Obituary: Richard Kiley

RICHARD KILEY twice won the New York theatre's Tony Award as Best Actor in a Musical, once for creating the role of Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha, in which he introduced the song "The Impossible Dream". He was also a fine straight actor, winning plaudits for his performances in Shaw and O'Neill, as well as three Emmy Awards for his work in television. His film roles included memorable character portrayals in Pick-Up on South Street and The Blackboard Jungle.

Born in Chicago in 1922 to an Irish Catholic family, he was educated by priests at Mt Carmel High School, then attended Loyola University where, as he later put it, he "seceded after a set-to with a particularly belligerent cleric. I decided that in the process of inclusion there is also a process of exclusion, and I don't believe in that. I don't like groups of any kind - not political or religious."

After training at the Barlum Dramatic School, he acted with repertory companies in Michigan, Philadelphia and New Jersey before serving as a gunnery instructor in the US Navy from 1943 to 1946. After service, he worked in radio soap operas, then took a train for New York "with $600 in my pocket and two suitcases". He joined the Actors' Workshop (a subsidiary of the Actors' Studio) but found little paid work. "This was a rough period," he said later. "I had gotten married, there was a baby on the way, and we were living in one room on the lower East Side. I had just about given up when I had had a call from my agent. They were looking for an understudy for Anthony Quinn for the touring company of A Streetcar Named Desire."

Kiley spent a year with the company, eventually playing the role of Stanley Kowalski. When he returned to New York, live television was thriving and he was given starring roles in Playhouse 90, Studio One and the Kraft Television Hour. "It was enormously exciting, but I missed a live audience," he later commented.

He made his New York stage debut as Joey Percival in Bernard Shaw's Misalliance (1953), winning the Theatre World Award, then was cast as the Caliph in the musical Kismet (1953), which starred Alfred Drake, who had been Broadway's leading male musical star since creating the role of Curley in Oklahoma! a decade earlier.

In Kismet, Kiley introduced the hit song "Stranger in Paradise", and confessed later, "It was rather daunting to appear on Broadway singing operatic music. I had never sung on stage before. Alfred Drake was marvellous to me, although I understand that he objected that I was not a true tenor, which is quite a legitimate gripe. He himself was a baritone, and I came in as a light baritone. They pushed my stuff up so that I was singing in a bright tenor key." Kiley's commanding presence and virile voice were to grace several musicals.

He returned to drama with Henry Denker and Ralph Berkey's compelling Time Limit (1956), in which he played an army major on trial for collaborating with the enemy while a captive in Korea, and at the Spoleto Festival in Italy he played James Tyrone in Eugene O'Neill's A Moon for the Misbegotten (1958).

During the Fifties Kiley made several films. He was an undercover agent exposing corrupt dock workers in The Mob (1951), then switched effectively to the other side of the law in Sam Fuller's Pick-Up on South Street (1953), playing a brutal spy who sadistically beats his girlfriend (Jean Peters) and cold- bloodedly murders a sick old lady (Thelma Ritter). He was fighting crime again in Phil Karlson's gritty Phenix City Story (1955) and the same year had a memorable role as the idealistic schoolmaster who is devastated when his treasured collection of Bix Beiderbecke records is smashed by a delinquent pupil (Vic Morrow) in Richard Brooks's The Blackboard Jungle.

Kiley returned to the musical stage to co-star with Gwen Verdon in Redhead (1959), the first show directed by Bob Fosse. "We crossed swords a few times," said Kiley. "Coming from choreography he expected an actor to behave like a dancer and just do as he was told. Occasionally I would ask, `Why?' There were a few sparks but our mutual respect overcame that." Both Verdon and Kiley won Tony Awards for their work in the show.

Two years later, Kiley had another dramatic success playing a young senator blackmailed because of a homosexual incident in his past in a stage version of Allen Drury's novel Advise and Consent (1961).

In No Strings (1962), the first musical for which Richard Rodgers wrote the words as well as the music, Kiley played an expatriate writer who falls in love with a black model played by Diahann Carroll, who was appearing in only her second Broadway show. "Richard Kiley was the kindest and most generous co-star an actress could hope for," she said. "He knows all the tricks for getting out of trouble when you lose your concentration or your throat starts to close, and went out of his way to share his experience with me." Kiley and Rodgers were not always on such good terms. "I had a tendency to band the notes a little," said the actor, "and he didn't like that at all."

In 1965 Kiley created the role for which he will always be remembered, the author Cervantes who, imprisoned during the Spanish Inquisition, entrances the other prisoners with his story of the idealistic Don Quixote, which he acts out for them. "I always thought I was a character man who was caught in a leading man's body," said Kiley. "Now I was offered the opportunity to work my way out. I knew Don Quixote would be the role of a lifetime." Kiley played the role for two years on Broadway, then after recreating it in Los Angeles played it in London at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1969. The role won him the Tony, the Drama League Award and the New York Critics Circle Award, and he went on to sing Quixote's credo, "The Impossible Dream", thousands of times.

Kiley was given his finest screen opportunity when Frank Sinatra backed out of the musical version of the cult novel The Little Prince. In the role of the Pilot, Kiley sang the Oscar-nominated title song, but, despite a Lerner-Loewe score and striking production design by John Barry, Stanley Donen's film failed to please critics or attract the public.

Moving into character roles, Kiley was the stern father whose harsh ways drive his daughter to promiscuity in the film Looking for Mr Goodbar (1977), but most of his later work was on stage or television. He won Emmy awards for The Thorn Birds (1983), A Year in the Life (1988) and Picket Fences (1994), and his stage roles included Alan Ayckbourn's Absurd Person Singular (1986), for which he affected a convincing British accent, a revival of Arthur Miller's All My Sons (1987), for which he received another Tony nomination, and a revival of The Heiress (1989), in which his performance as the father was favourably compared to that of Basil Rathbone in the original production.

He was also prolific in the field of voice-overs, providing narration for more than two dozen National Geographic specials as well as countless commercials.

Richard Kiley remained active until recently - he plays a doctor in the Robin Williams film Patch Adams - and was still fulfilling requests to sing Quixote's anthem in which he vows to "bear the unbearable sorrow" and "fight the unbeatable foe". Though the song provokes a strong reaction (even when the show opened some reviewers detested it) Kiley stated that it remained his favourite song. "People are always asking me to sing it at hospital openings and every place else, though I don't enjoy singing in a tuxedo. I feel I have to be wearing armour to do it right."

Richard Paul Kiley, actor: born Chicago 31 March 1922; married 1948 Mary Bell Wood (six children; marriage dissolved 1967), 1968 Pat Ferrier; died Warwick, New York 5 March 1998.

Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Boy George performing with Culture Club at Heaven

musicReview: Culture Club performs live for first time in 12 years

Arts and Entertainment
Laura Wood, winner of the Montegrappa Scholastic Prize for New Children’s Writing
books

Children's bookseller wins The Independent's new author search

Arts and Entertainment
Pulling the strings: Spira Mirabilis

music
Arts and Entertainment
Neville's Island at Duke of York's theatre
musicReview: The production has been cleverly cast with a quartet of comic performers best known for the work on television
Arts and Entertainment
Banksy's 'The Girl with the Pierced Eardrum' in Bristol

art
Arts and Entertainment
Lynda Bellingham stars in her last Oxo advert with on-screen husband Michael Redfern

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Minchin portrait
For a no-holds-barred performer who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, Tim Minchin is surprisingly gentle
Arts and Entertainment
Clara takes the lead in 'Flatline' while the Doctor remains in the Tardis
tvReview: The 'Impossible Girl' earns some companion stripes... but she’s still annoying in 'Dr Who, Flatline'
Arts and Entertainment
Joy Division photographed around Waterloo Road, Stockport, near Strawberry Studios. The band are Bernard Sumner (guitar and keyboards), Stephen Morris (drums and percussion), Ian Curtis (vocals and occasional guitar), Peter Hook (bass guitar and backing vocals).
books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Harris in 'The Goob' film photocall, at the Venice International Film Festival 2014
filmThe Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Streisand is his true inspiration
Arts and Entertainment
X Factor contestant Fleur East
tvReview: Some lacklustre performances - but the usual frontrunners continue to excel
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Tuttle's installation in the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern
artAs two major London galleries put textiles in the spotlight, the poor relation of the creative world is getting recognition it deserves
Arts and Entertainment
Hunger Games actress Jena Malone has been rumoured to be playing a female Robin in Batman v Superman
film
Arts and Entertainment
On top of the world: Actress Cate Blanchett and author Richard Flanagan
artsRichard Flanagan's Man Booker win has put paid to the myth that antipodean artists lack culture
Arts and Entertainment
The Everyman, revamped by Haworth Tompkins
architectureIt beats strong shortlist that included the Shard, the Library of Birmingham, and the London Aquatics Centre
Arts and Entertainment
Justice is served: Robert Downey Jr, Vincent D’Onofrio, Jeremy Strong and Robert Duvall in ‘The Judge’

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Clive Owen (centre) in 'The Knick'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
J.K. Simmons , left, and Miles Teller in a scene from

Film

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

    Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

    Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

    Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

    The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

    Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
    Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

    Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

    The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
    DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

    Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

    Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
    The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

    Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

    The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

    Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

    The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    11 best sonic skincare brushes

    Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
    Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

    Paul Scholes column

    I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

    While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
    Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

    Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

    A crime that reveals London's dark heart

    How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
    Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

    Lost in translation: Western monikers

    Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
    Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

    Handy hacks that make life easier

    New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
    KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

    KidZania: It's a small world

    The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker