Remembering Brian Keith
An underrated actor whose career was both made and trivialized by television, Brian Keith killed himself on June 24 at age 75. He had cancer and was apparently distraught over the recent suicide of his daughter Daisy.
Although the actor appeared in more than 50 films, usually playing tough, plainspoken men, Keith is best known for his TV work in the formulaic action series Hardcastle and McCormick (1983-86) and, more famously, as the gruff, lovable bachelor Uncle Bill on the late-’60s sitcom Family Affair (a variation on his role in the 1961 film The Parent Trap). It was a measure of Keith’s humility that he allowed himself to be upstaged weekly by cuties Johnny Whitaker and Anissa Jones, and Sebastian Cabot as his hammy manservant.
Less famously, Keith starred in one of the most original frontier series ever made, The Westerner, which lasted a single season in 1960. A collaboration with writer-director Sam Peckinpah, it featured Keith as Dave Blassingame, an antiheroic saddle tramp who roamed the Southwest with his dog, Brown (the same dog, baby boomers should know, who played Old Yeller). The TV Land channel recently reran The Westerner, and as Paul Seydor writes in Peckinpah: The Western Films — A Reconsideration, the adventures of Blassingame ”involve[d] real and dear sacrifice, prices to pay, losses to bear.” Keith and Peckinpah questioned macho codes of manhood; this was no Family Affair.
Keith always claimed to be unambitious and strove to make his performances look easy, but he did as subtle a version of a man’s man as anyone of his generation. (See his final role, as President William McKinley in TNT’s Rough Riders, July 20.)