Howard Keel, the star of such musicals as Kiss Me Kate and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, died this morning from colon cancer. He was 85 years old. Keel was born Harold Clifford Leek in Gillespie, Illinois. At age 20 he decided to take up singing after seeing baritone Lawrence Tibbett at the Hollywood Bowl. His first real job as a singer was at the Paris Inn Restaurant in Los Angeles, where he was paid a meagre $15 a week. Eventually he had an audition with Oscar Hammerstein II, leading to the role of Curly in Oklahoma.
Keel starred in a number of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals before deciding Hollywood offered greener pastures. He signed with MGM and achieved star billing with his first film, playing Frank Butler in Annie Get Your Gun. His baritone voice and sheer size made him ideal for roles in a number of MGM musicals. He starred in Show Boat, Lovely to Look At, and Calamity Jane. Perhaps his biggest role was in my favourite musical of all time(it was also his favourite film), Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, as the eldest brother Adam. I have often thought that Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a man's musical. The protagonists are seven rugged men, living off the land, looking for brides. The dance sequences are hardly minuets, but lively, undeniably masculine dances involving a lot of jumping and stomping. And there are seven beautiful women (among them a young Julie Newmar) for us fellows to ogle. Anyhow, Keel was perfect as Adam, perhaps the most rugged and bull headed of the brothers. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers was one of the first musicals I ever saw and remains my favourite to this day.
Perhaps his other biggest role was Fred Graham in Kiss Me Kate, another one of my favourite musicals. Kiss Me Kate is essentially an adaptation of Shakespeare's Taming of the Shrew about the staging of, well, an adaptation of Taming of the Shrew. It is one of the funniest musicals I have ever seen and Keel handles the comedy quite well. Too, it features Ann Miller in a major role (always a bonus in any movie).
After the age of musical came to an end in Hollywood, Keel continued to perform on stage, touring with companies performing South Pacific, Annie Get Your Gun, and, of course, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Keel also appeared in Westerns, among them Waco and The War Wagon (one of my favourite John Wayne movies). He even appered in a sci-fi film, Day of the Triffids. Keel also performed on the TV show Dallas for ten years. His last appearance on film was in the 2002 movie My Father's House.
I must say that Howard Keel was one of my favourite musical stars of all time. Like Gene Kelly, he was the sort of actor with whom the average man could identify. The roles he played were generally those of typical males of the sort one might meet in the local pub or the local barbershop (an exception being Fred from Kiss Me Kate). It truly saddens me that he has passed on, as I assume it does many other people. He was a great singer, a very good actor, and one of the few musical stars who played roles that the average guy could see himself as.