Brian Keith (November 14, 1921 – June 24, 1997) was an American film, television, and stage actor who in his four decade-long career gained recognition for his work in movies such as the 1961 Disney family film The Parent Trap, the 1966 comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, and the 1975 adventure saga The Wind and the Lion, in which he portrayed Theodore Roosevelt.
On television, two of his best known roles were that of a bachelor uncle turned reluctant parent Bill Davis in the 1960s sitcom Family Affair, and a tough judge in the 1980s drama Hardcastle and McCormick. He also starred in the The Brian Keith Show that aired on NBC from 1972 to 1974 where he portrayed a pediatrician who operated a free clinic on Oahu as well as in the CBS comedy series Heartland.
Keith was born Robert Alba Keith in Bayonne, New Jersey, to actor Robert Keith and stage actress Helena Shipman, a native of Aberdeen, Washington. Some sources also list his full name as Brian Robert Keith. He was raised Roman Catholic. His parents divorced, and he moved to Hollywood and started his acting career, at the age of 2. He made his acting debut in the silent film Pied Piper Malone (1924) at the age of 3. His mother continued to perform on stage and radio, while Robert’s grandmother Apker helped to raise him on Long Island, New York, just 37 miles east of where he was born. She taught young Brian to read books over his age level. Prior to learning to read, he spent a lot of hours back stage while his parents performed, being quiet for hours. Helena fondly recalled keeping little Brian in the dressing room in one of her dressing room drawers. He remained calm and was quiet and would sleep through the entire show. From 1927 through 1929, Keith’s stepmother was Peg Entwistle, a well-known Broadway actress who committed suicide by jumping from the “H” of the famous Hollywood Sign in 1932.
After graduation from East Rockaway High School in 1939, in East Rockaway, New York, he joined the United States Marine Corps (1942–1945). He served during World War II as an air gunner (he was a Radio-Gunner in the rear cockpit of a two-man Douglas SBD Dauntless dive-bomber in a U.S. Marine squadron), and received an Air Medal.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Keith also had guest roles on The Ford Television Theatre, Wire Service, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Climax!, Zane Grey Theater, Rawhide, Laramie, The Untouchables, The Americans, Outlaws, The Virginian, The Fugitive, two episodes of Wagon Train, five episodes of 77 Sunset Strip, among many others.
In 1960, he won acclaim for his starring role in Sam Peckinpah‘s short-lived series The Westerner (1960). The following year, Keith appeared as the father of twins in the 1961 film The Parent Trap, co-starring Hayley Mills and Maureen O’Hara. In 1966, Keith co-starred with Steve McQueen as traveling gunsmith Jonas Cord in the western Nevada Smith. In 1968, as widower Jake Iverson, he co-starred with Doris Day in the comedy, “With Six You Get Eggroll.”
In 1966, Keith landed the role of Uncle Bill Davis on CBS‘s popular television situation comedy Family Affair. This role earned him three Emmy Award nominations for Best Actor in a Comedy Series. The show made him a household name. It was in the vein of such successful 1960s and 1970s sitcoms that dealt with widowhood and/or many single parent issues as: The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, The Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, Here’s Lucy, Julia, The Courtship of Eddie’s Father, The Brady Bunch, The Partridge Family and Sanford And Son. During its first season in 1966, the show was an immediate hit, ranking #15 in the Nielsen ratings. By the end of its fifth season in 1971, Family Affair still had high ratings, but was canceled after 138 episodes.
Kathy Garver said about her on- and off-screen relationship with Brian Keith, “‘I’m a cultural Irishman, don’t you know, I’m a cultural Irishman,’ but he went through many manifestations and changes of character, during the 5 years that we shot. At first, he was up and then his second year, he was going through a divorce and then, the third year, he met somebody else; and he became more anecdotal and told stories that he loved kids, and he was very outspoken about those that he did not like. So, he was a very interesting character and it was Brian and Sebastian Cabot [who played Mr. French] had such a different style of acting and that’s another reason I think that Family Affair was so popular and stayed as it did. Both excellent actors, both coming from very different methods and styles of acting with Sebastian was more from the classical style and he would take home his script and he would dutifully look at every single word and have it to perfection, and then Brian would come in and say, ‘Oh what do we have today? Let me see the scene, uh-huh, uh-huh, let’s go!’ So he was very improvisational, motion of the moment. And those 2 different styles really worked out each other, very well.
Keith went on to star as the pediatrician Dr. Sean Jamison in the NBC sitcom The Brian Keith Show, filmed in Hawaii on an estate at the foot of Diamond Head and also known as The Little People. The series was canceled after two seasons in 1974.
Keith once again returned to series television in 1983 with, Hardcastle and McCormick, the latter in the role of a cranky retired judge named Milton C. Hardcastle. Daniel Hugh Kelly co-starred as ex-con Mark McCormick in the ABC crime drama with elements of comedy. The chemistry of Keith & Kelly were both a hit and the series lasted three years until its cancellation in 1986.
Keith also starred in the role of Steven “The Fox” Halliday in the six-part television miniseries, The Zoo Gang, about a group of former underground freedom fighters from World War II. The show also starred Sir John Mills, Lilli Palmer, and Barry Morse.
Keith spoke fluent Russian, which led to his casting as a Russian in two roles: the Soviet Premier in World War III with Rock Hudson; and as a Soviet scientist in Meteor with Natalie Wood. InThe Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming, where he played the unexcitable police chief of an island where a Soviet submarine runs aground, however, his character had to have Russian translated to him by Alan Arkin‘s character.
During the latter part of his life, Keith suffered from emphysema and lung cancer despite having quit smoking 10 years earlier (he appeared in an endorsement campaign for Camel cigarettes in 1955). On June 24, 1997, he was found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his home at 23449 Malibu Colony Road in Malibu, California, two months after his daughter Daisy committedsuicide. It was also reported that he had financial problems and suffered from depression throughout his final days. Keith’s family was joined by many mourners at a private funeral, includingFamily Affair co-stars Johnny Whitaker and Kathy Garver, and Hardcastle & McCormick co-star Daniel Hugh Kelly.
On June 26, 2008, Brian Keith received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame