Dennis O’Keefe: From T-Man to TV Man

The career of Dennis O’Keefe (Edward Flanagan Jr, 1908-1968) has some features in common with those of Broderick Crawford and Ida Lupino — a hard-boiled noir-ish star with a background in a family vaudeville act. And like Lupino he was something of an auteur.

In vaudeville, Edward Sr. had partnered with his wife, but also with Neely Edwards, billed as Flanagan and Edwards, the Rollicking Twosome. In 1919 and 1920 the pair appeared in silent comedies together (The Hallroom Boys and other series). The father also appeared in two features: Don’t Call Me Little Girl (1920) with Mary Miles Minter, and The Hunch (1921). Edwards continued on in films but Flanagan returned to vaudeville where he performed with his wife Charlotte Ravenscroft and their son Edward Jr. or “Bud” Flanagan. Much like George M. Cohan, Bud was already writing vaudeville sketches as a teenager. He continued writing scripts during his year and a half at the University of Southern California. When his father died in 1925, Bud left school and replaced his dad in the act for a time.

In 1930 he began to work in films as an extra, usually as a party guest or in crowd scenes. He worked in close to 200 films in this capacity, many of them classics, through 1937. With a good word from Clark Gable, who’d worked with him on Saratoga (1937), he began to get proper roles under his new screen name Dennis O’Keefe. That same year he married B movie starlet Louise Stanley; the liaison lasted only a year and a half. In 1938 he got his first screenwriting credit under the name E.J. Flanagan, a boxing picture called The Kid Comes Back, a.k.a. Don’t Pull Your Punches. In 1940 he married Hungarian born dancer and actress Steffi Duna who appeared in Waterloo Bridge and The Great McGinty that same year.

Notable films in which O’Keefe appeared over the next decade include Topper Returns (1941), The Affairs of Jimmy Valentine (1942), Val Lewton’s The Leopard Man (1943), Earl Carroll Vanities (1945), and Brewster’s Millions (1945). In 1945 he starred in the radio serial Hollywood Mystery Time, in which he played a movie director who solved crimes. In 1947 he starred in the Anthony Mann crime drama T-Men. This led to him playing the lead in the radio series T-Man in 1950.

In 1949 O’Keefe starred in the Christmas themed noir Cover Up, which he’d co-written under the name Jonathan Rix. In 1954 he co-wrote, directed and starred in the films Angela and The Diamond Wizard.

Throughout the 1950s, O’Keefe alternated film and television work, just as had alternated movies and radio in the previous decade. He capped off the decade with his own starring television vehicle, the sitcom The Dennis O’Keefe Show (1959-60) in which he played a widowed newspaper columnist trying to raise a son.

In the ’60s O’Keefe worked mostly in television, with time off for a couple of short-lived Broadway shows. His last film was the film Deadline for Murder (1964), which he’d written under the name Al Everett Dennis. His last acting credit was a 1966 episode of Petticoat Junction. 

Carrying on the family tradition, his son, James O’Keefe was a producer/director of TV sitcoms, associated with such shows as Angie, Mork and Mindy, The New Odd Couple, Perfect Strangers, Family Matters, and Full House.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube