TCM‘s Summer Under The Stars for August 30th presents a day-long tribute to actor/singer Howard Keel. Remembered now primarily for his portrayal of Clayton Farlow, Miss Ellie‘s second husband on TV’s Dallas, TCM‘s day-long marathon serves to remind viewers of Keel’s extensive pre-Dallas career in film.
Keel, born April 13, 1919, grew up in Illinois, and moved to California in 1930, following his father’s death. In the years after graduating high school, he worked as a representative for Douglas Aircraft Company.
According to Keel‘s posthumously published autobiography, Only Make Believe: My Life In Show Business, it was his landlady who encouraged him to take voice lessons after hearing him sing around his apartment. That lead to his first-ever public singing engagement, in local performance of Handel‘s Saul.
Not long after marrying his first wife, actress Rosemary Cooper (21-years his senior), Keel was cast as John Raitt‘s understudy in the 1945 smash Broadway musical, Carousel from Rodgers and Hammerstein. He simultaneously landed the lead in Oklahoma!, another Rodgers and Hammerstein production. At one point during his double-duty, he made Broadway history by performing the lead in both shows on the same day.
When Oklahoma! played London in 1947, Keel‘s opening night performance resulted in fourteen encores. His professional life on an upward swing, his personal life suffered. Not long after his London opening, his first marriage ended in divorce. A couple of years later, he married Helen Anderson, one of Oklahoma!‘s chorus girls.
From Broadway to the big screen, Keel joined MGM’s musical stable and skyrocketed to fame as Frank Butler in his musical film debut, 1950’s Annie Get Your Gun. The film co-starred Betty Hutton, Louis Calhern, Edward Arnold and Keenan Wynn. The always fabulous Mae Clarke can be seen in the party scene in the uncredited role of Mrs. Adams.
While Annie Get Your Gun was Keel‘s first American film, technically, his film debut was 1949’s UK-produced, The Hideout, which didn’t get released in the US until 1952. During the 50’s he enjoyed roles in a slew of MGM musicals including: Show Boat (1951), with stars Kathryn Grayson, Ava Gardner and Agnes Moorehead; Kiss Me Kate (1953), again co-starring Kathryn Grayson and featuring Keenan Wynn, Ann Miller and Bob Fosse; Seven Brides For Seven Brothers (1954), with Jane Powell, Julie Newmar, Russ Tamblyn and Jeff Richards; and Kismet (1955), co-starring Ann Blyth, Dolores Gray and Vic Damone.
As is typical for contracted actors with major studios, Keel also starred in just as many non-musical and inconsequential films between his big musical movies, including: Desperate Search, a 1952 action thriller in which he plays Vince Heldon, a small airline owner who’s children are the sole survivors of a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness. It’s not exactly a bad movie, but young Linda Lowell, as Vince‘s crash-victim daughter cries throughout the film to the point of her shrills being less tolerable than fingernails on a chalkboard. Jane Greer and Patricia Medina co-star as Vince‘s current and ex-wife, respectively. Keenan Wynn, usually seen in comedies, is Vince‘s best friend. He does get in a few zingers with Vince‘s ex, however.
At the height of his musical movie career, Keel was loaned to Warner Bros. to co-star alongside Doris Day in Calamity Jane. With decent roles harder to come by, Keel was released from his MGM contract and return to the stage. Another divorce and another marriage took up a large part of the next two decades.
More films and early TV roles also peppered Keel‘s 60s & 70s career. On the big screen, he starred in such forgettable fare as 1961’s Armored Command, co-starring then-future Gilligan’s Island castaway, Tina Louise. On the small screen he appeared in the likes of Death Valley Days, Tales of Wells Fargo and Here’s Lucy.
In 1981, he guest-starred in an episode of The Love Boat, with Jane Powell, his Seven Brides for Seven Brothers co-star. Reportedly, that lead to a recurring role on CBS‘s hit nighttime soap, Dallas. Keel first appeared during Season 4 as Clayton Farlow. (missing his Armored Command co-star Tina Louise by three years). When series patriarch, Jock Ewing, played by Jim Davis, passed away in real-life, Keel‘s character courted and married Jock‘s widow, Miss Ellie (Barbara Bel Geddes) securing Keel‘s rightful place in TV history. A handful of TV roles followed Dallas, including Murder, She Wrote, Walker, Texas Ranger and a 1994 Hart to Hart reunion movie. Keel‘s last film role was 2002’s indie film, My Father’s House. He died in 2004, just weeks after being diagnosed with colon cancer.
TCM’s Howard Keel marathon schedule is as follows:
1953’s Desperate Search airs at 6am/5c
1953’s Fast Company, with Polly Bergen, Marjorie Main and Nina Foch, airs at 7:15am/6:15c
1955’s Kismet airs at 8:30am/7:30c
1954’s Rose Marie, featuring Ann Blyth, Fernando Lamas, Bert Lahr, Marjorie Main and Joan Taylor, airs at 10:30am/9:30c
1952’s Lovely To Look, starring Red Skelton, Kathryn Grayson, Ann Miller and Zsa Zsa Gabor, At airs at 12:30pm/11:30c
1951’s Show Boat airs at 2:30pm/1:30c
1950’s Annie Get Your Gun airs at 4:30pm/3:30c
1959’s Floods of Fear, with Anne Heywood, Cyril Cusac and John Crawford, airs at 6:30/5:30c
1951’s Three Guys Named Mike, co-starring Jane Wyman, Van Johnson and Barry Sullivan, airs at 8pm/7c
1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers airs at 9:45pm/8:45c
1953’s Kiss Me Kate airs at 11:30pm/10:30c
1951’s Callaway Went Thataway, featuring Fred MacMurray, Douglas Kennedy, Dorothy McGuire and Natalie Schafer, airs at 1:30am/12:30c
1950’s Pagan Love Songs, with Esther Williams and Rita Moreno airs at 3am/2c
1951’s Texas Carnival, starring Esther Williams, Red Skelton, Ann Miller and Keenan Wynn, airs at 4:30am/3:30c
To see how some of Howard Keel‘s co-stars connect with others who’ve been featured in my previous articles, click the hyperlinks included in the above article.
TCM‘s Summer Under The Stars comes to a close tomorrow, Wednesday, August 31 with a day-long marathon of the films of Marlena Dietrich.
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