Musical star Keel dies

Legend of stage and screen passes at 85

A correction was made to this article on Nov. 11, 2004

Musical film and stage star Howard Keel, known for such classics as “Kiss Me Kate,” “Show Boat,” “Kismet,” “Annie Get Your Gun” and his favorite, “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers,” died Sunday of colon cancer in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 85.

Thesp, who later found fame anew via TV’s “Dallas,” starred in Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals in New York and London before signing with MGM, playing Frank Butler to Betty Hutton’s Annie Oakley in 1950’s “Annie Get Your Gun.”

Keel’s booming baritone and broad shoulders brought him fame as leading man to Esther Williams in “Pagan Love Song,” “Texas Carnival” and “Jupiter’s Darling”; Ann Blyth (“Rose Marie,” “Kismet”); Kathryn Grayson (“Show Boat,” “Lovely to Look At,” “Kiss Me Kate”); and Doris Day (“Calamity Jane”).

When MGM’s musical factory was disbanded, Keel starred on the road in “Man of La Mancha” and “South Pacific” as well as “Annie Get Your Gun” and “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

At 66, he co-starred on “Dallas” as Clayton Farlow, husband of “Miss Ellie” Ewing (Barbara Bel Geddes), after Jim Davis (who played Jock Ewing), died in 1981. Keel remained with the show until it ended in 1991.

“The show was enormous,” Keel said in 1995. “I couldn’t believe it. My life changed 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.”

Hard early life

Gillespie, Ill., native was born Harold Clifford Leek. His father had been a naval captain, then a coal miner who drank and beat his children. Keel’s mother, a strict Methodist, forbade her two sons from having any entertainment. “I had a terrible, rotten childhood,” Keel recalled. “I got a job as an auto mechanic, and I would have stayed in that narrow kind of life if I hadn’t discovered art. Music changed me completely.”

At 20 he started taking vocal lessons in L.A. and then became a singing waiter at the Paris Inn Restaurant.

Six foot 3 inches and only 140 pounds, the painfully shy young man worked five years at Douglas Aircraft during WWII, an experience that helped build his confidence.

Then, while singing recitals and opera programs, he was summoned to an audition with Oscar Hammerstein II, who was looking for young singers to play Curly for touring “Oklahoma!” companies.

Instead, given the stage name Howard Keel, he was singing “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning” eight times a week on Broadway and sometimes even replaced John Raitt in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s concurrent hit “Carousel,” occasionally appearing in a matinee of the former and an evening performance of the latter. He also played “Carousel” for 18 months in London.

H’wood beckons

MGM signed Keel to a contract that paid $850 a week (he had rankled at being paid $250 a week unbilled in R&H’s sellout musical), and made it big in the studio’s many musicals. But the heroic-looking thesp also appeared in such Westerns as “Waco,” “Red Tomahawk,” “The War Wagon” and “Arizona Bushwhackers.”

Later came the road and TV.

Keel was married and divorced twice: to actress Rosemary Cooper and dancer Helen Anderson, with whom he had three children. In 1970, he married for a third time, and his wife Judy Magamoll gave birth to a daughter.

He is also survived by 10 grandchildren and one great grandchild.

Funeral services will be private.