Going drink for drink with ‘Dallas’ star Howard Keel

By Ray Bennett

In 1981 when he was 62, Howard Keel’s days as the star of great Hollywood musicals were long gone. He was living in Oklahoma with his third wife Judy when he received a phone call. ‘I was pretty much washed up in Hollywood by the late Seventies,’  he told me. ‘We were packed ready to head off to retirement in Colorado.’ 

But Jim Davis, who played patriarch Jock Ewing on the hit TV series ‘Dallas’, had died and the show needed another senior star to play opposite Barbara Bel Geddes as Miss Ellie. Keel said he hired a U-Haul and headed back to Los Angeles. He played Clayton Farlow on the show for the next ten years.

Born in Illinois on this day in 1919, Keel had stage success in musicals on Broadway and in London’s West End  before becoming an instant movie star playing opposite Betty Hutton in Irving Berlin’s ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ in 1950. More musical hits followed including  ‘Show Boat’ with Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner and  ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’ with Jane Powell. He also was a successful recording artist, especially in the United Kingdom.

I was keen to interview him most of all because he co-starred opposite my favourite, Doris Day, in ‘Calamity Jane’ (left). When  his film-musical career faded, he made a couple of pictures in England – ‘Floods of Fear’ and ’The Day of the Triffids’ – that I also was curious about. 

I met him first at a media event on the Southfork ‘Dallas’ set at the Sony studio in Culver City where Lorimar, the show’s production company, was based (top photo) and then at the iconic Musso & Frank’s Grill for an interview over lunch in 1982. Keel brought his longtime male PA with him and a young female publicist from Lorimar. It was late morning and the place hadn’t filled up yet. 

Keel beckoned the waiter and asked for a specific brand of gin. They didn’t have it, so he named another. Not that either. At last, he settled on a brand of gin he could live with and ordered a double dry gin martini on the rocks with two cocktail onions. It was my habit always to follow the lead of the person I was interviewing – if it was wine or mineral water I followed suit. I told the waiter at Musso & Frank’s that I would have the same thing as Mr. Keel. 

Over the next two hours, while we had salads and sandwiches, he and I each nursed four double martinis while he regaled me with tales of working with Doris Day, whom he adored, and being ripped off by film producers in England. He said there was resistance at first to him being a leading man because his voice was bass-baritone rather than the favoured tenor. He also told me that he hated opera because he thought it lacked expression.

After Keel left our boozy lunch, the publicist from Lorimar told me she’d done scores of interviews with him and had never heard any of the stories he told me. Sadly, the recording of our conversation has been lost. I went for a walk and had some coffee at a nearby cafe before I headed home. Keel’s guy, who didn’t drink, was driving him but when I asked where he was headed, Keel said he was going to meet George C. Scott to play golf at the Beverly Hills Country Club. 

Now, there was a man who could hold his liquor. He died aged 85 in 2004.

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