Friday, July 17

Brian Keith

He played around with romantic, leading man roles but I recall him more as a second lead in scores of movies.  Regardless, whether playing bad guys in westerns and crime movies or characters with warmth and humor, when all the pistons were firing and the gears clicked, Brian Keith was a good, reliable, utterly watchable actor who could hold his own with the best of them.

He never had the great longing to be an actor that a lot of his contemporaries may have had.  Instead he gravitated toward the profession because his parents were in it.  By the time he hung his hat in Hollywood, he claimed he just took the movies that were offered to him and didn't go after any particular role.  He never fancied himself a thespian but rather just a workman-like stiff simply doing his job.

He was born in New Jersey in 1921 to veteran movie character actor, Robert Keith, and stage actress, Helena Shipman.  He was the type of baby you hear of sleeping in a dresser drawer while his parents were on stage.  They divorced when he was four and he was largely raised by his grandmother in New York.  He credited her for giving him his love of reading.  Broadway actress Peg Entwistle became his stepmother although she is not as  famous for that fact as she is for killing herself by jumping off the "H" of the Hollywood sign.  It's been said that depression ran through the entire Keith family.

He served as an air gunner in the Marines during WWII and received an Air Medal for his efforts.  After the war he returned to New York and became a stage actor (Mister Roberts was one of his gigs), worked on the radio and did lots of television, including most of the esteemed live shows of the day.  He never credited his father with getting him into movies but being the son of a well-respected character actor like Robert Keith couldn't have hurt.  Baby Brian did have a couple of bits in his father's films in the 1920s.

He married (the first of three) and together they left for Hollywood where Keith had a few roles as an extra before landing a key role in Arrowhead (1953), a western starring Charlton Heston, with whom he would work again and who became a life-long friend.  The burly actor with the gruff voice was quite enamored of westerns (he loved riding horses and for years would own a ranch). 

He was offered  second-lead roles in some B flicks before accepting a sizable costarring role in a good oater, The Violent Men (1955).  He played Edward G. Robinson's wild brother who is horsing around with Robinson's wife, Barbara Stanwyck.  The same year he appeared again with Robinson in Tight Spot.  A tense little noir costarring Ginger Rogers as a witness who is in hiding before a trial, Keith plays the cop who is guarding her and falls for her.  Also in 1955 he played one of several friends who sets out to rob a casino in the Guy Madison-Kim Novak noir, 5 Against the House.

After working with big-time actresses like Stanwyck and Rogers,
he joined none other than Bette Davis in Storm Center (1956). It was unabashedly anti-McCarthyism as it concerned itself with a librarian who would not remove a book because of its communist overtones.  Keith played an ambitious attorney who is against her.  Too bad it's mostly a forgotten film because it is one of the actor's best roles.  Another mostly forgotten but good little noir is Nightfall (1957) starring Aldo Ray as an innocent guy drawn into a bank heist.  Keith ably plays a vicious bad guy.

He played out the 1950s in several routine films, mainly westerns and crime but ended it playing Paul Newman's father in The Young Philadelphians (1959).  It was a warm, sympathetic role and never mind that he was only four years older than Newman.  Keith's most prolific decade was about to commence, the 60s, which is why he's included in this tribute to that decade.  He made some good films and some real dogs.

In 1961 he costarred with an actress who would become a trusted friend, Maureen O'Hara.  Before the decade was over they would share billing in three films.  She was co-producing a western called The Deadly Companions and wanted Keith for one of the two starring male roles (Steve Cochran would get the other).  It was  Sam Peckinpah's first theatrical directorial effort.  Keith accidentally kills O'Hara's son and then accompanies her and two others across hostile country to bury the child.  It's a hazardous, slow-moving trip with some good acting and plenty of arguing.  It showcases another good Keith performance in a little-scene film.

With pal, O'Hara, in "The Parent Trap"

One could certainly not say the next one was little-seen.  Disney came to the rescue when it provided Keith a whole new career as a leading man in Uncle Walt's family-oriented films.  O'Hara joined him for The Parent Trap (1961).  We all know it starred Hayley Mills as twins who try to reunite their divorced parents.  It's where we all got a great big dose of Keith as a warm and fuzzy father and O'Hara looking more beautiful than ever in a frequently funny, good-natured, well-written film.  It also resulted in friendship between Keith and the entire Mills family.  Interestingly, in the final Keith-O'Hara pairing, older daughter Juliet would be a cast member.

He also appeared in a lot of television shows in the early 60s but also managed two more films for Disney.  One was an idiotic military comedy, Moon Pilot (1962) and the other an Old Yeller ripoff, Savage Sam (1963), both costarring youthful Disney star, Tommy Kirk.  The less said the better.

In the next two years, again for Disney and both costarring Vera Miles (the actress, also beginning a stretch at Disney, was a perfect match for Keith), he made A Tiger Walks and Those Calloways.  The first was pretty routine Disney stuff but since it concerned a carnival tiger loose in a small town, it captured my imagination.  Those Calloways is a pure delight, charming and heartfelt, about a country family trying to build a sanctuary for geese.  It remains among my favorite of Keith's films.

His penchant for taking any film offered has to be the only excuse for making the three-girls-in-search-of-husbands comedy, The Pleasure Seekers (1964), the absurdly corny western The Hallelujah Trail (1965), a pointless Jerry Lewis ego production, Way Way Out (1966),  the embarrassing With Six You Get Eggroll (1968), a film so bad it ended Doris Day's career, and the ridiculous and wrongly-titled Krakatoa, East of Java (1968).
The crazy Scot of "The Rare Breed"

On the plus side, 1966's The Rare Breed, his last with O'Hara and costarring Jimmy Stewart, was kind of fun.  It concerned an English widow who brings a prized Hereford bull to the American west in an effort to introduce the breed.  Keith was full-on crazy as a Scotsman determined to win O'Hara's favors.  (He doesn't.)  Two more good films the same year were Nevada Smith (as Steve McQueen's mentor) and as the steady police chief in Norman Jewison's adorable comedy, The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming.

Robert Keith died in 1966.  I wish they had worked together after Brian became a star.  I liked the father almost as much as the son.  I know nothing about their personal relationship although I suspect it wasn't close because I know of no photos of them together nor of either speaking publicly of their relationship.
Brian's dad, Robert Keith

Another of my favorite Keith films was 1967s Reflections in a Golden Eye.  He was in good company with director John Huston and stars Elizabeth Taylor, Marlon Brando and Julie Harris.  Taking place on an army base, Brando's lieutenant-colonel lusts after an enlisted man, Robert Forster, who, in turn, lusts after Brando's wife, Taylor.  So does Keith, a friend and neighbor and Harris' unhappy husband.  I cannot deny that the sexually-charged film was a weird one or that I quite liked it.

It was also in the mid-60s that he filmed his most famous television series (and he had several), Family Affair.  Because of it, I met Brian Keith at producer Don Fedderson's home.  It was Fedderson's series and I was at his home with my friend, his nephew.  Keith came by to pick up something and stayed for a short while.  He seemed quite nice and although he only spoke with me briefly, I remember how much he smiled and how opinionated he was, telling us of his many likes and dislikes.

Both Keith and German actor Helmut (Cabaret) Griem were excellent in 1970s The McKenzie Break about an intelligence officer sent to a WWII German POW camp to determine how they are planning to escape.  It was a good but underrated film.  Five years later he was most impressive as Theodore Roosevelt in the Sean Connery-starrer, The Wind and the Lion.  He should have been nominated for a supporting Oscar. 

In 1975 he made The Mountain Men with his pal Heston.  With the title saying it all, it was a well-done, well-acted film with plenty of excitement... similar to but not as good as Redford's Jeremiah Johnson.   The two played friendly rivals with a nice splash of comedy.  Though Keith worked until the late 1990s, I regard this as his last good film.

With his second wife, he had five children.  With his third wife, Hawaiian actress Victoria Young, 23 years his junior, he had two children.  He was reportedly very close to Young and he loved his children but the late 90s were not kind to Keith.  The films weren't good and he was upset over financial setbacks.  He was suffering from emphysema, which he said he could live with but being told that he had inoperable lung cancer devastated him.

On April, 16, 1997, his daughter (with Young), Daisy, committed suicide and Keith bottomed out.  Forgive me, but I don't want to live anymore, he said.  The pain is too bad. There's no point in trying to prolong this agony.  On June 24, 1997, Brian Keith, reliable actor, devoted family man, good friend, longtime Malibu resident, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.  He was 75 years old.

Next posting:
The Directors

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