- The Washington Times - Monday, November 8, 2004

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Howard Keel, the broad-shouldered baritone who romanced his way through a series of glittery MGM musicals such as “Kiss Me Kate” and “Annie Get Your Gun” and later revived his career with TV show “Dallas,” died yesterday. He was 85.

Mr. Keel died of colon cancer, said his son, Gunnar.

He starred in Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals in New York and London before being signed to an MGM contract after World War II. The timing was perfect: He became a star with his first film for the studio, playing Frank Butler to Betty Hutton’s Annie Oakley in “Annie Get Your Gun.”

His own favorite film was the exuberant “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”

“It was a fine cast and lots of fun to make,” Mr. Keel said in 1993.

When film studios went into a slump, MGM’s musical factory was disbanded. Mr. Keel kept busy on the road in such surefire attractions as “Man of La Mancha” and “South Pacific.”

Mr. Keel was 66 and presumably nearing the end of his career when he suddenly became a star in another medium.

From its start in 1978, “Dallas” — with its combination of oil, greed, sex and duplicity — had become the hottest series in television. Jim Davis, who had played the role of Jock Ewing, died in 1981, and the producers needed another strong presence to stand up to the nefarious J.R. Ewing Jr. (Larry Hagman). They chose Mr. Keel.

“The show was enormous,” Mr. Keel reflected in 1995, four years after it folded. “I couldn’t believe it. My life changed again. From being out of it, I was suddenly a star, known to more people than ever before. Wherever I went, crowds appeared again, and I started making solo albums for the first time in my career.”

He played Clayton Farlow, husband of “Miss Ellie” (Barbara Bel Geddes).

When Mr. Keel was born in Gillespie, Ill., his name was Harold Clifford Leek. His father, once a naval captain, became a coal miner and drank to soothe his bitterness. During drunken rages, he beat his children. His mother, a strict Methodist, forbade her two sons from having any entertainment.

At six feet three inches tall and weighing 140 pounds, Mr. Keel was painfully shy. He worked five years during World War II at Douglas Aircraft, and the experience helped his confidence.

He sang in recitals and opera programs and was summoned to an audition with Oscar Hammerstein II, who was looking for young singers to play Curly in the growing number of touring “Oklahoma!” companies.

Mr. Keel was married and divorced twice: to actress Rosemary Cooper and dancer Helen Anderson, with whom he had three children — Kaija, Kristine and Gunnar. In 1970, he married former airline stewardess Judy Magamoll. They had one daughter, Leslie.

He continued singing in the 1980s, explaining: “As long as I can sing halfway decent, I’d rather sing [than act]. There’s nothing like being in good voice, feeling good, having good numbers to do and having a fine orchestra.”

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