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Brian Keith

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Also Known As: Robert Brian Keith Jr. Died: June 24, 1997
Born: November 14, 1921 Cause of Death: self-inflicted gunshot wound
Birth Place: Bayonne, New Jersey, USA Profession: Cast ... actor
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BIOGRAPHY

A handsome, burly character actor with a distinctive, gruff voice, Brian Keith established a reputation early in his career with tough guy roles. He was so effective at playing various shady types in Westerns and crime thrillers, it was to his credit as a performer that he was also able to portray characters of warmth and humor with equal aplomb. After some stage work, Keith earned secondary assignments in genre pictures as either he-men or villains, but leading roles would come mostly later in his career when he was hired by the Walt Disney Company. After the huge success of "The Parent Trap" (1961) helped to give him a softer image, Keith was cast on "Family Affair" (CBS, 1966-71) as a bachelor forced by circumstance to take care of a teenager and a pair of young children. While it generally did not offer him many challenges, Keith projected warmth and approachability on the series and "Uncle Bill" was one of his best loved characters. The actor claimed that he did not have any particular goal in mind for his career and accepted what was available to him. Nonetheless, Keith was offered a good variety of parts over his career and made an impression whether he was playing a loving parental figure or essaying colorful characters in fare like "The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!" (1966) and "The Wind and the Lion" (1975).

Brian Keith was born Robert Alba Keith on Nov. 14, 1921 in Bayonne, NJ to parents well acquainted with the entertainment industry. Father Robert Keith was a veteran character actor recognizable from films like "The Wild One" (1954) and "Written on the Wind" (1956), while his mother, Helena Shipman, was a veteran of the stage who also worked on radio. After his parents divorced, Keith was raised primarily by Shipman and decided to continue the family tradition. However, his plans were put on hold by military service during World War II. Following his stint as an aerial gunner in the Marine Corps, Keith set about establishing himself as an actor. He had already appeared onscreen as a toddler in a handful of silent films during the 1920s and went on to small, unbilled parts in some late 1940s and early 1950s features. Most of his initial postwar credits, however, came via guest appearances on television programs like "Suspense" (CBS, 1949-1954) and "Tales of Tomorrow" (ABC, 1951-53). He made his stage debut in "Heyday" (1946) and gained additional exposure on Broadway as a cast member of the comedy smash "Mister Roberts" (1948-51), which featured his father among the lead players. He also had roles in the much shorter-lived Broadway productions of "Darkness at Noon" (1951) and "Out West of Eighth" (1951).

Keith finally landed a sizeable movie gig in the Charlton Heston Western "Arrowhead" (1953), which began a run for him in various action-adventures as well as film noir thrillers like "5 Against the House" (1955) and the cult favorite "Nightfall" (1957). His rugged demeanor and ability to project menace made Keith an ideal choice for villains, but he also won the opportunity to play a hero on his own TV series. "Crusader" (CBS, 1955-56) cast Keith as a freelance journalist who helped those in need, particularly anyone wishing to flee from Communist countries. Now forgotten, the half-hour series lasted just over a year. In 1960, Keith starred in "Ten Who Dared" (1960), his first role in a Walt Disney production. While the picture was not one of the company's better offerings, Keith's performance was well received and he starred in a handful of subsequent Disney productions, including their big Hayley Mills hit, "The Parent Trap" (1961). The Disney work also provided him with the image change necessary to be cast on the sitcom "Family Affair" (CBS, 1966-1971), which bore more than a passing resemblance to "The Parent Trap." Keith played Bill Davis, a well-off New York City bachelor raising his late brother's three children, aided by a staunch English butler. Both men take some time to get used to their new responsibilities, but aside from weekly conflicts easily resolved within each half-hour episode, everyone gets along. Keith's Uncle Bill entered the pantheon of great TV dads and it ended up being one of his signature parts.

The program's shooting arrangement allowed Keith to get all of his scenes for the season done in only two months, making him available for movie roles and extended vacations during the remainder of the year. While not as well remembered as similar programs like "The Brady Bunch" (ABC, 1969-1974), "Family Affair" was a fairly big success in its time and enjoyed a second life in syndication throughout the 1970s. The assignment provided Keith with three Emmy nominations and many chances to display humor and charm, which he did consistently even though the material was formulaic. During his time off from the show, Keith continued to work on the big screen in fare like the Steve McQueen Western "Nevada Smith" (1966), John Huston's offbeat drama "Reflections in a Golden Eye" (1967), and the comedies "The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming!" (1966), "With Six You Get Eggroll" (1968), and "Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came?" (1970). He was a standout in one of his best roles as President Teddy Roosevelt in John Milius' adventure epic "The Wind and the Lion" (1975) and impressed as an aging stuntman in the Burt Reynolds hit "Hooper" (1978). Keith also made a final, latter day return to Broadway in "Da" (1978-1980) when original lead Barnard Hughes exited the production.

After "Family Affair" left the air, there were several attempts to launch him in new programs, beginning with the comedy "The Brian Keith Show" (NBC, 1972-74). He took an extended vacation from the big screen when he and Daniel Hugh Kelly assumed the title roles on "Hardcastle and McCormick" (ABC, 1983-86). While not as successful as some other Stephen J. Cannell productions from that time, the action series managed a trio of seasons. Keith again tried to establish himself in a sitcom, but "Pursuit of Happiness" (ABC, 1987), "Heartland" (CBS, 1989), and "Walter & Emily" (NBC, 1991-92) were all gone before airing even a dozen episodes. Aside from supporting parts in a handful of theatrical features like "Death Before Dishonor" (1987) and "Young Guns" (1988), Keith mostly did television guest spots from that point onward, as well as some voice work on animated programs like "Spider-Man" (Fox, 1994-98). After having previously played Roosevelt, Keith reunited with Milius for the cable feature "Rough Riders" (TNT, 1997), in which he played a second president, William McKinley. Alas, tragedy followed not long after that picture wrapped when Keith's daughter, Daisy, committed suicide at a young age in the spring of 1997. That heartbreak, coupled with his deteriorating health - emphysema and lung cancer, brought about by years of heavy smoking - prompted Keith to fatally shoot himself on June 24, 1997. The actor's final film, the comedy "Follow Your Heart" (1999), went direct-to-video well after his death. In recognition of his television career, Keith was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 2008.

By John Charles

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