Howard Keel

Howard Keel

Also known as: Harold Keel


Born: April 13, 1919
Gillespie, Illinois

Died: November 7, 2004
Palm Desert, California

Howard Keel, the handsome high baritone who sang musical theatre's great roles in the film versions of Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, Kismet and Kiss Me, Kate, died Nov. 7, 2004, in Palm Desert, California, according to The New York Times. Mr. Keel was 85. The cause of death was reported as colon cancer.

To a generation of moviegoers who may not have had access to Broadway musicals in New York or on tour, the barrel-chested Mr. Keel was what a musical comedy leading man looked and sounded like: Tall, handsome, with a voice that could be muscular (as in M-G-M's "Kiss Me, Kate," in which he played the swaggering stage actor Fred Graham) or tender and longing (in M-G-M's "Show Boat," singing "Make Believe" as a river boat gambler wooing a virginal girl whose parents run the title Mississippi venue).

In dark makeup, Mr. Keel also played the troubadour in the Middle-East-set "Kismet" (1955) on film. He made a big splash in the 1950 film, "Annie Get Your Gun," playing Frank Butler to Betty Hutton's Annie Oakley (it was originally to have been Judy Garland).

Internet Movie Database indicates his film debut was in the 1948 thriller, "The Small Voice," though many consider his screen start to be "Annie Get Your Gun." As sharpshooter Frank Butler, Mr. Keel got to show his range, singing both brusquely and tenderly (as the Irving Berlin score dictated). His place in the golden age of movie musicals was assured. (Following "Annie Get Your Gun," was it any wonder he played Wild Bill Hickock in the later movie musical "Calamity Jane," opposite Doris Day?)

Perhaps because it was an original venture written for the screen, "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers" (1954) is viewed by many as Mr. Keel's greatest achievement on film. He played oldest brother, Adam, who blazes the marriage trail for his other roughneck brothers in the pioneer days in the Pacific Northwest. "Sobbin' Women" was his big number in the picture, which was also noted for its extraordinary dance sequences. His co-star was Jane Powell, with whom he would, in late-career, star in a tour of South Pacific. Kathryn Grayson was his leading lady in both "Kiss Me, Kate" (1953) and "Show Boat" (1951).

Other motion picture credits include "Rose Marie," "Deep in My Heart," "Jupiter's Darling," "Texas Carnival," "Three Guys Named Mike," "Armored Command," "Floods of Fear," "Fast Company," "Desperate Search" and more.

Although Mr. Keel did appear in many non-singing dramatic roles, such as Clayton Farlow in TV's "Dallas," he was always passionate about singing. At age 80, he was performing an act in Atlantic City. In 2000, he played Gen. Waverly in a stage version of the movie "White Christmas" at the St. Louis Muny. Stock productions and tours were a consistent part of his career.

It wasn't a fluke that Mr. Keel became a movie musical actor. He had done solid work on Broadway as a replacement Curly in the original run of Oklahoma! (in his early career he was known as Harold Keel) and then as the replacement Billy Bigelow in Carousel. At City Center, he played Billy Bigelow in a 1957 revival of Carousel, after he had peaked at M-G-M. Other Broadway credits include replacing Richard Kiley in No Strings, and roles in the musicals Saratoga and Ambassador.

Other sources, including The New York Times, report Howard Keel was born Harold Clifford Leek in Gillespie, IL, though some sources (including "Who's Who of the American Theatre") indicate he was born Harold Keel.

An unhappy childhood with an absent father and a "tough" mother was sweetened with music, he said. He reportedly first sang publicly as a singing busboy in a Los Angeles restaurant.



Playbill Cover - Ambassador Ambassador
Nov. 19, 1972 - Nov. 25, 1972
Lewis Lambert Strether Performer
Playbill Cover - No Strings No Strings
Mar. 15, 1962 - Aug. 3, 1963
David Jordan Performer
Playbill Cover - Saratoga Saratoga
Dec. 7, 1959 - Feb. 13, 1960
Clint Maroon Performer
Sep. 11, 1957 - Sep. 29, 1957
Billy Bigelow Performer
Playbill Cover - Oklahoma! Oklahoma!
Mar. 31, 1943 - May 29, 1948
Curly Performer
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