Howard Keel, 85, 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 television's "Dallas," died Nov. 7. He had colon cancer.
Mr. Keel 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 MGM film, playing Frank Butler to Betty Hutton's Annie Oakley in "Annie Get Your Gun."
Mr. Keel's size and lusty voice made him an ideal leading man for stars including Esther Williams ("Pagan Love Song," "Texas Carnival," "Jupiter's Darling"), Ann Blyth ("Rose Marie," "Kismet"), Kathryn Grayson ("Show Boat," "Lovely to Look At," "Kiss Me Kate") and Doris Day ("Calamity Jane").
His favorite film was the exuberant "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
"It was a fine cast and lots of fun to make," Mr. Keel remarked in 1993, "but they did the damn thing on the cheap. The backdrops had holes in them, and it was shot on the worst film stock. . . . As it turned out, the miracle worker was George Folsey, the cinematographer. He took that junk and made it look like a Grandma Moses painting."
When film studios went into a slump, MGM's musical factory was disbanded. Mr. Keel kept busy on the road in such attractions as "Man of La Mancha," "South Pacific," "Annie Get Your Gun" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
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 on television. After Jim Davis, who had played the role of Jock Ewing, died in 1981, producers needed another strong presence to stand up to the nefarious J.R. Ewing Jr. (Larry Hagman). They chose Mr. Keel.
Mr. Keel played the part of Clayton Farlow, husband of "Miss Ellie" Ewing (Barbara Bel Geddes), until the show folded in 1991.
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.
"I had a terrible, rotten childhood," Mr. Keel commented in 1995. "My father made away with himself when I was 11. I had no guidance, and Mom was six feet tall, bucktoothed and very tough. I was mean and rebellious and had a terrible, bitter temper. I got a job as an auto mechanic, and I would have stayed in that narrow kind of life if I hadn't discovered art. Music changed me completely."
At 20, he was living in Los Angeles and was befriended by a cultured woman who took him to a Hollywood Bowl concert featuring famed baritone Lawrence Tibbett. Mr. Keel was inspired, and he started paying 25 cents an hour for vocal lessons. His first semiprofessional opportunity came as a singing waiter at the Paris Inn Restaurant in downtown Los Angeles at $15 a week and two meals a day.
Six-foot-three and a gawky 140 pounds, Mr. Keel was painfully shy. For five years during World War II, he worked 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.
Hammerstein approved, and soon under a new name, Howard Keel, he was singing "Oh, What a Beautiful Morning" in New York eight times a week. He sometimes replaced John Raitt in another Rodgers and Hammerstein hit, "Carousel." On occasion, he would appear in a matinee of "Oklahoma!" and an evening performance of "Carousel." He played in "Carousel" for 18 months in London.
He made it big in musicals but also appeared in westerns: "Waco," "Red Tomahawk," "The War Wagon" (with John Wayne and Kirk Douglas) and "Arizona Bushwhackers."
Mr. Keel married and divorced actress Rosemary Cooper and then dancer Helen Anderson, with whom he had three children: Kaija, Kristine and Gunnar. In 1970, he married former airline stewardess Judy Magamoll, with whom he had a 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."