Monday, January 21, 2008

"Remember..." An Excerpt From My Next DeForest Kelley Book

Several people sent me "I remember De!" messages yesterday on what would have been his 88th birthday. I tried to locate an earlier essay that was published in newspapers, called REMEMBERING DeFOREST KELLEY, but it's on a disc that's unaccessible right now, so instead, I'll give you a sneak-peek of my next book,THE ENDURING LEGACY OF DeFOREST KELLEY: ACTOR, HEALER, FRIEND.

Following is the working draft of the intro to the ACTOR section of the book. It's copywrited, but if you'd like to use it for publicity purposes at any of the STAR TREK or DeForest Kelley websites, just let me know and also append this: "Author Kristine M Smith's first book about DeForest Kelley is DeFOREST KELLEY: A HARVEST OF MEMORIES, garnering 5-star reviews at Amazon. She is seeking additional contributors to her next Kelley book, of which the preceding has been a preview. Fans, friends and co-workers are encouraged to tell their stories of meeting or knowing De -- or of simply loving him from afar. Send your reminiscences to Kris at KRISTINE M SMITH AT MSN DOT COM."

Fans are undoubtedly familiar with De’s portrayal as Dr. McCoy on the original, iconic STAR TREK® television and motion picture series. This is probably the way most of today’s fans became fans, watching him interact with the crew of the Starship Enterprise. As we all know, McCoy’s on-again, off-again irascible tendencies covered a heart of gold that was sold out to his patients, to his mission, and to his crewmates (yes, even Spock). There was no doubt about that. Time and again, he offered his life for theirs, as they had for his.

A television host in Colorado, a huge fan of Westerns, once regaled De and his Good Day Colorado audience with an almost “word-for-word” recreation of some of De’s lines from “Warlock,” a better-than-most Western starring Henry Fonda, Richard Widmark, and Anthony Quinn. Pretending to be De’s character Curly Burne in the movie, the host did a fast draw, then stopped short when he realized his opponent (Fonda) had out-drawn him. Much to De’s delight, the host flailed helplessly as he “backed down” from the confrontation he had engendered, and then jumped to another aspect of the same scene. “And just before that, where you’re trying to goad him into this gunfight, you say, ‘Oh, them pearly handles of yo’s … they’re enough to blind a man’s eyes. You really ought to stop polishing them that way, por favor, you know, the way you always do… Someone ought to just take them pearly handles from you and rough them up a bit, you know?”

When the host finished his faithful rendition of the scene, De’s eyes shone and his grin was as wide as Colorado itself. He took a brief look into the studio audience – the largest audience for that particular show, ever, filled as it was past capacity with TREK fans imported from a STARLAND convention nearby – and he laughed. “You know,” he told the show host, then pointed at his fans and said, “They know! If this wasn’t a television show, I could tell you a story about that very scene…” And he left it there. The show host undoubtedly asked for, and received, “the rest of the story” backstage.

For those who haven’t heard it:

Days before the scene was filmed, the director had told De that the Princess of Greece, Princess Sofia, would be on the soundstage the day he was scheduled to shoot the scene. De thought he was joking, because this particular director had a dry sense of humor. “I thought maybe he meant Sophia Loren.”

Sure enough, when the day arrived a very real Princess Sofia and her large entourage gathered on the upper part of stairway in the “saloon” where the filming of this scene was about to take place. The visitors to the set were out of camera range.

“At first,” De recalled, “I was very nervous – not necessarily because the Princess and her people were there, but because in this scene I had to do a fly-away – that’s a move with a gun where I flip it and it goes into my holster, with any luck at all – and I had been practicing this move, but it was nowhere near certain I could get it on the first take, or even the second.

“Henry Fonda was away that day – Tyrone Power had passed away the week before and Fonda was at his funeral – so his lines were read to me. In this scene, I’m supposed to goad Fonda into a fight, and when I do, his gun is out of the holster in a flash and I realize I’m done for unless I back down, so I quickly, and as humbly as this hombre can, back down. I do the fly-away and it goes in perfectly; a big relief to me. Then I start backing away, with a little wave to Fonda, toward the bat-wing doors, and… this wasn’t in the scene… I trip backward over a chair! As I went over, I called out, ‘Oh, shit!’

“Well, you could have heard a pin drop. All of a sudden I remember Princess Sofia and her people are standing on the staircase watching this whole thing! So I crawled out through the bat-wing doors on my knees! And on the other side of the doors, the director looks down at me and says, ‘De, I’ll bet you sat up all night trying to think of what to say in front of the Princess of Greece.’

“As it turned out, Princess Sofia didn’t know what that word meant. But when I went to the commissary for lunch that day, everyone stood up and applauded me! It was all over the lot what I had said in front of the princess!”

Okay, now you know about the outtake. Go and rent or buy the movie and see what De, a conscience-ridden bad guy hanging with the wrong crowd, does when confronted with the enormity of his gang’s depravity. In a way, he becomes the hero of the motion picture, in my opinion. ‘Nuf said.

Curly Burne in Warlock was one of De’s very few good-natured bad guys. Most of his portrayals were so cussedly ornery and demonic that he was often hired to snarl at the likes of Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Audie Murphy, the Lone Ranger and the Bonanza boys. If you haven’t seen his other portrayals, you are missing out on some of the best acting ever in Westerns. (A top-notch and complete filmography of De’s entire acting career can be found at Karen Halliday’s website: Check it out, rent some of the films at your local video store, and feast your eyes on ACTOR DeForest Kelley If you don’t have Internet access, ask a friend to download the site for you, or visit a library to download it.)

Be forewarned, however: Before watching any of De’s Westerns, you may have to divorce yourself from any knowledge of Dr. McCoy (and that takes some doing!) in order to truly appreciate his pre-McCoy portrayals. Remind yourself beforehand that McCoy had not yet been created and that De’s cowboy portrayals were the rationale the network had for believing that STAR TREK’s audience could never “buy” DeForest Kelley as good guy Doctor McCoy, which is why he wasn’t in the first pilot of STAR TREK. You will understand their concern after seeing him in these earlier roles!

In my opinion, De deserved a Best Supporting Actor award for a number of his bad-guy portrayals in motion pictures, among them: as Toby Jack Saunders in APACHE UPRISING and as Wexler in THE LAW AND JAKE WADE. And a Best Supporting Actor television award wouldn’t have hurt for his role in THE HONOR OF COSHISE, a BONANZA episode. The fact that De’s character bites the dust in so many of his Westerns – whether soon or late – just underscores that his scoundrels had to die or the audiences would have gone home with nightmares, and the tales told -- most of which were morality plays in disguise -- would have fallen flat!

De was asked at numerous conventions about how he managed to portray scoundrels so ably, when he was obviously such a gentleman. He said, “When I was a boy growing up in Georgia, there was a Sheriff who looked as though he couldn’t wait to find someone stepping out of line so that he could shoot him. He just looked like a snake to me; coiled and ready to strike. He was one of the role models for some of the heavies I played. I figured if I could capture that sheriff’s ominous aspects, my portrayal would be convincing.”

When De was in the hospital the last few months of his life, he related that one of his and Carolyn’s best friends for over 60 years had told them, years ago, that she would never believe De in a bad guy role and so that’s why she had never gone to see him in one. “When she said that, I became a bad guy right in front of her, just to show her I could do it. Well, I when I did, it scared her so badly that she started to cry! So I started to cry! I had to apologize! I wanted to convince her I was an actor, not scare her half to death! It was just awful…”

In APACHE UPRISING, an AC Lyles film, De portrayed a sociopath, Toby Jack Saunders, a man so void of decency and conscience that he exuded malevolence from every pore. The role haunted De even years later. He reflected, “I sat up half the night last night” (in the hospital) “thinking what a no good son of a bitch Toby Jack was. In the script, he was supposed to ride into town and when the town mongrel came out to wag a barking hello, I was supposed to pull out my gun and shoot him. Well, that was too much for me. I told AC I couldn’t do that. I told him I would establish his character some other way.”

He did! I had a nightmare about that hombre after seeing APACHE UPRISING!

De was one of very few actors in the late 40’s and early 50’s with a “crossover” career, working in motion pictures as well as in the new medium of television. For the most part, motion picture actors felt it was “beneath them” to work in television. As a struggling young actor, De wasn’t allowed the luxury of that lofty an opinion of himself; his focus was on keeping a roof over his and Carolyn’s heads. His list of credits from the 40’s 50’s is mind-boggling: he appeared in over 100 different series episodes, as well as in fifteen motion pictures, mostly as heavies, ne’er-do-wells and scoundrels.

Occasionally he appeared in a role as a hapless fellow falsely accused of a crime (in motion pictures, FEAR IN THE NIGHT and ILLEGAL, and in television, the Bonanza episode THE DECISION). The despair, anger or panic he showed in these portrayals was spot on. Viewers could vicariously experience this poor fellow’s dilemma as we sweated for him, hoping against all hope that his innocence would be discovered before the executioner could do his fatal job. In the case of ILLEGAL, our hope is dashed. Seconds after his execution, the truth is found out, too late to save him. The consequences are agonizing for the star of the show, Edward G. Robinson, who suffers the tortures of the damned for the rest of the picture. De’s role in this movie is small, but pivotal.

Another small but powerful role in RAINTREE COUNTY captures the attention of the audience as De -- the only Southern soldier seen in the film in a seminal role -- rides in on a horse and is felled by a bullet. For the next ten minutes or so De’s unnamed character plays with Lee Marvin’s mind in an attempt to get him to let down his guard long enough so that De can shoot him and escape to get help before he bleeds to death. The charm and easy attitude of De’s character is utterly captivating. The audience begins to hope that these two enemies will bury the hatchet and strike some kind of mutually-acceptable deal that will allow them both to survive the intersection of their lives as soldiers. Alas, it is not to be… and the men meet their end in a sudden showdown that is both a surprise and an outrageous obscenity to the audience.

 “What a shame,” we sigh – and then we realize the sentiment is the epilogue for the entire sorry history of the Civil War in which men like these, with personalities and potential for greatness, fought and perished. These two men embody, in a palpable way, the obscenity of war. In other times, they would likely have been fast friends and would probably have been willing to lay down their lives for each other…

Many of De’s roles were small, but very few of them were insignificant. The power of his performances proves the adage, “There are no small parts, only small actors.” Any time De appeared in anything, his character seemed to be the true north for that particular type of human soul. He got inside his characters and breathed life into them. His heavies were not cardboard caricatures; they were people largely unaware that they were deviating from a norm; they were simply responding to cards that had been dealt to them since childhood. Their stories and actions were made perfectly understandable given their wounded psyches, and no word of exposition had to be written to explain them; we just knew because De-the-actor seemed to know.

De made bad guys bad, but he also made a number of them somehow pitiable, fearfully and wonderfully accessible. He allowed us to inhabit them as easily as we could the hero of the piece, not happily, not willingly, but with a sense of morbid curiosity, the way we examine mothers who drown their children or Hitler or Ted Bundy, people who irrationally embarked on workable plans to carry out successive, horrible deviant behaviors. We don’t know how they got there, and we realize that if we understood them we would be just as whacked out as they were, and yet we try to figure out their pathology as if figuring it out would make us safer.

1 comment:

Alison said...

Hi - I meant to send an email but I did put something on my blog for him. I don't have internet at weekends so I sat thinking about him on Sunday, wishing I could share! I was thinking of you too. x