Howard Keel: Steered a Middle Course

I don’t want to imply that Howard Keel (1919-2004) was interesting, but he did occupy an interesting niche. He specialized in two genres, each at opposite ends of the gender normative scale: musicals and westerns, and he is especially known for starring in the overlap of both: musicals with western or rustic settings. Ruggedly built and 6’4″, his chief asset was a beautiful baritone voice, and a singing talent so natural that (unlike most legit singing stars) he was entirely self-taught.

Hailing from downstate Illinois near the Missouri border, Keel was the son of a coalminer who died when the boy was 11. The family then moved to Southern California, where Keel worked a variety of menial jobs prior to becoming a professional singer. In the mid ’40s he understudied in the original Broadway productions of Oklahoma! and Carousel, which led to some London engagements and finally, in 1950, Hollywood. Most of the movies Keel appeared in are better remembered than he is. They include Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Show Boat (1951), Texas Carnival (1951), Callaway Went Thataway (1951), Ride Vaquero! (1953), Calamity Jane (1953), Kiss Me Kate (1953), Rose Marie (1954), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), Kismet (1955), The Day of the Triffids (1962), Waco (1966), Red Tomahawk (1967), The War Wagon (1967) and Arizona Bushwhackers (1968). He also narrated Across the Wide Missouri (1951).

Keel also returned to Broadway to star in the 1957 revival of Carousel, and the original productions of Saratoga (1959), No Strings (1962, replacing Richard Kiley), and Ambassador (1972). On TV he appeared on variety programs like Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Polly Bergen Show, and The Joey Bishop Show; westerns like Death Valley Days, Tales of Wells Fargo, and Zane Grey Theatre; the usual Love Boat and Fantasy Island appearances, and above all, Dallas, on which he was a regular from 1981 to 1991, as “Clayton Farlow”. His time between film, TV and Broadway gigs was usually spent in regional or touring productions of musicals, or night club and concert appearances. From 1958 to 1959 Keel was the President of the Screen Actor’s Guild.

Care to support the voluminous and variegated work of Travalanche? Please do so by joining our Patreon Posse here. As little as $1 a month gets you all sorts of extra content over and above what we do here, including our Daily Digest; lots of old time movie, radio, TV and record clips; and exclusive audio and video presentations by Your Humble Servant. Hither to the 411.