Howard Keel, who sang and danced to stardom in the heyday of MGM musicals, died yesterday (Nov. 7) of colon cancer at his home in Palm Desert, Calif. He was 85.
With his full-throated baritone and 6-foot-4-inch frame, Keel was a romantic figure in such classic musicals as “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Showboat,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” and “Kismet.” He was paired with the most glamorous of leading ladies: Esther Williams, Doris Day, Kathryn Grayson and Jane Powell.
When the studios veered away from musicals in the late 1950s, he picked up in action pictures and dramas, including “The Big Fisherman” and “The War Wagon” with John Wayne. More recently, he co-starred for 11 years as Clayton Farlow, husband of “Miss Ellie” Ewing, on the hit show “Dallas.” Keel was 66 and presumably nearing the end of his career when he suddenly became a star in the latter medium.
Harry Clifford Leek was born on April 13, 1919, in Illinois. Following high school graduation, his first job was as a singing busboy, but later he took a job at Douglas Aircraft, where his handsome looks and affable personality fitted well with his job as a “manufacturing representative.”
At 20, he was befriended by a woman who took him to a Hollywood Bowl concert featuring baritone Lawrence Tibbett. Keel was inspired, and he started taking vocal lessons at 25 cents an hour.
He was an entertaining figure, inspiring workers with wartime quotas and, along the way, winning several singing contests. His singing ability caught the attention of Rodgers & Hammerstein, and he was signed to replace John Raitt in the Broadway production of “Carousel.”
With his surname now Keel — he reversed the spelling of Leek — he excelled on the stage, which led to movie roles, beginning with “The Small Voice” (1948).
Keel achieved stardom in 1950 with his second film, “Annie Get Your Gun,” when he played a singing cowboy who was Betty Hutton’s love interest. His stunning turn in “Annie” vaulted him to stardom at a time when MGM boasted having “more stars than there are in the heavens.”
From 1951-55, Keel starred in the top MGM musicals: “Showboat,” “Lovely to Look At,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Rose Marie,” “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, “Kismet” and “Jupiter’s Darling” in which he played Hannibal invading Rome.
Following his musical run, Keel often performed with touring companies and in nightclubs where he was a popular figure.
Keel is survived by 10 grandchildren and one great-granddaughter. The funeral will be private, with a memorial service to follow.