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Actor Brian Keith Found Dead in Apparent Suicide

June 25, 1997|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Actor Brian Keith, best known as the bachelor guardian Uncle Bill on the television series "Family Affair," was found dead Tuesday morning in his Malibu home, an apparent suicide.

Officers called to the home by family members found Keith dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound, authorities said. He was 75 and reportedly had been suffering from cancer.

Keith, who debuted in show business at 3, forged a varied career for himself, starring in comedies, dramas and westerns and picking up plum roles in film and on television--and most recently on CD-ROM.

He co-starred in the 1961 Disney movie "The Parent Trap" and during his long career played opposite many legendary leading ladies, including Bette Davis, Ginger Rogers and Elizabeth Taylor. All told, he made more than 80 films.

Refreshingly blunt--like many of the characters he played-- Keith never hesitated to say what he thought about his various show business projects.

He boasted of telling CBS executives "to go fly a kite" when they suggested toning down his series "The Westerner" to make it appropriate for children. He once complained that "all TV seems to want is tripe." And he acknowledged that his own pet project, "The Brian Keith Show," "didn't work because it wasn't good."

Throughout his career, Keith delighted in creating gruff, rough characters--but he preferred them realistic. In fact, he disdained some of his most famous work, as Matt Anders in the 1955-56 television drama "Crusader," because he thought the character was too much a souped-up action hero, not enough a regular guy.

"He was always charging around and always a winner. Who can win every time?" Keith complained in an interview with The Times a few years after the show ended. "Besides, people thought [the character] was for real. I still get letters, pathetic letters, from people asking me to help relatives stuck in an Iron Curtain country or something. It's embarrassing. I'm not an avenging angel."

Much more to Keith's taste was his role as the rumpled, plain-spoken cowboy in "The Westerner"--a character so down-to-earth that he was known to fall off a horse on occasion.

"The greatest satisfaction is in cow towns where guys come out of doorways and grab me to tell me how good the series was," he said a few months after "The Westerner" wrapped up in 1960.

But much as he relished his work in westerns, Keith did not achieve national celebrity until he took the role of Uncle Bill--the reluctant guardian of Buffy, Jody and Cissy--in the CBS sitcom "Family Affair," which ran from 1966 to 1971.

Blending his trademark gruffness with a hint of tenderness, Keith played Uncle Bill as a swinging bachelor whose life was thrown into chaos when he was forced to raise his orphaned nieces and nephew with help from his English butler, Mr. French. For a generation of television viewers, reluctant family man Uncle Bill was to be Keith's signature role.

With the success of "Family Affair," Keith was able to launch his own comedy series in the early 1970s. Called "The Brian Keith Show," it was filmed in Hawaii--a location that Keith said he fell in love with as a young Marine Air Wing sergeant in World War II.

The husky actor also starred in the 1970s dramas "Archer" and "Centennial."

Much later, he insisted that he never evaluated his various show business projects for how they could advance his career. "I never gave a hoot," he said. "I just took what came along."

Keith returned to television in 1983, coming out of retirement for a three-year run as Judge Milton G. Hardcastle in the show "Hardcastle & McCormick."

He continued to work into his 70s. As late as 1994, he earned a warm review for playing a grumpy investigator in a CD-ROM detective adventure called "Under the Killing Moon." "He was a crusty old character, but a lot of fun," agent Paul Doherty, whose firm handled Keith's work in commercials, told the Associated Press. "A wonderful guy, wonderful talent."

The news service reported that Keith had cancer.

Keith came by his talent naturally. His mother, Helena Shipman, was an actress. His father, Robert Keith, appeared in dozens of films, plays and television shows . Keith is survived by his wife, actress Victoria Young.

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