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Known to generations for his portrayal of the compassionate yet slightly cranky ship's doctor, Leonard "Bones" McCoy, on the classic television series "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69), actor DeForest Kelley created one of science fiction's most beloved and indelible characters. Following an auspicious start in film with the leading role in the noir "Fear in the Night" (1947), a disappointed Kelley quickly found himself settling for guest turns on various television series and smaller roles in films such as "House of Bamboo" (1955) and "Tension at Table Rock" (1956). Westerns quickly became Kelley's stock-in-trade, with appearances in "Gunfight at O.K. Corral" (1957) and "Warlock" (1959) being among his more notable. Although his work in the Gene Roddenberry-created pilot "333 Montgomery" (NBC, 1960) failed to materialize into a series, it impressed the writer-producer enough to win Kelley a supporting role in "Star Trek" just a few years later. His work as the unapologetically humanistic McCoy soon elevated Kelley's role to co-starring status on the iconic series. However, despite his proven talents, parts were hard to come by for the veteran actor in the aftermath of the show's cancellation. A full decade later, Kelley and the rest of the USS Enterprise crew were called back to action for the epic re-launch, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979). The franchise jumped to warp-speed with the hugely popular "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982), and continued for four more installments before the original crew finally stepped off the bridge of the U.S.S.Enterprise for good. A key member of a cast known for inflated egos and, at times, bitter in-fighting, Kelley emerged as the one member of the original cast who was universally admired by his "Star Trek" co-stars.
Jackson DeForest Kelley was born on Jan. 20, 1920 in Atlanta, GA to parents Clora and Ernest David Kelley, a Baptist Minister. A talented singer from an early age, DeForest, as he was known, performed regularly with the local church choir while attending Decatur Boys High in nearby Decatur. He began his entertainment career singing on an Atlanta area radio station and later performed on the stage at the Paramount Theater with Lew Forbes and his orchestra. After serving with the United States Army Air Forces during World War II, Kelley launched his acting career with a supporting role in the misleadingly titled "Time to Kill" (1945), a military recruitment film starring future "Superman" George Reeves, in which a group of friends ponder their career options during a friendly game of cards. Spotted by a Hollywood talent scout, he was called in for a screen test, signed to a contract with Paramount Studios, and was soon cast in his only true leading role for his feature film debut, "Fear in the Night" (1947), a minor but effective film noir. At first, Kelley believed he was on the road to film stardom. What followed, however, was only a series of minor parts in easily forgotten film and TV projects. Somewhat discouraged, Kelley and his wife moved to New York City, where he appeared in several stage productions and a few East Coast-produced television anthology dramas for the next few years.
Eventually, Kelley gave Hollywood another try and was rewarded with work on series such as the Walter Cronkite-hosted historical recreation drama "You Are There" (CBS, 1953-57) and in episodes of the hugely popular "The Lone Ranger" (ABC, 1949-1957). He gradually resumed his feature career with tiny roles in Samuel Fuller's Tokyo noir "House of Bamboo" (1955) and the Gregory Peck drama "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit" (1956), in which he would utter the eerily prophetic line "This man's dead, Captain" to Peck. A slightly larger role in ""Tension at Table Rock" (1956) set the stage for much of the character actor's future output in Westerns, in which he was frequently cast as a secondary villain. He bucked the latter part of the trend when he played Morgan Earp, the loyal brother of legendary gunfighter Wyatt (Burt Lancaster) in the highly-regarded account of the "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" (1957). However, he was soon relegated back to bad guy supporting roles in such gun-toting morality tales as "The Law and Jake Wade" (1958) and "Warlock" (1959), two more Westerns which both starred popular leading man Richard Widmark.
Increasingly, television work was becoming Kelley's professional bread-and-butter, and a leading role in writer-producer Gene Roddenberry's crime-drama pilot "333 Montgomery" (NBC, 1960) held out the promise of a higher-profile and steadier work. When a regular series did not come to pass, the actor moved forward with dozens of guest star appearances on such popular programs as "Route 66" (CBS, 1960-64) and "Have Gun - Will Travel" (CBS, 1957-63). Appearances alongside Bette Davis and Susan Hayward in the Edward Dmytryk-directed "Where Love Has Gone" (1964) and a smaller turn in the Frank Sinatra-Dean Martin divorce comedy "Marriage on the Rocks" (1965) gave the struggling Kelley a much needed boost in visibility in decidedly more contemporary material. However, more small roles in cowboy fare like the by-the-book Westerns "Town Tamer" (1965) and "Waco" (1966) seemed to herald a career forever relegated to saddles, sagebrush and six-guns. That was until Kelley received a call from Roddenberry, who remembered him from "333 Montgomery" and wanted the actor for a little space show he was developing over at NBC. The rest was history.
Pitched to the network by Roddenberry as a sort of Western adventure set in outer space, "Star Trek" (NBC, 1966-69) followed the ongoing adventures of the crew of the starship U.S.S. Enterprise as it explored the farthest reaches of the galaxy and beyond. Although not cast in either the first or second pilot for the proposed show, Roddenberry had always pictured Kelley in the role of the ship's doctor, so when "Star Trek" went into regular series production Roddenberry immediately cast the actor in the role of Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy. From the beginning, the series' focus was on the dashing, impetuous Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner), along with his second in command, the supremely logical and emotionless Vulcan, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). That dynamic soon began to shift, however, as Kelley's endearing portrayal of the excitable, argumentative and, above all else, human McCoy quickly elevated him to co-starring status, forming the Kirk-Spock-McCoy triptych of indelible characters beloved by fans.
Alternately serving as Kirk's conscience and as a foil to Spock's sterile logic, McCoy, at heart an old-fashioned country doctor, ill-at-ease with gallivanting across the cosmos, was the emotional core of the Enterprise crew. Kelley's impassioned delivery of recurring lines like "He's dead, Jim," and "I'm a doctor, not a [fill in the blank], dammit" eventually found their way into the pop culture lexicon. As was so often the case with the most competent supporting actors, Kelley's work on the show was overshadowed by the scenery-chewing performance of Shatner and Nimoy's iconic characterization. Consequently, when "Star Trek" was cancelled by an unconvinced NBC in 1969, Kelley watched his two co-stars go on to further lucrative endeavors, while he waited for the phone to ring. There were the odd television guest spots and a role in the horrendous giant rabbit horror feature "Night of the Lepus" (1972), but little else. Glad for the work, Kelley briefly revived McCoy - albeit in voice only - for the surprisingly well-made animated version of "Star Trek" (NBC, 1973-75), along with most of the other original cast members, including Shatner and Nimoy.
Eventually pushed into a de facto retirement by a lack of offers, Kelley subsisted largely off of fees he made for appearances at various Star Trek conventions around the country. The fan gatherings had been building in both frequency and attendance in the years since the show's demise. This, combined with a growing resurgence of interest due to ubiquitous reruns of "Star Trek" in syndication, eventually prompted Paramount Studios to develop a property that would capitalize on its enduring popularity. At last, after years of false starts and re-conceptions, the entire original crew of the Enterprise made their feature film debut a full decade after the series cancellation in "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" (1979). Helmed by Academy Award-winning director Robert Wise, the film was a lavish, special effects-laden feast for the eyes that found Kirk and the crew banded together once again to prevent an all-powerful entity from destroying Earth. If not entirely the rousing space adventure "Trekkies" had long been hoping for - many critics noted the film's slow pace - it nonetheless satisfied audiences and studio execs enough to warrant a sequel.
Having learned their lesson from the previous outing, Paramount and director Nicholas Meyer delivered a crowd-pleasing, swashbuckling space adventure in the form of "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan" (1982). Bringing back a character from the original series, Kirk's antagonist was Khan (Ricardo Montalban), a genetically-engineered superhuman on an Ahab-like quest to destroy the legendary starship commander. While not given as much prominence as he enjoyed on the television show, Kelley still managed to steal a scene or two and deliver a few classic "Bones" zingers. He was given a bit more to do in the second sequel "Star Trek III: The Search for Spock" (1984), this time directed by Nimoy. Having been imbued with the "living spirit" of Spock after the Vulcan's apparent death at the end of the previous film, "Bones" literally carried the essence of his friend's being within him until Spock's corporeal form could be miraculously regenerated via the power of the aptly-named Genesis devise. Kelley returned along with Shatner, Nimoy, George Takei, James Doohan, Walter Koenig and Nichelle Nichols for the fan-favorite "Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home" (1986), a more playful entry in the franchise that saw the crew returning to 20th-century Earth on a mission to save the whales.
With the "Star Trek" universe more popular than ever, Kelley did a favor for Rodenberry when he christened the long-gestating spin-off series "Star Trek: The Next Generation" (syndicated, 1987-1994) with a cameo as an elderly Dr. McCoy on the show's pilot episode, "Encounter at Farpoint." He reprised the role of McCoy twice more in "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier" (1989) - Shatner's sole contribution as director on the series - and "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" (1991), the final big screen adventure to feature the original Enterprise crew. Largely retired from screen appearances, he gave a nod to his early intergalactic adventures with his last performance as the voice of the deep space probe Viking 1 in the animated family adventure "The Brave Little Toaster Goes to Mars" (1998). One year later, Kelley passed away in his Sherman Oaks, CA home at the age of 79 after a lengthy bout with stomach cancer, plunging fans and his longtime co-stars into genuine mourning.
Cast (Feature Film)
Cast (TV Mini-Series)
First journeyed outside his native Georgia after graduating high school at age 17; visited an uncle in Long Beach, California, planning to stay for two weeks, but lived in California for a year (date approximate)
Made feature film debut in a leading role in the Paramount-produced film noir, "Fear in the Night"
Last Hollywood film for six years, "Duke of Chicago"
Returned to Hollywood to resume feature film work and to work in TV shot on the West coast; first film, "House of Bamboo", directed by Sam Fuller; got help finding TV work from friend Barney Girard, who was writing for "You Are There"
Acted in first Western feature, "Tension at Table Rock"
Played the leading role of lawyer Jake Brittin in the NBC crime pilot, "333 Montgomery", broadcast as an installment of the "Alcoa Theater"; Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced the pilot; later became a series entitled "Sam Benedict", but with Edmond O'Brien in the title role
Another feature film absence, of six years, followed after "Waco"
First reprised the role of Dr. McCoy on the big screen for the feature film, "Star Trek: The Motion Picture"
Final acting role, reprising McCoy in "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country"
Final film appearance in the documentary "William Shatner's Star Trek Memories!"