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The Journal of the Lincoln Heights Literary Society
Miscellanea and Ephemeron

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12/06/2004 Archived Entry: "Trek Biography: DeForest Kelly "From Sawdust to Stardust""

From Sawdust To Stardust
The Biography of DeForest Kelley, Star Trek's Dr. McCoy
By Terry Lee Rioux
Published by Pocket Books (Advance copy released 2004,
Final Version to be released 2005).

Review by Ida Vega-Landow

Of all the beloved characters in the Star Trek pantheon I could have written about, I had to end up with Doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy. Not that I'm complaining (If I were, I'd be writing, "Damn it, Jim, I'm a Star Trek fan, not a professional book reviewer!"); the late Jackson DeForest Kelley (he never used his first name) was a Southern gentleman of the old school, the kindly father figure of the powerful command team known as Kirk, Spock and McCoy. His persona of the good old country doctor was a reassuring presence to many who viewed Gene Roddenberry's vision of the future. Risky as it is to quote from a work in progress, I can't resist quoting Ms. Rioux from Chapter XX, in which she defines both Gene's vision and Kelley's: "Gene lived and fought so that when the future arrives, there will be humans in it. DeForest lived and endured so that when the future arrives, it will be humane."

The only complaints I have about Ms. Rioux's book is that:

1) There aren't enough pictures of Kelley in his glory days as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy.

2) She goes into too much detail about his early years in Hollywood. Hopefully the final version will contain a more condensed account of his early years, while not forgetting to mention his friendships with such stars as George Reeves (the first TV superman), John Carradine, Kirk Douglas, Burt Lancaster, etc., most of whom he met during his 20's and 30's when he was starring in Western movies.

Jackson DeForest Kelley was born in Conyers, Georgia in 1920 to the Reverend Ernest David Kelley and his wife Clora. This son of a preacher man grew up dirt poor but honest, raised with rock solid, fundamental religious values by good, honest folk. Like most preachers' sons, he and his older brother Casey, born 1917, were under a great deal of pressure to be perfect in word and deed. Maybe that was what inspired young Kelley to run off to Hollywood to become an actor, despite his father's disapproval.

Once in Hollywood, Kelley didn't exactly set the world on fire. According to Ms. Rioux, success at his chosen trade came gradually, not overnight, as so many aspiring young actors nowadays believe it usually does for stars. A gypsy fortuneteller he met at a seaside carnival even told him that he wouldn't become a big success until he was in his forties. By a strange coincidence, Kelley was in his early forties when he was signed on as Doctor McCoy.

After some months as a struggling actor, Kelley signed up with Paramount Studios and underwent their rigorous "star making" system, by which young actors had to work their way to the top via walk-ons and bit parts, gaining experience until they were considered ready for the big time and offered more meaty roles. He was actually up for the role of the gunslinger Raven in "This Gun For Hire" back in 1941. Unfortunately, the role went to Alan Ladd, who was already a more established actor than young Kelley, whose draft status made him too big a risk for Paramount. (The United States was already entering World War II and every able-bodied man over 18 was draft fodder.)

Kelley starred in a play called "The Innocent Young Man" with the Long Beach Theatre Group in the spring of 1942, where he met the love of his life, his co-star Carolyn Meagher Dowling. She was already married to Jim Dowling, but after he was drafted and sent overseas, they gradually drifted apart. Kelley squired her about town in her husband's absence and managed to remain "just friends" with her (aside from a discreet interlude at a friend's apartment, which he never bragged about, being a true gentleman) until she was granted a divorce from Lieutenant Jim Dowling 'just after Saint Patrick's Day of 1944". Then they got married at the Los Angeles municipal court on September 7, 1945, and they stayed married until Kelley's death on June 11, 1999. (BTW, Carolyn Kelley recently died on October 12, 2004, after a long illness; they had no children). That in itself is a remarkable achievement for a star of Kelley's magnitude, to remain married to the same person for 53 years! To me, in this age of disposable relationships and "starter marriages" (like that of a certain blonde pop star, who was married all of 48 hours!), that is further proof that DeForest Kelley was a good, old-fashioned Southern gentleman.

Believe it or not, our De played a bad guy in most of the western movies that were so popular during the late 50's-early 60's period; even on great TV westerns like "Bonanza", "Rawhide", and "Wanted: Dead or Alive". His most memorable role was that of Toby Jack Saunders, the roughest, toughest, meanest hombre in the West. In fact, he was so good at playing a bad guy, he was almost passed over for Gene Roddenberry's new TV show in 1966, a sci-fi epic which was then called "Wagon Train to The Stars". Fortunately for us all, Gene remembered Kelley for his memorable performances in another Roddenberry TV series, "Police Story". He persuaded the suits at Paramount Studios to give Kelley a chance. They agreed, and the rest is history.

All of his former "Star Trek" co-stars agree that DeForest Kelley was a true gentleman. Even William Shatner, who is as well known for his big ego as for his small talent (much as it pains me to admit it), treated Kelley with respect on the set, while continuing to "disrupt, redirect, or negate the roles and lines other actors were attempting to work with." He didn't do it to Leonard Nimoy because Nimoy wouldn't let him, his private persona being as strong off-camera as the Vulcan one is on camera. But despite this great inner strength (or maybe because of it), Nimoy is considered one of the most fan friendly "Star Trek" actors in the business. He's known as a mensch, a good Yiddish word meaning a kind, decent person and an all-around nice guy whom everybody loves. But even he couldn't hope to match DeForest Kelley's Southern charm and chivalry: "I was always fascinated by the simplicity of his life. He seemed to be the kind of guy who could sit on the back porch with his wife and watch the grass grow. On the other hand, when he was at work, he was totally professional, always there, worked as hard as if not harder than anybody else..."

Happily, Shatner soon learned to appreciate Kelley's peaceful, diplomatic persona. This respect carried over to "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier", the epic stinker which Shatner directed (I'm sorry, Bill, but it was pretty bad! Even a devoted Trekker like myself can't deny that simple fact. In fact, it was so bad that it was given the Mystery Science Theater 3000 treatment by a group of Star Trek fans impersonating the MST crew. Next time you're at a Star Trek convention, look for a video copy of "Mystery Trekker Theater 3000" in the dealer's room.) In it, Shatner gently led Kelley through the scene where Sybok, Spock's charismatic half-brother (played by Lawrence Luckinbill), forces McCoy to relive the greatest pain of his life, where he allows his elderly, terminally ill father to die with dignity.

Much later, when Kelley laid dying of cancer, Shatner actually took a day off when Kelley called asking to see him, and spent the whole day talking to him about ideas for original cast movies, keeping the dying man's spirits up. He also read one of Kelley's poems at a Star Trek convention where Kelley was unable to appear because of his illness. He even visited Kelley at the Motion Picture and Television Fund hospital and told him jokingly, "De, don't die! But if you die -- give me your hair!" And he still enjoys telling fans the story about De and the English muffins he stole from him on the set of ST V, when everybody was gathering for breakfast at the Kraft Services Wagon.

I was moved to tears by Ms. Rioux' moving account of DeForest's final moments. According to her, De remained a gentleman to the end; even as he lay dying, he spent more time comforting his grieving friends and worrying about his ailing wife then he did speculating over where he would end up. I'm sure he knew that the Lord would welcome him; despite his spotty church attendance after leaving Conyers for Hollywood, he managed to live a good, upright life compared to most of his contemporaries; his long, loving marriage, his steadfast loyalty to his friends and family, the quality of his acting, which reflected the quality of his sterling character, are all proofs of this. The rockbound Christian faith he was raised with never deserted him, despite the rocky shoals of life he was occasionally forced to steer through. He always carried a copy of the Actor's Prayer in his wallet to get him through those hard times; it's comforting to think he may have been whispering this prayer at the very end.

I think Terry Lee Rioux did a decent job telling an honest, exact account of the life of one of "Star Trek's most beloved actors. I look forward to reading the finished product, after it's been edited and boiled down to its essence, so that everyone will know what a treasure we lost when the life of Jackson DeForest Kelley ended. Rest in peace, Mr. Kelley. And thank you for a very good biography, Ms. Rioux.

Replies: 1 Comment

Hi Terri:I Love the book and by the way I've got two copies of it and I'm really enjoying the novel plus I love the pics that you in there along with DeForest,William & Leonard what an awesome picture and I have no complaints about the book because and it's book to enjoy you did a wonderful job on writing such a beautiful novel Keep up the good work.

Posted by Tara Berardi @ 05/16/2005 04:45 PM PST

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