Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Review: A Maverick Life: The Jack Kelly Story

When I was a teenager I discovered the TV series MAVERICK in syndicated reruns shown on what was then known as KHJ Ch. 9 in Southern California. I fell in love with everything about the show -- the terrific stories and scripts, the recurring cast members, the running jokes ("As my old Pappy used to say..."), and the lead actors, James Garner and Jack Kelly.

As surprising as it may have been, given the series was then 20 years old, I was also fortunate to develop friendships with a couple other people my age who were equally interested in the show. Perhaps just as surprising was that, pressed to choose a favorite, I think we all shared a preference for the less famous Maverick brother, Jack Kelly. As the years went by, the three of us were fortunate to meet both Mr. Garner and Mr. Kelly on multiple occasions, and both men couldn't have been more gracious to their fans.

I looked forward to MAVERICK each day after school, doing whatever I could to avoid missing it; this was before the advent of the home VCR! I became familiar with every episode by name and collected as much information about the show as I could, going so far as to quickly dictate names from the end credits into a tape recorder as they flew by.

In that pre-VCR, pre-cable, pre-IMDb era, movies and TV shows were fleeting events which might not be available again for years, and gathering information about them was usually a solitary and painstaking process. There was no "rewind" for the credits on those shows and no comprehensive reference source. For the most part, save for brief references in my film books, any data I had on the show was what I put together on my own. I even created a card file for each actor who guest-starred on the program, listing their episodes. Now, of course, all these credits are available via the Internet with just a few keystrokes!

In my quest for more information, I even once wrote a letter to Jack Kelly's business office, which happened to be located in a neighboring city, in which I asked if he was the same Jack Kelly who appeared as a child in the 20th Century-Fox films YOUNG MR. LINCOLN (1939) and THE STORY OF ALEXANDER GRAHAM BELL (1939). I reasoned that it was likely him, since his older sister, Nancy Kelly, was then appearing in films such as JESSE JAMES (1939) at Fox. I was gratified when Jack's wife sent me a quick note back confirming that it was indeed the same person!

Back then I mused about the possibility of writing a book on MAVERICK one day in the vague future -- a task I never undertook, but which was ably completed by Ed Robertson in his 1994 book MAVERICK: LEGEND OF THE WEST.

Never, however, did I dream that one day someone would publish a full biography on Jack Kelly's life and career. The introduction to this review hopefully helps to illustrate how delighted I am that that day has arrived with the publication of A MAVERICK LIFE: THE JACK KELLY STORY by Linda Alexander. It's from Bear Manor Media.

Ms. Alexander previously wrote RELUCTANT WITNESS: ROBERT TAYLOR, HOLLYWOOD, AND COMMUNISM which I reviewed back in 2008. Her Kelly biography has been in the works for several years, and coincidentally James Garner happened to publish his autobiography within weeks of the Kelly book, making MAVERICK fans quite happy indeed.

A MAVERICK LIFE was written with the cooperation of Jack Kelly's wife, daughter, and close associates, including his first wife, actress May Wynn. Jack's MAVERICK costar Roger Moore was, according to the author, "extraordinarily helpful"; James Garner declined to participate, but his daughter Gigi offered some help.

The book is an honest "warts and all" account of Jack's life, including his struggle with alcohol. This comprehensive look at both Jack's personal life and career, which reflects extensive research and the use of many primary sources, is a valuable piece of film and TV history. I'm very glad that it was written when so many people were still alive to help provide insights and information.

Jack Kelly was part of an acting family; as mentioned previously, his older sister was Nancy Kelly (THE BAD SEED), whose husbands included Oscar-winning actor Edmond O'Brien and cinematographer Fred Jackman Jr. During the '50s Jack worked his way up through the acting ranks at Universal, where his films included supporting roles in several Westerns. By the mid '50s he'd graduated to more significant supporting roles in films such as DRIVE A CROOKED ROAD (1954), TO HELL AND BACK (1955), THE NIGHT HOLDS TERROR (1955), FORBIDDEN PLANET (1956), and JULIE (1956).

He landed his signature role when Warner Bros. needed to create a brother for James Garner in order to help maintain the busy production schedule for MAVERICK. It turned out to be fortuitous casting, as Kelly and Garner had a magical chemistry in their shows together, and Kelly was also excellent in his solo episodes. He was on MAVERICK from 1957 to 1962, longer than either James Garner or his later costar Roger Moore, but unlike those actors, his career never really took off after that point. Alcohol was probably a factor; perhaps it also played a role in his somewhat haggard appearance at a relatively early age.

Although he never took his stardom to a higher level, Jack worked steadily in episodic television and also appeared in several theatrical films in the 1960s and '70s. Gradually he developed interests in business and politics in addition to acting. He was elected to the Huntington Beach, California city council, eventually serving as the city's mayor. He passed away in 1992, age 65.

Linda Alexander covers all of this history in extensive detail, with comments from friends, family, and Jack's own interviews over the years helping to convey his personality. I learned countless new bits of information, such as that in the '50s Jack seriously dated former child actress Cora Sue Collins, or that he was a singer and starred in a stage production of THE MUSIC MAN. (Actor James Drury, star of THE VIRGINIAN, thought Jack was a better Harold Hill than Robert Preston, and said, "I sat there with my mouth open...He could sing like an angel.") By book's end the reader has gained a great deal of insight into the life of a complex man of varied interests who was lively and full of fun -- actress Kathleen Hughes said he was "one of the nicest, sweetest, dearest people I have ever met" -- yet also troubled, included ongoing issues with drinking.

The book is a well-illustrated 6" by 9" paperback with a very attractive cover illustration, seen at the top of this post; including the index, the book runs 374 pages.

I especially appreciated the inclusion of both an index and a detailed list of Kelly's screen appearances in A MAVERICK LIFE. This information was absent and very much missed in Alexander's previous Robert Taylor biography, so I was quite pleased to find she had taken the step of including both in her latest book. The investment of this extra effort really pays off over the long term for the readers. A few days ago I was flipping around in June Allyson's autobiography looking for passages on STRATEGIC AIR COMMAND (1955), wishing her publisher had included an index!

In the interest of completeness, I mention that the book contains a couple of minor errors here and there, such as the misspelling of Stefanie Powers' and Edmond O'Brien's first names, but I didn't notice anything substantive. Any such errors are far outweighed by the wealth of new information now available in one volume.

My sincere thanks to author Linda Alexander for providing me with early access to an electronic review copy of this book. After the book was released I then purchased my own hard copy, completing my review once I had a chance to see the book in its final format.

A MAVERICK LIFE: THE JACK KELLY STORY is highly recommended.


Blogger Caftan Woman said...

Definitely a must-have for this Kelly fan. I appreciate both the notice and your review.

1:44 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

Nice appreciation of MAVERICK. I'm highly sympathetic to your warm feelings for the show--it is one of my favorites as well and one of only two classic TV shows that I enjoyed when they were first on but didn't see all of and in later years made the effort to see complete (the other is THE FUGITIVE, also created by Roy Huggins).

In the case of MAVERICK, it ran on the Western Channel for three or four years and in 2009 I saw every episode including those I already knew again, not in order, but picking them up as they came back in rotation. I did end with the final show "One of our Trains is Missing" with Kelly that had a characteristically charming ending.

I really enjoyed watching the whole thing--it held up well to the end, despite what one usually hears about a decline after Garner left. Though I wouldn't say I like Kelly better than Garner, I would say I like them equally and they both always held up their part of it. As you say, they had great chemistry and for me most of the standout episodes were the ones with the two of them together. I guess that's what was missed when Garner left. Kelly didn't have the same magic with Roger Moore. Moore's cousin Beau was OK while he was on but never quite so endearing as either of the two brothers--I really liked Moore in an earlier episode "The Rivals" in which he played a different character.

Kelly had a fine career in movies and TV and I'm glad there's a book on him. Meantime, sadly it seems like MAVERICK has now finally gone off the Western Channel at just the moment that Kelly's biography and Garner's autobiography are out.

5:36 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Thanks, Caftan Woman, I hope you'll enjoy it too!

Blake, I very much appreciate all your comments on MAVERICK. "The Rivals" is a great episode! Really fun. I agree, my favorite episodes are with both Bret and Bart -- yet they also had many outstanding solo episodes. A number of favorite titles come to mind.

It's sure bad timing for Encore Westerns to have pulled MAVERICK from the schedule!

Best wishes,

8:36 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

"A number of favorite titles come to mind."

Me too. I didn't want to get started or I might not have stopped. Individual Bret and Bart episodes carried the show and they each had many of these, but it's always a treat when the show gets to one where they are together.

I noticed when looking up the show so I could mark off "seen" episodes that somewhere Garner and Kelly cited their favorite episodes, and both were Bret/Bart ones. Garner chose "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres" and Kelly chose "Two Beggars on Horseback." They were both right.

9:40 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

"I didn't want to get started or I might not have stopped."

Exactly! LOL. "Plunder of Paradise," "Comstock Conspiracy," "Brasada Spur"...I'm stopping, I'm stopping!

Yep, both the episodes you mentioned are top classics!

I wonder how many TV shows there are where viewers can so easily remember and discuss the shows by episode title? They're almost mini-movies.

Best wishes,

10:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've got to order a copy of this Kelly biography, I've been meaning to ever since it came out. It's such a weird thing that Kelly was overshadowed for the first part of his life by his movie star sister Nancy and then by a fictional brother on "Maverick." Jesus. I wonder what it would've been like had Warner Bros. followed their original plan to run episodes with Robert Colbert as Brent Maverick as well as Kelly in the fifth season, with the first three new shows featuring both brothers alternating with the Garner reruns then Bart and Brent solo shows continuing to alternate with Bret as well as Bret and Bart. It might have turned the show around with both of them although there’s an equal chance that it would’ve only damaged Garner’s movie career: many viewers would inevitably think that Colbert dressed in Garner’s costume was Garner and believe that he wasn’t as good as they remembered.

Kelly did age really fast, it was visible like time lapse photography even as early as during Maverick's run, and switching from a superb first early hairstyle with his presumably naturally lighter shade to gluing it down by slopping on globs of greasy oil and apparently augmenting that with jet-black dye later in the series like Jerry Lewis hosting a telethon didn't help matters a bit. Later Garner gradually developed a weight problem along with literally carcinogenically way too much sun but it took quite a while; Kelly was already starting to look haggard while they were still shooting Maverick. By the time he did that final appearance in the bizarrely unwatchable "Bret Maverick" series, he was practically unrecognizable. (It's dumbfoundingly astonishing how bad that series was: Kelly might have dodged a bullet when it got canceled just as he was about to become a regular: the only thing worse than being on the Huntington Beach city council would probably have been appearing in “Bret Maverick,” assuming it didn’t improve by leaps and bounds in the second season. I thought the earlier TV-movie "The New Maverick" was actually fairly good, especially with the new suped-up costumes for Garner and Kelly, although we'll avoid any mention of "The New Maverick," the series that it momentarily spawned, except that it was a noble effort and to cheer the fact that it cast the miraculous John Dehner in some episodes.) I'll omit a redundant identity for this entry because you obviously already know who this is.

1:38 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

I do? :) I know a lot of people (grin), and a couple come to mind who might have written this.

Hope you enjoy the book!

Best wishes,

11:30 AM  

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