Keel, (Clifford) Howard

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Keel, (Clifford) Howard

(b. 13 April 1919 in Gillespie, Illinois; d. 7 November 2004 in Palm Desert, California), singing star of film, stage, concerts, nightclubs, and television, most notably the film versions of Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Kiss Me, Kate, and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, and the television series Dallas.

Keel was born Harold Clifford Leek (reversed is “Keel”). He was the second son of Homer Leek, who was a navy captain and worked in the coal mines, and Grace Leek, a strict Methodist who did odd jobs (such as cooking and hanging wallpaper for $3 per day) to help support the family. Keel grew up during the Depression in the coalmining town of Gillespie. The Leeks were considered social outcasts, causing Keel to grow up a skinny, shy, and rebellious youth. Keel’s father was a heavy drinker and took out his frustrations on his family. In 1930 he committed suicide. Keel was devastated and would rarely discuss the matter. Keel gained his love of music from his father. It was music that changed his disposition completely.

When Keel’s mother developed asthma, her doctor convinced her to join Keel’s older brother in California. During high school Keel’s self-confidence grew because of his classmates’ acceptance and his involvement in football, basketball, and baseball. After Keel completed high school, he worked a number of odd jobs, such as auto mechanic, parking lot attendant, and singing waiter in Los Angeles at the Paris Inn Restaurant, earning $15 per week and two daily meals. He developed his singing talent by performing in recitals and opera programs at the Pasadena Auditorium under the guidance of the singer-actors George Huston and Richard Lert. Keel’s mother took a job at a sorority house at the University of California, Los Angeles. There she found a connection that secured a job for Keel—who was six feet, three inches tall and weighed 140 pounds—with Douglas Aircraft in 1937. The job did not work out, and he quit. After a short time with North American Airlines, he went back to Douglas Aircraft, in public relations. It was on one of his trips to Hollywood, California, that he met the actress Rosemary Cooper. They were married in 1943.

In 1945 Keel auditioned for Oscar Hammerstein II at the Beverly Hills Hotel. Hammerstein was impressed and told Keel, “We need replacements for the leads in Oklahoma! and Carousel. I’d like you to go to New York and try out.” Keel’s defense job prevented him from going. Three months later Hammerstein informed Keel that the Theatre Guild was coming to Los Angeles to audition him. When the Broadway star John Raitt planned a three-week vacation in August 1945, Keel was groomed in four days for the role of Billy Bigelow. Upon Raitt’s return in September, Keel played Billy in the afternoon and Curly in Oklahoma! at night. “Looking back it seemed like a frightening baptism for a young singer,” Keel recollected, “but I wouldn’t have missed the experience for the world.”

In 1947 Keel starred in the London, England, production of Oklahoma!. “It was the smash of the country,” Keel later stated. “I was the toast of the West End.” During the production he met the Swedish dancer Helen Anderson. After she left to do a U.S. tour of Oklahoma!, Keel realized that he was in love and proposed to Anderson over the phone. After fulfilling a number of commitments (including being divorced from Cooper in 1948), Keel married Anderson on 3 January 1949 at the Mission Inn in Riverside, California. The couple had three children.

Back in the United States, Keel signed a seven-year contract for $850 per week. He played Frank Butler in the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM) film Annie Get Your Gun. After numerous problems (including when his horse broke Keel’s right ankle), the film was released in April 1950. Also that year Keel made Pagan Love Song, starring Esther Williams. When Keel saw his name in print as Howard, he liked it and changed it permanently.

Keel made a number of films in the early 1950s. In 1951 he made Three Guys Named Mike; Show Boat, costarring Kathryn Grayson; Texas Carnival; Across the Wide Missouri, starring Clark Gable; and Callaway Went Thataway. In 1952 Keel made two films, a remake of Roberta entitled Lovely to Look At and Desperate Search.

In 1953 Keel made five films. They included I Love Melvin (his scenes were cut); Fast Company; and Ride, Vaquero!. He was loaned to Warner Bros. to play Wild Bill Hickock opposite Doris Day in Calamity Jane. In 1947 he had made a screen test for Warner Bros. in Crossfire, but his option lapsed because the studio had Gordon MacRae and Dennis Morgan under contract. Jack Cummings, producer of Kiss Me, Kate, thought Keel was too overweight and in poor voice to play the lead. However, Keel wanted the part so badly that he lost weight and quit smoking.

Keel made a remake of Rose Marie in 1954. He did not like the part or the script and took a suspension rather than do the film. But after a rewrite he consented to do the picture. Keel’s favorite film, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, followed, costarring Jane Powell. It spawned both a Broadway production and the American Broadcasting Company television show Here Come the Brides. With the success of the film Keel renegotiated his MGM contract, earning $3,000 per week. Keel ended the year with Deep in My Heart, starring José Ferrer in the life story of the composer Sigmund Romberg. Hollywood honored Keel with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Jupiter’s Darling was filmed in 1955 with costar Esther Williams. Keel’s last film for the studio was Kismet. With the popularity of film musicals waning, MGM released Keel from his contract. “I was notified that I would be released from the studio the next week,” Keel recalled. “You think after seven years at least one of the bosses would say he was sorry to see me go.” His next project, in 1959, was starring on Broadway in the ill-fated Saratoga, costarring Carol Lawrence. In 1958–1959 Keel served as president of the Screen Actors Guild. He returned to Broadway in 1963, with his costar Barbara McNair, in No Strings; Keel and McNair were replacements for Richard Kiley and Diahann Carroll.

From 1959 to 1968 Keel made a number of low-budget films, most notably The War Wagon in 1967, starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. After his film career ended, Keel turned to touring in stock productions (his favorite being Man of La Mancha) and playing in concerts, in nightclubs, and occasionally in television.

His twenty-one-year marriage to Anderson ended in 1970. It was on a blind date that he met Judith Ann Magamoll, a flight attendant for National Airlines. She was thirty years his junior, and Keel felt that their age difference would be a problem. After reading the poem “What Fifty Said” by Robert Frost, he realized that age did not matter. The couple was wed on 21 December 1970. They had one child.

After the death of Jim Davis, who played Jock Ewing on the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television series Dallas, the producers needed someone to fill the void. Keel’s wife (a Dallas fan) persuaded Keel to test for the role of Clayton Farlow. “I was ready to get out of the business. Things weren’t clicking,” Keel said. “Then Dallas came along and started the whole thing over again.” He began doing sold-out concerts in London and began recording albums.

While playing golf in December 1985, Keel felt pains in his chest. Tests revealed two blockages. Afraid that Keel might suffer a heart attack, the doctors advised him to have an operation. Fearing being written out of Dallas, Keel wanted to delay surgery, but his wife convinced him to have the operation on 8 January 1986.

In 1987 Keel lent his name to the Howard Keel Golf Classic. Each September, Keel would play in the tournament at Mere Golf and Country Club in Cheshire, England.

Keel was nominated for the 1988 Soap Opera Digest award for Outstanding Actor in a Supporting Role for his work in Dallas. He appeared in the CBS sitcom Good Sports on 22 June 1991, playing Farrah Fawcett’s father. He made a Public Broadcasting Service special filmed at his Sherman Oaks home entitled Howard Keel: Close to My Heart, which aired on 9 August 1991. On 24 November 1991 he guest-starred on the CBS series Murder, She Wrote. He went on to host a segment of That’s Entertainment! III on 1 May 1993. The film was released a year later. He also guest-starred on the National Broadcasting Company series Hart to Hart on 18 February 1994.

In reflection Keel that felt his Hollywood ups and downs were caused by his not playing studio politics. He said, “As long as I can sing halfway decent, I’d rather sing” than act. “There’s nothing like being in good voice, feeling good, having good numbers to do and having a fine orchestra.”

Keel received a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000 from the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival. In 2002 he was the King Vidor recipient for the Ninth Annual San Luis Obispo International Film Festival. Keel died of colon cancer at his home in Palm Desert.

Keel possessed a natural voice that helped him become one of the top leading men in film musicals during the 1950s. The author Doug McClelland said of Keel, “He and his delightful films brought us all a great deal of pleasure, and he has been vastly underrated.” Keel emerged from a difficult boyhood to star in various media and was able to overcome the changes in the business because of his great talent. He rightfully deserves his place among the other great talents in the entertainment world.

Bruce R. Leiby, Howard Keel: A Bio-Bibliography (1995), includes a biography followed by chapters on each of Keel’s media credits. Cleveland Amory and Earl Blackwell, Celebrity Register (1963), includes a biographical entry on Keel. James Robert Parish and Ronald Bowers, The MGM Stock Company: The Golden Era (1973), includes a career study on Keel. David Shipman, The Great Movie Stars: The International Years (1980), includes a profile on Keel. James Robert Parish, Hollywood Songsters (1991), includes a profile on Keel and his credits. An obituary is in the New York Times (8 Nov. 2004).

Bruce R. Leiby