The Richard Kiley Centennial

Were he still among the land of the living, Richard Kiley (1922-1999) would be 100 years old today.

I mentioned Kiley to a very smart friend recently, who responded, “Who?” though like many I think s/he knew him without knowing him. These days Kiley’s most heard performance is as the tour guide recording in Jurassic Park (1993). At that time, his presence was a bit of stunt casting, an eye-winking joke. He was familiar to many Americans primarily as the narrator of National Geographic TV documentaries. He had an exceptionally clear and pleasant voice. Michael Crichton had actually mentioned him as the tour narrator in the original 1990 novel. Getting him for the movie was something of a coup; it helped make the experience seem “real”, a must for all the best science fiction and horror.

The other thing Kiley was best known for was playing Don Quixote/Cervantes in the original Broadway production and national tour of Man of La Mancha (1965-71), as well as the 1977 national tour. We thus knew him from the incessant television ads when the show came to town (in our case, Providence), with endless samplings of “The Impossible Dream” and “Dulcinea”. As kids, we thought it was pretty corny and hilarious. In retrospect, however, I have realized something pretty cool: Kiley was a rare case of someone who was primarily a man of the stage breaking through to relative mainstream recognition in the late 20th century (Robert Goulet was another one). Kiley had been on Broadway 18 times, first making a splash as the Caliph in the 1953 production of Kismet. Other stage stuff included the Bob Fosse-directed Redhead (1959) opposite Gwen Verdon, the original production of Advise and Consent (1961), No Strings (1962, Richard Rodgers first post-Hammerstein show), the original Broadway production of Alan Aykbourn’s Absurd Person Singular (1974), and a 1987 revival of All My Sons. His performances in Redhead and La Mancha both won Tonys. He was nominated for several others.

But for those who aren’t stage buffs, Kiley did just enough film and TV work to have a place at the bigger table. His best known films include Pickup on South Street (1953), Blackboard Jungle (1955), The Little Prince (1974), and Looking for Mr. Goodbar (1977, as Diane Keaton’s rage-filled Irish dad). On TV he starred in Rod Serling’s Emmy winning 1955 script Patterns, and was memorable in a 1974 Columbo episode in which he played a murderous police commissioner, who just happened to be Columbo’s boss. He starred in a 1985 PBS version of The Canterville Ghost, and had roles in many “prestige” tv movies and mini-series such as The Thorn Birds (1983), George Washington (1984), A.D. (1984), and A Year in the Life (1986-88), and guested on shows like Picket Fences, Deep Space Nine, and Ally McBeal.

One of Kiley’s last roles was a doctor in Patch Adams (1998), which seems ironic in retrospect, for just a few months later he was dead of bone marrow disease. Richard Kiley was 77 at the time of his death. At that age it might have nice to have seen him have one last jousting pass at the windmills of La Mancha.

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For more on show biz history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.