His operatic singing voice and matinee idol looks won him an offer in 1944 to headline Rodgers and Hammerstein's Broadway hit "Oklahoma!" but Howard Keel stuck with his day job at the Douglas Aircraft Corporation, setting aside ambition to aid the Allied effort through the end of World War II. It was on London's West End that Keel caught the eye of British film producers, for whom he made his big screen debut in 1948. Stateside, Keel accepted an MGM contract and lead roles in such Technicolor musicals as "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950), "Show Boat" (1951), and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954), while proving himself a credible man of action in the British "Floods of Fear" (1958) and "Day of the Triffids" (1962), in which he saved the Earth from an invasion of asparaginous extraterrestrials. Though he rode tall beside John Wayne and Kirk Douglas in Burt Kennedy's "The War Wagon" (1967), film offers thinned out with the demise of the studio system. Supplementing his income with nightclub and summer stock appearances, Keel was on the verge of retiring when the producers of the popular primetime soap opera "Dallas" (NBC, 1978-1991) tapped him to play steel-spined oil baron Clayton Farlow through the end of the series' 13-year run. Capping his career in his seventies by returning to his roots as a singer, Keel released four albums of songs before his death in 2004 robbed the arts of a one-of-a-kind popular entertainer with classical appeal.
Harold Clifton Keel was born on April 13, 1917, in Gillespie, IL. A former navy captain, Keel's father Homer was compelled by hard times to work as a coal miner and a dependence on alcohol drove him to abusive rages. With his father's suicide in 1930, Keel's mother, the former Grace Osterkamp, relocated her two sons to California, settling ultimately in Fallbrook, north of San Diego. A strict Methodist, the woman forbade her sons any form of popular entertainment, even as a diversion from the crushing poverty in which they lived. After graduating from Fallbrook High School, Keel headed for Los Angeles, where the landlady of the apartment he rented overheard him singing and encouraged him to take vocal lessons. Finding an early outlet for his talent as a singing busboy at the Paris Inn in downtown L.A., Keel secured better paying work with the Douglas Aircraft Corporation. His matinee idol looks and plummy basso cantante voice prompted his employers to send him out as a company-wide goodwill ambassador, aiding the war effort by traveling from plant to plant to entertain workers on the assembly line.
Keel made his public performing debut in 1941, singing the role of Samuel the Prophet in a production of Handel's three-act oratorio "Saul." While performing at the Chicago Music Festival during World War II, Keel was discovered by theatrical librettist and producer Oscar Hammerstein II, then scouting actor-singers for the touring companies of his hit musical "Oklahoma!" Though Keel demurred, preferring to serve the war effort under the auspices of Douglas Aircraft, he did join the cast of Hammerstein and Richard Rodgers' "Carousel" after the war as an understudy for star John Raitt and went on to replace Alfred Drake in "Oklahoma!" as the lovelorn cowboy Curly. In 1945, he married Rosemary Cooper, a silent film actress nearly 20 years his senior. Three years later, Keel transferred with "Oklahoma!" to London's West End, where British film producers scouted him for the role of an escaped prison convict who takes a young couple hostage in the thriller "The Small Voice: (1948). Though registering as little more than a blip on the actor's career arc, the British Lion release did mark his first billing as Howard Keel.
With his divorce from Cooper in 1948, Keel married dancer Helen Anderson, a member of the "Oklahoma!" chorus. The couple settled in Los Angeles, where they raised three children born between 1950 and 1955. A contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer led to Keel's casting as the cocksure frontiersman Frank Butler in "Annie Get Your Gun" (1950), George Sidney's big screen adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, in which Keel was partnered with Betty Hutton as Annie Oakley. At 6'4," the almost impossibly handsome Keel was made for Technicolor and the ever-widening aspect ratio of the silver screen. He won plumb roles in several opulent MGM super-productions, as riverboat gambler Gaylord Ravenal opposite Ava Gardner in Sidney's "Show Boat" (1951); as Fred Graham in Sidney's "Kiss Me Kate" (1953), a meta-musical take on Shakespeare's The Taming of the Shrew; and as timberman Adam Pontipee in Stanley Donen's "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954). Despite the fact that all of these films garnered multiple Academy Award nominations, Keel was never recognized by the academy for his commanding screen presence.
As an MGM contract player, Keel was pressed into service, often against his better judgment, in non-musical programmers or as second male leads in minor musicals. In the Technicolor "Texas Carnival" (1951), he played second banana to rubber-faced comic Red Skelton, with whom he sparred for the love of leading lady Esther Williams, and took on Robert Taylor for the affection of Ava Gardner in John Farrow's "Ride, Vaquero!" (1953). On loan to Warner Brothers, Keel played the larger-than-life Buffalo Bill Cody to Doris Day's "Calamity Jane" (1953) and back at Metro he commanded lead roles in Mervyn LeRoy's Cinemascope musical adventure "Rose Marie" (1954), as a Royal Canadian Mounted Police captain in pursuit of renegade fur trapper Fernando Lamas, and in Vincente Minnelli's "Kismet" (1955), an adaptation of the hit Broadway musical, with Keel well-cast as an impoverished poet who masquerades as a magician in a lush Arabian nights setting chockablock with such dubious Hollywood Muslims as Jack Elam and Mike Mazurki.
With the dissolution of his MGM contract, Keel entered a period of free agency, traveling back to England to star in Charles Crichton's "Floods of Fear" (1958), playing a wrongly-convicted and often shirtless man holding a clutch of captives prisoner in a house half-deluged by flood waters. Growing barrel-chested as he advanced into middle age, Keel stayed bundled in cable-knit sweaters throughout Steve Sekely's "Day of the Triffids" (1962), as a merchant mariner who lucks out of being blinded by a freak meteor shower and finds himself an unlikely hero with the resultant growth of alien life forms bent on ankling humanity. A run of unimpressive Westerns followed, with the actor shouldering his way through the aggregate mediocrity of "Waco" (1967), "Red Tomahawk" (1967), and "Arizona Uprising" (1968). More fun was a supporting role in Burt Kennedy's "The War Wagon" (1967), which cast Keel as a sardonic Native American who joins the gang of leads John Wayne and Kirk Douglas in pulling off an armored stagecoach robbery.
Divorced from Helen Anderson in 1970, the 51-year-old Keel married 26-year-old actress Judy Magamoll, who bore him a third child, a daughter, in 1974. Less in demand for feature film work, Keel augmented his income with nightclub and summer stock appearances and guest spots on network television series. His hair grown white and often sporting a mustache, Keel brought a senatorial bearing to his performances as he reached retirement age. On the cusp of relocating his family to Oklahoma with the intention of going into private business, Keel was tapped by the producers of the CBS primetime soap opera "Dallas" (1978-1991) to serve as a replacement for series regular Jim Davis, who succumbed to cancer in 1981. While playing oil baron Clayton Farlow, love interest and later husband for Barbara Bel Geddes' widowed matriarch Miss Ellie Ewing, the reinvigorated actor popped up on such hit shows as "Fantasy Island" (ABC, 1977-1984), "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) and "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996), all of which courted older viewers with a guest cast roster of classic Hollywood actors and actresses.
Admitting in later years that he preferred singing to acting, Keel dabbled in record production, releasing four albums of songs between 1984 and 1988. The recordings did better in the United Kingdom than in the United States, with And I Love You So charting at no. 6 in the U.K. In 1994, Keel and his wife moved to Palm Desert, CA, where he participated in charity events. He also gave the loan of his name to the Howard Keel Golf Classic held annually in Cheshire, England, whose proceeds went to the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children. His final big screen appearance was in Larry Holden's independent feature film "My Father's House" (2002). Diagnosed with colon cancer in October 2004, Keel died a mere six weeks later on Nov. 7, 2004, at the age of 85.
By Richard Harland Smith