A Longtime Cultural Icon Is Gone

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DesirĂ© Gonzales – June 14, 1999

DeForest Kelley, who portrayed the simple country doctor in the space epic, Star Trek, died on June 11 after an extended illness, said Carol Pfannkuche, spokeswoman for the Motion Picture and Television Country Home and Hospital, a retirement facility in Woodland Hills, California. He was 79.

Kelley entered the convalescent home with a lingering illness some three months ago, joining his wife of 55 years, Carolyn. She has been in very poor health for some time and was slowly recovering from a broken leg. Carolyn was by his side when he died.

Devoted fans immediately began placing flowers on his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“He was one of a kind, a great friend and a very important part of a collection of personalities,” Nimoy said Friday. “He had the humanist point of view in the show. It fit him very well. He brought a decency and sensibility that made you want to have him around.”

Majel Barrett Roddenberry, widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and who portrayed Nurse Chapel, was also quoted as saying, “He was truly one of the most remarkable and talented men to walk the face of the earth. This is the biggest loss that Star Trek will ever have, excluding Gene.”

Kelley was considered one of the “Big Three,” from the original Star Trektelevision series, which aired on NBC between 1966 and 1969. Kelley played the irascible and compassionate Dr. McCoy who was the perfect counterpoint to the other key characters of the original cast: Captain James Kirk, portrayed by William Shatner and Spock, portrayed by Leonard Nimoy. Roddenberry considered the McCoy character as Kirk’s conscience and humanity.

The son of a Baptist minister, Kelley was born Jackson DeForest Kelley on January 20, 1920 in Atlanta. He was recruited to sing in the church choir while growing up. After high school, he left to visit an uncle in Long Beach, California, liked the area and stayed. He soon joined a local theater group. Later, he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout who had seen him in a Navy training film. He was offered a screen test and then a contract. From there he made his debut in the 1947 film, Fear in the Night. He appeared in several more films and then made the jump to New York for theater and early television anthology dramas like Schlitz Playhouse of Stars.

In 1955, Kelley moved back to Hollywood and resumed his film career where he played supporting roles in a number of movies, including The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), Tension at Table Rock (1956) and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957). Westerns became his trademark.

In the ’60′s, he made appearances on dozens of television shows, including Gunsmoke and Bonanza. He also landed the lead in a pilot, Sam Benedict, which as fate would have was written and produced by Gene Roddenberry. Although Roddenberry later cast Edmond O’Brien for the part, he liked Kelley’s work and kept him in mind for possible future roles. Eventually, Kelley was invited to a screening of the original pilot for Star Trek, which starred Jeffrey Hunter. After the screening, the story goes that Roddenberry said, “Well, cowboy, what did you think?” and Kelley replied, “Gene, that will be the biggest hit or the biggest miss ever.” Kelley hit that prediction right on the head, for Star Trek managed to do both.

Kelley is survived by his wife Carolyn. Mrs. Kelley has requested that no more flowers be sent as she has no more room.

In lieu of flowers, there have been two DeForest Kelley Memorial Funds set up in his memory:

Harvard Medical School for the DeForest Kelley Fellowship Fund c/o Timothy Welch, Harvard Medical School, 25 Shattuck Street, Room 306 A, Boston MA 02115

DeForest Kelley Memorial Fund c/o Marge Stein, North Shore Animal League,16 South Street, Port Washington, New York,11050.