Howard Keel

Baritone in a series of MGM musicals who found later popularity in the hit television series 'Dallas'
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The Independent Online

As MGM's resident baritone in the early Fifties, Howard Keel starred in such major musicals as Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Harold Clifford Leek (Howard Keel), actor and singer: born Gillespie, Illinois 13 April 1919; married 1943 Rosemary Cooper (marriage dissolved 1948), 1949 Helen Anderson (one son, two daughters; marriage dissolved 1970), 1970 Judy Magamoll (one daughter); died Palm Desert, California 7 November 2004.

As MGM's resident baritone in the early Fifties, Howard Keel starred in such major musicals as Annie Get Your Gun, Show Boat, Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Handsome, virile and 6ft 3in tall, he was also an assured actor, less wooden than the studio's previous singing contract star, Nelson Eddy. After his screen career waned, he had success in musical theatre before gaining new popularity with the recurring role of the oil magnate Clayton Farlow, the debonair second husband of Miss Ellie, in the hit television series Dallas.

Born Harold Clifford Leek in 1919 in Gillespie, Illinois, he had no formal training as a singer. His father, a coal-miner and an alcoholic, committed suicide when he was 11 years old, and his mother was a strict Methodist who disapproved of the entertainment business. "I had a terrible, rotten childhood," he said in 1995. His mother moved with her two children, Harold and his younger brother, to Fallbrook, California.

He always enjoyed singing, and in 1939, he gave up his job as a car mechanic and took a job as a singing waiter in a Los Angeles café. He later confessed that at the time he was "mean and rebellious and had a terrible, bitter temper . . . Music changed me completely."

During the Second World War, he took a daytime job at a Douglas Aircraft factory, but when his vocal talent became known he was assigned to tour company plants as a roving entertainer. This led to roles with the American Music Theatre in Pasadena, where he was coached by the organisation's founder, George Huston. Appearances in concerts and at music festivals followed, resulting in an audition for Oscar Hammerstein II. "Auditions generally were shattering," Keel stated later, "but singing for Oscar was like singing in the living room for your father."

Hammerstein gave him a role in the West Coast production of Carousel (1945) and the following year he made his Broadway début as Billy Bigelow in the same show. He took over the role of Curly from Alfred Drake in Oklahoma!, but his major opportunity came when he was given the same role in the London production in 1947. Billed as Harold Keel, he made an impression not only with his ringing baritone but his confident acting and dashing presence. Warner Bros gave him a screen test at this time, but did not sign him as they already had a singer, Gordon MacRae, under contract.

Keel's first film role, still as Harold Keel, was as an escaped convict who takes a young couple hostage along with two children, in a tense thriller, The Small Voice (1948). On returning to the United States, he was signed by MGM's producer, Arthur Freed, who had seen Keel's screen test and decided he would make an ideal Frank Butler in the film version of Annie Get Your Gun (1950).

Judy Garland was to star, but shortly after filming started she was replaced by Betty Hutton. "She was a real grabber," he later said of her propensity for stealing scenes. It was a troubled production - its original director, Busby Berkeley, was replaced by George Sidney, the character actor Frank Morgan, playing Buffalo Bill, died and was replaced by Louis Calhern, and Keel broke his ankle when his horse fell on him. Renamed Howard Keel by Freed, he gave a fine performance as the conceited sharp-shooter, and audiences responded to his resonant versions of such numbers as "My Defences are Down" and "The Girl That I Marry".

He followed this with a less prestigious musical, Pagan Love Song (1950), co-starring Esther Williams. He was perfectly cast as the dashing gambler Gaylord Ravenal in George Sidney's splendid film version of the Kern-Hammerstein masterpiece Show Boat (1951). He teamed well with Kathryn Grayson on the standards "Make Believe", "Why Do I Love You?" and "You are Love", and several critics compared him to MGM's top star, Clark Gable, describing Ravenal as a "musical Rhett Butler".

Once again, a weak vehicle followed, Texas Carnival (1951), possibly the poorest of all Esther Williams's starring musicals. This was followed by a likeable satire, Callaway Went Thataway (1951), in which he played a forgotten former star of "B" westerns who finds new fame when his old movies find a new audience on television. Keel was then re-teamed with Grayson in Mervyn Le Roy's sparkling Lovely to Look At (1952), a lavish remake of Roberta (1934), which was in most respects superior to the original. Among the several beautiful Jerome Kern melodies sung by Keel were "The Touch of Your Hand" and "The Most Exciting Night".

The studio loaned him to Warners to star with Doris Day in Calamity Jane (1953), one of his most popular films. Although the movie sometimes echoed Annie Get Your Gun, with its tale of a sharp-shooting heroine who has to come to terms with her femininity to win an arrogant cowboy, Day's energetic performance, her rapport with Keel and a tuneful score made the film a hit.

Keel returned to MGM to play his greatest screen role, that of Fred Graham/Petruchio in Kiss Me, Kate (1953), based on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew. He had to fight for the role - the producer Jack Cummings wanted Laurence Olivier, whom he planned to dub for the songs, but the director George Sidney backed Keel, who gave a roistering performance and full weight to the brilliant Cole Porter score, which included "I've Come to Wive It Wealthily in Padua", "Where Is the Life That Late I Led?" and the duets with his co-star Kathryn Grayson, "So in Love" and "Wunderbar".

Keel's last truly memorable role and his own personal favourite was in Stanley Donen's classic backwoods musical, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954). The studio was surprised at the remarkable success this comparatively modest production had with both critics and public, and it remains one of the classic screen musicals, with its witty script, sprightly songs and spirited choreography. As the rugged Adam, the oldest of seven brothers, who takes his new bride to their backwoods home where she teaches the other boys how to court the opposite sex, he introduced the song "Bless Yore Beautiful Hide" and teamed well with his co-star Jane Powell.

The great era for the screen musical was coming to an end, though, and in 1955 Keel's last two musicals were released. Jupiter's Darling, based on Robert Sherwood's play The Road to Rome, was a historical satire in which Keel played Hannibal. Though not without merit, it lacked sparkle and failed to find an audience. Kismet was based on the Broadway hit, for which George Wright and Robert Forrest had written lyrics for adapted melodies of Borodin. Never a critic's favourite ( Time magazine had unfairly referred to the score as "borrowed din from Borodin"), its film transcription was also panned, and Keel's performance was considered to lack the panache and droll comic touch of Alfred Drake's stage performance. "I feel that singers have a relatively short time to survive in Hollywood," said Keel.

He returned to the UK to star in Charles Chrichton's Floods of Fear (1958), an often exciting melodrama. He then had his most important non-singing screen role, as Simon called Peter in Frank Borzage's epic production The Big Fisherman (1959), but film roles proved scarce.

"I was typed as a singer," he said later, "and no studio was willing to take a chance on me in a dramatic role." He starred in a minor war movie, Armoured Command (1961), and a serviceable adaptation of John Wyndham's sci-fi thriller The Day of the Triffids (1963), made in the UK. He played a character role as a Native American in The War Wagon (1967), starring John Wayne and Kirk Douglas, and ended his screen career in three of the batch of "B" westerns produced by A.C. Lyles utilising veteran performers.

Keel had meanwhile forged a new career on the stage, and in 1959 he returned to Broadway to co-star with Carol Lawrence in the musical Saratoga Trunk. He appeared in tours of such musicals as Man of La Mancha, I Do! I Do! and The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and in 1963 he replaced Richard Kiley in the Broadway production of Richard Rodgers' No Strings. He also did concert tours, and formed a nightclub act with Kathryn Grayson.

In 1972 he starred with Danielle Darrieux in a London production of The Ambassadors, a musical based on Henry James' novel. After a brief run it went to Broadway, where its stay was equally brief. He embarked in 1977 on a record-breaking tour of the USA, Canada and Australia in the Rodgers and Hammerstein show South Pacific, with his former MGM colleague Jane Powell. The couple toured again the following year in a stage version of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

In 1981 Keel was discovered by a whole new generation when he was given the role of Clayton Farlow in the hit series Dallas. The show had started modestly in 1978, but its audience had continued to build and by 1981 it had become the most popular series on network television. J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman), Miss Ellie's son, was to be Farlow's rival and opponent for the next 10 years until the show went off the air in 1991. Keel later joked that Dallas paid him more money than he had ever made in his life, although he often worked for only 45 minutes a day.

After Dallas ended, he went back to music, appearing in musicals and in concert, and in 1995 toured Britain, playing to sell-out audiences. "As long as I can sing halfway decent, I'd rather sing than act," he said in 1989, and reflected, "I was one of God's chosen people, doing what I wanted to do in life."

Tom Vallance