- Bruce J. Evensen
Keel, Howard (13 Apr. 1919–7 Nov. 2004), actor and singer, was born Harry Clifford Leek, the youngest of two sons of coal miner Charles Homer Leek and Grace Osterkamp Leek, a three-1803934-dollar-a-day paperhanger and part-time maid, in Gillespie, Illinois. His father, an alcoholic, committed suicide in a drunken rage on 26 June 1930. “I crawled inside my anger and locked the whole world out,” Harry later wrote (Keel and Spizer, pp. 10–11) His mother struggled with tuberculosis, and during the Depression the family survived on handouts. When he was sixteen, Harry and his mother followed his older brother, Bill, to Fallbrook, California, looking for work. Harry parked cars for nine dollars a week, bused tables, and became a singing waiter at the Paris Inn Café in Los Angeles. He graduated from Fallbrook High School in 1936. At seventeen, he earned fourteen dollars a week on the night shift at Douglas Aircraft and a year later a dollar more at North American Aircraft. In 1940, Harry started taking singing lessons. He grew in self-confidence. He was billed as “Harold Keel” by the age of twenty-two at the American Music Theater in Pasadena, where he sang bass baritone and studied singing under George Houston and Shibley Boyce.
Keel married showgirl Rosemary Cooper on 17 March 1943. He got his big break two years later when he signed a three-1803934-year contract with the Theater Guild and became John Raitt’s understudy in the Broadway production of Carousel. He first played the role of Billy Bigelow on the evening of 26 August 1945 at the Majestic Theater in New York. At six feet three inches, Keel had the presence of a ruggedly handsome leading man. In September 1946, he replaced Alfred Drake in the role of Curly McLain in the Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II smash hit Oklahoma! Keel performed the part at London’s Royal Drury Lane Theater, beginning on 29 April 1947, to excellent reviews and packed houses. He made his film debut as an escaped convict in the British Lion production of The Small Voice (1948). Cooper did not accompany Keel to Britain, and in October 1948 they divorced. He married Helen Anderson, a dancer from the cast of Oklahoma! on 3 January 1949. They had three children.
Keel signed a seven-year contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer in November 1948 at $850 a week. He was billed as “Howard Keel” in Irving Berlin’s Annie Get Your Gun. The New York Times praised the disarming ease of the “big, braw fellow” with “a melodious outdoor voice” (18 May 1950). Exhibitors named Keel the screen’s number one newcomer. MGM immediately rushed Keel into the insipid Pagan Love Song (1950), co-starring Esther Williams, and the equally feckless Three Guys Named Mike (1951) with Jane Wyman. Keel romanced Kathryn Grayson on screen and off in the critically acclaimed Show Boat (1951). Their duet of the classic standard, “Make Believe,” Variety reported, “captures the ear and tears at the emotions” (6 June 1951).
Keel was reunited with Williams in the unremarkable Texas Carnival (1951). His dual role in the comedy Callaway Went Thataway (1951) was well received even if the film was not. Keel was re-1803934-teamed with Grayson in Lovely to Look At (1952) and loaned to Warner Brothers in the role of Wild Bill Hickok for the highly entertaining Calamity Jane (1953), co-starring Doris Day. Supporting Robert Taylor in Ride, Vaquero! (1953) preceded Cole Porter’s Kiss Me, Kate (1953), a successful Shakespearean send up, shot in 3-D, and co-starring Grayson. It was highlighted by their show-stopping duet “So in Love.” Keel played a singing Canadian Mountie in MGM’s widescreen Rose Marie (1954).
Michael Kidd’s athletic choreography, best expressed in an extraordinary barn-raising dance, helped make Keel’s next project Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, a critical and box office triumph that Hollywood Reporter called “the first completely successful marriage of ballet and movie comedy” (15 July 1954). But Keel clashed continually with director Vincente Minnelli on the set of Kismet (1955), and the film was a big bust, hastening the end of high-priced Hollywood musicals in the age of television. Keel’s commanding presence as Hannibal beside Esther Williams in Jupiter’s Darling (1955) ended his musical run at MGM.
In 1958 Keel became president of the Screen Actors Guild, where he negotiated pension and health benefits for members. He played the apostle Peter in The Big Fisherman (1959) and filmed Floods of Fear (1959) in Britain. He also starred in quickly forgotten Armored Command (1961). Keel didn’t think much of the sci-fi film The Day of the Triffids (1962), but the apocryphal story of man-eating plants became a cult classic. In August 1963, Keel began touring with Barbara McNair in No Strings. He then starred in a series of B productions at Paramount that included Waco (1966); Red Tomahawk (1967); and Arizona Bushwhackers (1968). Keel’s wisecracking Indian in The War Wagon (1967) stole the film from John Wayne and Kirk Douglas. During the decade, he also performed in many summer stock and touring productions, and he successfully toured with Kathryn Grayson in the United States and Australia.
Keel’s years of touring led to loneliness, heavy drinking, and his 10 December 1970 divorce from Anderson. Eleven days later, he married flight attendant Judith Ann Magamoll, who accompanied Keel as he toured in Man of La Mancha; I Do, I Do; and sang in supper clubs. The couple had a daughter.
Keel’s career revived in February 1981 when he began a ten-year run playing family patriarch Clayton Farlow in the hit TV soap opera Dallas. An album, And I Love You So, released on 14 April 1984, did well on both sides of the Atlantic, as did Reminiscing—The Howard Keel Collection, released in November 1985. Bypass surgery on 8 January 1986, did not slow him down. Three weeks later he was back at work on Dallas and soon was off on concert tours. The albums Just for You (1988), Live in Concert (1989), and Howard Keel: Close to My Heart (1990) showed the singer in fine form as he approached seventy.
A lifelong golfer, Keel launched an invitational golf tournament in Cheshire, England in September 1984 that raised millions for abused children. His appearance in That’s Entertainment! III (1994) was a retrospective on the musical classics at MGM. Before dying from colon cancer in his Palm Desert home, Keel reflected on the key to great singing and a good life. It required “extending the voice upward” from low D to F sharp (Keel and Spizer, p. 318). That voice rescued him from a troubled childhood and transformed him into a world class singer, whose stardom spanned the Golden Age of Hollywood through the television era and continued across the recording industry.
Howard Keel’s autobiography, co-written with Joyce Spizer, was published posthumously as Only Make Believe: My Life in Show Business (2005). Bruce R. Leiby’s Howard Keel: A Bio-Bibliography, was published in 1995. Biographical articles appear in David Shipman, The Great Movie Stars: The International Years (1972); James Robert Parish and Ronald Bowers, The MGM Stock Company: The Golden Era (1973); David Thomson, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (1976); and Michael Druxman, The Musical: From Broadway to Hollywood (1980). Significant obituaries appeared on 8 Nov. 2004 in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and Billboard and on 9 Nov. 2004 in The Guardian.