The Many Roles of Brian Keith

We are right in the middle of our “Men of November” blog series, and today we spend some time getting to know a prolific television and film star, Brian Keith.

Photo: wikipedia.com

Brian Keith (Robert Alba Keith) was born in 1921 in New Jersey. His parents were both actors. They divorced shortly after his birth and at age 2, he moved to Hollywood and made his acting debut in a silent film, Pied Piper Malone, at the age of three.

While his mother was relocating for stage and radio work, his grandmother raised him on Long Island, New York.

His father remarried in 1927, but his second wife, Peg Entwistle, was involved in a tragic incident which is one of the Hollywood legends. She committed suicide by jumping of the H of the iconic Hollywood sign.

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Photo: pinterest.com

After high school graduation, Keith joined the US Marine Corps from 1942-5. He served as a machine gunner and received an Air Medal.

In an interview with the Press and Sun-Bulletin in 1966, Keith related that he had no intention of becoming an actor. He had a passion for a career at sea and wanted to go to school at the Merchant Marine Academy. He said unfortunately, “You can’t be a ship’s officer without passing a few math courses and I came up with a big fat zero in algebra. In fact, no matter how many times I repeated the course, it still came up zero. So, it was goodbye Navy career.”

After the war, Brian decided to follow in his parents’ footsteps and made his Broadway debut in 1948 in Mister Roberts. His father played Doc in the same production.

While working on television, Keith also began appearing on the big screen. During his career, he would he would make 65 movies. In the fifties he was in Storm Center with Bette Davis and The Young Philadelphians with Paul Newman.

Crusader Photo: sitcomsonline.com

While continuing to appear on the stage, television was starting to pull him in that direction. He was given his first television role in 1951 in Hands of Mystery. He did a variety of television work in the 1950s, starting off in more dramas and ending the decade in westerns. Last week we learned a bit about Gale Gordon. If you remember, Gale starred in a short-lived series called The Box Brothers, and Brian happened to be in one of those episodes in 1957. From 1955-56, he received a regular role on Crusader, making 52 episodes. He starred as Matt Anders, a journalist who, in the aftermath of his mother’s death in a Nazi concentration camp during World War II, travels the world to battle injustice.

The Westerner Photo: nostalgiacentral.com

Moving into the sixties, Keith continued his western appearances and was given the lead in Sam Peckinpah’s television series, The Westerner. Unfortunately, it only lasted for 13 episodes. Keith said that “only four or five of those were any good, but those four or five were as good as anything anybody has ever done.” He played Dave Blassingame, a cowboy drifter who sometimes does questionable things trying to earn enough money to buy a ranch, but in the end, always does the right thing.

The Parent Trap Photo: pinterest.com

It was also in the sixties that he began his connection with Disney, starring in The Parent Trap in 1961.

During this decade, he was offered a show of his own that he is probably best known for—Family Affair. From 1966-1971, he appeared as Bill Davis, an engineer, who takes in his two nieces and nephew when their parents are killed. Kathy Garver, Anissa Jones, and Johnny Whitaker played the kids and Sebastian Cabot was Mr. French, who helped raise the children. Keith received three Emmy nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy Series, but lost to Don Adams for Get Smart from all three years, 1967-1969, (In 1968 Sebastian Cabot was also nominated for Best Actor and the show was nominated for Best Comedy in 1968 and 1969, losing to Get Smart.)

Photo: dailytimes.com

Brian received the same type of contract as Fred MacMurray did in My Three Sons. It allowed him to tape his work in two-three months, leaving three-quarters of the year for traveling, relaxation, and film work.

With Six You Get Eggroll Photo: pinterest.com

During the series’ run, he continued to make films including With Six You Get Eggroll with Doris Day.

The Brian Keith Show Photo: pinterest.com

When Family Affair ended, it set off a rapid production of shows starring Keith, most of them with short runs. The Brian Keith Show was on air from 1972-74; Keith was pediatrician Dr. Sean Jamison and worked with his daughter played by Shelly Fabares. Keith said he accepted the role because the show was produced by Garry Marshall and it was shot in Hawaii.

Photo: amazon.com

In 1974 he accepted the lead in a six-part miniseries, The Zoo Gang about a group of underground French resistance fighters. In 1975 we saw him in Archer, a television series about a detective which also ran only six episodes. Keith described Archer as “an underdog. He gets beaten. He’s no superhuman. He drives a broken-down Mustang. He’s not particularly fond of the finer things in life. Music is noise to him, painting is decoration, sculpture is ‘that stuff’ and he doesn’t read books.”

Hardcastle and McCormick
Photo: pinterest.com

In 1983, Keith co-starred with Daniel Hugh Kelly in Hardcastle and McCormick. Keith portrayed a retired judge Milton Hardcastle while Kelly was ex-con Mark McCormick. The duo team up because the ex-judge was tired of people getting off on technicalities. The show was on the air for three years.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

The following year, he began a stint on The Pursuit of Happiness which only lasted for ten episodes. In a different role for him, he played Professor Roland Duncan who taught at a small college in Philadelphia.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

1989 found him on Heartland which was also cancelled after ten episodes. On this show, Keith played BL McCutcheon, an older farmer who loses his farm and moves in with this daughter and her family, a bit of a rural Archie Bunker.

During the 1990s, Keith showed up on a variety of shows including Young Riders, Evening Shade, Major Dad, Cybill, Pacific Blue, and Walker Texas Ranger. He tried his hand at one more sitcom, starring in Walter and Emily. After 13 episodes, the show was finished. Keith is Walter Collins. He and his wife Emily (Cloris Leachman) help raise their grandson while their son Matt travels for his sports writing career.

Keith lived on a 200-acre ranch in Redlands, California. Brian had a lot of hobbies including golfing, swimming, cooking, sailing, horseback riding, spending time with his family, painting, and reading. When asked about whether he wanted to live a long life, he said, “If I live to be a hundred—and I hope I do—I won’t have time to read all the books I want to read or talk to the people I want to know. Not party talk. That’s a waste of time. Real talk.”

While Keith had a successful career, his personal life was not as sunny. He was married three times to Frances Helm from 1948 to 1954, to Judy Landon, an actress who made an appearance on Family Affair from 1954 till 1969, and to Victoria Young, another actress who showed up on The Brian Keith Show as a nurse, from 1970 till his death.

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Photo: pinterest.com

He also suffered from several physical problems. He had been a long-time smoker, and suffered from both emphysema and lung cancer. He had been a spokesperson for Camel Cigarettes in the 1950s but quit smoking in the late 80s.

Brian’s son, Michael died from pneumonia when he was eight. In 1997, his daughter Daisy committed suicide when she was 27. Daisy had also entered the acting profession and worked with her dad on Heartland. Daisy’s death and financial problems pulled Keith into a depression and he committed suicide in June of 1997.

Early in his career, Keith established a stereotype as the handsome, burly guy with the gruff voice, but he transitioned into that character who also had moments of warmth and humor.

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Photo: amazon.com

I love his performance in The Parent Trap, and I like to picture Keith as being Mitch in real life, a guy who loves his kids and his ranch and takes pleasure in a variety of outdoor activities but also savors reading on the porch.

Keith remained close to Maureen O’Hara, his costar in the Parent Trap as well as with Kathy Garver and Johnny Whitaker. (Anissa Jones died from a fatal overdose in 1976 at age 18.)

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With more than 166 acting credits, Keith had a full and successful career and brought a lot of enjoyment to generations of fans during his six decades as an actor. He had to endure a lot of heartache off the camera. Both Family Affair and Hardcastle and McCormick are worth watching if you have a free weekend. You can also see a lot of amazing performances of his on the large screen.

Major Dad is AWOL

As we wind up our “I Salute You!” blog series, we end with a show that may not be remembered as well as many other military shows: Major Dad. Created by Richard Okie, Earl Pomerantz, and John Stephens, the show debuted in September of 1989 and ran until spring of 1993, producing 96 episodes. Stephens was a producer on Gunsmoke and Simon and Simon (which McRaney also starred in), among other shows. Okie also produced Simon and Simon, along with Quantum Leap and more recently, Elementary. Pomerantz had been involved with both The Cosby Show and The Larry Sanders Show. Although the show is not seen often now, it won best sitcom in 1990.

Photo: next-episode.net

In September of 1989, Bonnie Churchill wrote an article for the Christian Science Monitor, “McRaney is Major Dad.” They discussed how the show was developed. As McRaney recounted: “‘The eighth and last season of Simon and Simon we began to get the skeleton of an idea . . . It centers around a rather conservative peacetime officer who falls in love with a newspaper reporter, who is rather liberal. She’s a single parent raising three daughters. They get married, and then the real fun begins. When we were discussing which branch of the service he’d be in, I voted for the Marines.’ McRaney also had a vote as co-executive producer, so he won.”

Photo: nbc.com

The show was on Monday nights for most of its entire run. The first season it went up against MacGyver and for half the season it was on against Alf and My 2 Dads for the second half. Season two with the move to Camp Hollister found the show going against MacGyver on ABC and both Ferris Bueller and Blossom on NBC, landing in the top 30. The show was again competing against MacGyver and Blossom for season three where it was in the top 10. In season four, MacGyver was gone with American Detective taking its place and Blossom still on NBC. But at some time during the last season, the network moved the show to Friday nights which resulted in the ratings plummeting and the show was no longer in the top 30 and was cancelled.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com

Major Dad starred Gerald McRaney and Shanna Reed as a newly married couple, John and Polly MacGillis. After left-leaning journalist Polly interviews conservative John, they fall in love. After a whirl-wind three-week romance, they decided to marry and the perennial bachelor’s life is turned upside down. Even though they are newly married, Polly has three daughters (Nicole Dubuc, Chelsea Hertford, and Marisa Ryan) from a previous marriage, so “Mac” must learn to live with a house of females. The girls are 6, 11, and 13. Mac has a hard-enough time learning to be a husband, let alone a father.

Photo: sharetv.com

The show takes place in Camp Singleton which is similar to the real Camp Pendleton where Mac is the commander of the infantry training school’s acquisition division. Rounding out the cast were Lt Holowachuk (Matt Mulhern), Sgt James (Marlon Archey), and secretary Merilee (Whitney Kershaw). Many of the scripts for the first season had to be rewritten due to the US’s involvement in the Persian Gulf War.

For the second season, the family moves to Camp Hollister, which is similar to Quantico. Mac has been promoted to staff secretary under Brigadier General Marcus Craig (Jon Cypher). Lt Holowachuk comes along as aide-de-camp. Beverly Archer plays Gunnery Sergeant Alva Bricker, known as Gunny, the general’s secretary.

Photo: sitcomsonline.com
Gunny

She adds a lot of humorous elements to the show as a no-nonsense, set-in-her-ways woman who seems to have many romantic interests.

Polly becomes the managing editor for the Bulldog, the camp newspaper. She also writes two columns, “At Ease” and “The Suggestion Box.” Originally for the second season, several of the characters were being sent to Saudia Arabia, but because the Persian Gulf War ended, it was decided to send everyone to Camp Hollister instead.

Photo: nbc.com

Some famous faces that popped up on this show included Ruth Buzzy, Peggy Cass, Brian Keith, Vicki Lawrence, and Jameson Parker.

Photo: themoviedatabase.com
Work Life

Most reviews I read thought the show came into its own after the move to Camp Hollister. It got very positive ratings. Many people appreciated the fact that Marines were shown in a positive light. Before filming the show, McRaney was sent to Camp Pendleton to learn about life as a Marine. He was able to talk with people about their life stories, be outfitted with a uniform, and even got an authentic haircut.

Photo: retrotvmemories.com
Home Life

The show provided a realistic insight into the issues that military families face. In addition, the show moved back and forth between home life and career life, so the characters are more balanced and not one-dimensional. Current issues like base closures were often written into the scripts, and in 1990, an episode commemorated the 215th anniversary of the Marines and Dan Quayle, who was the Vice President, made an appearance on the show.

Photo: Wikipedia.com

As far as I could find, the show is not available on DVD. I also could not find any networks currently carrying the show, although there are online sights where you can watch it. Perhaps with all the networks now carrying syndicated shows, this series will have a second chance to find new generations of fans.