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Last Updated: Monday, 8 November, 2004, 09:56 GMT
Obituary: Howard Keel
Howard Keel
Howard Keel: Popular and engaging baritone
At six feet three, handsome, with a powerful baritone voice, Howard Keel - who has died of colon cancer at 85 - had the stature to match the lavish scale of MGM productions such as Showboat and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.

Born Harold Leek in Illinois in 1917, he had, in his words, "a terrible, rotten childhood".

His father, once a naval officer, became a coal miner and a drunk. His mother, a strict Methodist, forbade him to go to entertainment of any kind and beat him savagely.

Keel said he grew up in California "mean, rebellious, with a terrible, bitter temper". But at 20, working as a mechanic, his perception of life was transformed when he discovered he had a special gift.

Bowled over by a classical singing recital at the Hollywood Bowl, Keel began taking singing lessons.

Working for the Douglas aircraft company, he then became a morale-boosting weapon during World War II.


Executives decided he would be best employed as a roving entertainer, touring their plants and helping workers to meet their wartime quotas.

After his success in a singing contest, Howard Keel suddenly found himself on the Broadway stage, in fact, two stages, as he played a matinee in one show, Oklahoma! and then crossed the street for an evening performance in Carousel.

In 1947, with Keel playing the lead role, Oklahoma! took London by storm: "That first night at Drury Lane will never be topped in my life," Keel recalled many years later. "We did 14 encores; the curtain calls lasted nearly an hour."

No doubt influenced by that show, MGM decided that, after the top hat and tails sophistication of the Fred Astaire movies, it was time for a more rugged brand of singing actor.

Howard Keel singing
Howard Keel's hits included Oh What A Beautiful Morning
Howard Keel fitted the bill ideally. He followed his 1950 debut in Annie Get Your Gun with a series of successes, including Showboat, Calamity Jane, Rose Marie, Kiss Me Kate and probably his best-known film, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, in which he memorably belted out Bless Your Beautiful Hide.

Of all his co-stars, who included Betty Hutton, Jane Powell and Doris Day, he found working with Kathryn Grayson was the most difficult, because he was "tortured" by his feelings for her:

"I fell terribly in love with Kathryn, but I was married to my second wife, with kids, so nothing happened between us".

But by the end of the 1950s, the old-style musical was fading and Elvis had arrived. In the 60s, Howard Keel turned to straight acting, his films including the British sci-fi, The Day of the Triffids.

Unexpected comeback

He continued to make a lucrative living from singing on stage, but missed the glamour of Hollywood. He developed a drink problem and saw his second marriage end, but was rescued by two lucky breaks.

Keel met and married Judy, an air stewardess 25 years his junior, who knew nothing of the Howard Keel legend. At 66, he was about to retire when the producers of Dallas asked Keel to play Miss Ellie's husband, Clayton Farlow.

"The show was enormous," he said. "My life changed again. Wherever I went, crowds appeared again, and I started making solo albums for the first time in my career."

They sold in substantial numbers, boosted by frequent concert tours, especially in Britain, where Howard Keel was a sex symbol again, albeit for the over-sixties. "A thousand corsets creaked in time," reported the Daily Mirror of his London concert in 1984.

In his 70s, Howard Keel's voice still sounded effortless, as he performed his repertoire of memorable old songs - still in the same key as when he made them famous.

US actor Howard Keel dies at 85
07 Nov 04  |  Entertainment

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