter, Leslie Grace (born 1974). The couple remained married for thirty four years until his death in 2004.
Howard Keel died November 7, 2004 at his Palm Desert home six weeks after being diagnosed with colon cancer. He was cremated and his ashes scattered at three of his favorite places: Mere Golf Club,Cheshire, England; Liverpool, England’s John Lennon Airport; and Tuscany, Italy.