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The Untouchable

What she knew about her father she learned from watching him play Lucky Quinn on television. Then he decided to try the part of a dad.

September 17, 2006|Cheryl Kellogg Phillips | Cheryl Kellogg Phillips is a writer, teacher and occasional actress living in Valley Glen.

I hadn't seen my father, John Kellogg, since I was 2.

He was an actor. My entire relationship with him flourished within the soft glow of a 19-inch black-and-white Zenith.

I never took my eyes off the Zenith. Not even during the commercials. Because sometimes there would be a double bill, as he perched on the front fender of a car with a big smile on his face, holding up a can of motor oil: the All-American dad with his son in the background hosing down their green lawn. The commercial was such a contrast to his usual characters. As Lucky Quinn on "The Untouchables," with submachine gun in hand, and sporting a slouched fedora and pinstripe suit, he knocked off rival mobsters and members of Eliot Ness' Prohibition Bureau. Then there was my father again, hugging a can of Pennzoil.

Lucky was finally foiled by a mob of unruly U.S. Treasury agents who mercilessly chased him through the South Side of Chicago, until from sheer exhaustion he collapsed and stumbled head first in front of an oncoming commuter train. Of the more than 50 television programs and 60 films that John Kellogg appeared in during his 50-year career, it is his episodes of "The Untouchables" that are the most memorable and will stick with me always.

When he wasn't playing a mobster, he would often show up on "Bonanza" or "Gunsmoke" (or another of the TV westerns so popular in the '60s) as an all-around errant gunslinger or outlaw raising havoc on the Ponderosa or among the innocent townsfolk of Dodge City. I watched him with profound curiosity, studying the versatile actor who was my father. With each performance I'd come away feeling that I had gained deeper insight into who my father really was. He was, I decided, a bad guy suitable for all occasions.

John Kellogg met my mother, Helen, at the Actor's Lab in Hollywood, behind Schwab's drugstore on Sunset Boulevard. He was quite charming, and a real class cut-up from what I understand. He was reasonably handsome in a craggy sort of way, tall, slender, with light-brown curly hair and blue eyes, and he had already landed a big part in "Twelve O'Clock High." He also found his way into pivotal bad-guy roles in numerous film-noir classics of the '40s and '50s: "The Gangster," "Edge of the City," "Port of New York." It seemed to me that in most of his appearances he was either beating someone up or at least slapping them around. In "Kansas Raiders" he wore a brightly colored bandana around his neck while defiantly leading a horde of angry cowboys down a dusty trail. Then there was "Bomba and the Elephant Stampede," in which he played a poacher who would do just about anything to get his hands on some ivory--my father in a safari jacket, aiming a rifle, sneaking up on those poor elephants. He appeared as Morse in "Gorilla at Large," a thriller about "the world's largest gorilla." And he got a chance to show off his comedic side as Cherry-Nose Gray in "Hold That Baby!"

My parents' marriage was short-lived, about two years. According to my mother's complaint for divorce, it was fraught with verbal and physical abuse, alcoholism, child neglect and more or less total irresponsibility on my father's part. In my estimation, his side of the story was rather flimsy. Although he did admit to fathering me, he stated in court documents that none of the accusations against him really mattered much. He insisted that his divorce from his second wife was never finalized, so therefore the marriage to my mother was a sham. (Of course he had gotten a divorce. In the words of my mother: "What a liar!")

The acrimony was granted a merciful death by annulment. My mother waived alimony while my father was handed two court orders: relinquish all rights to his prized 1948 MG and pay $25 a week in child support. He disregarded his $25-a-week obligation (modified to $20 a week, which he also ignored) and failed to hand over the MG, and his idea of "the right of reasonable visitation to said child" was to not show up at all. My father abandoned me, a betrayal not so plain and simple, and was a deadbeat in the truest sense. My mother tried repeatedly to get him back into court, but the process became too expensive and wearing for her. He was exceptionally adept at ducking and dodging the California legal system, making it so difficult for my mother that, after years of trying, she gave up.

One of the unfortunate court dates was printed up in the newspaper. The article displayed a comical shot of my father pulling out the lining of his empty pockets.

One evening while I was watching my father and his fellow marauders stampede their way into a quiet western town, he telephoned. My mother answered, and every muscle in her neck bulged out. "It's your father," she said. "He wants to speak to you." I put the phone to my ear and heard his voice for the first time in more than 10 years.

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