Keenan Wynn, who began as “Ed Wynn’s Son” and made himself into one of the world’s most respected character actors, died Tuesday at his home in Brentwood after an eight-month battle against cancer.
He was 70, and few people outside the immediate family had known he was ill.
His son-in-law, Roger Armstrong, said the mustachioed and more recently bearded actor--perhaps best remembered for his roles in such classics as a paranoid paratroop officer in “Dr. Strangelove” and the greedy fight handler in the classic television production of “Requiem for a Heavyweight"--had wanted no publicity concerning his condition.
“His death was peaceful,” Armstrong said. “His family was with him.”
Wynn leaves his wife, Sharley; two daughters, Hilda Keenan Raeuchin and Edwina Keenan Armstrong; two sons, Edmond Keenan Wynn and Tracy Keenan Wynn, and four grandchildren. Funeral services will be private.
He was justifiably proud of his family’s century-long theatrical tradition--his grandfather, Irish Shakespearean actor Frank Keenan, was a contemporary of Edwin Booth and became one of the earliest stars of silent films; his father, actor-comedian Ed Wynn, was a longtime vaudeville headliner and radio star before embarking on a highly successful second career as a character actor. And Keenan Wynn maintained that he had always intended to be a dramatic actor.
“But when I began in pictures,” he said in a 1969 interview, “my father was still a comic--and everyone expected me to be one too. Had one hell of a time getting a chance to do anything else. . . .”
Born July 27, 1916, in New York City, Francis Xavier Aloysius James Jeremiah Keenan Wynn attended St. John’s Military Academy and got his early acting experience on stage--in the Lakewood Summer Theater at Skowhegan, Me., and working as stage manager and understudy in the 1940 Broadway production of “Room Service"--and in radio before signing an MGM contract in the early 1940s.
“Sounds easy, doesn’t it?” he said. “A walkover. You got this strong, supportive family and the good education and all the breaks and it’s easy. Hey . . . nothing is really easy.
“My grandfather was a wonderful person and a great actor. But he was an alcoholic, too. His daughter, my mother, was beautiful and gentle and I adored her and she fought a long, losing battle with mental illness.
“My father was famous, generous, and he loved me--but at a distance. I took up riding a motorcycle as much to worry him and get him to notice me as anything else. . . .”
Then he rode his motorcycle from New York to Hollywood.
“And it was great,” he recalled four decades later. “I saw parts of the country I’d never seen before, met a lot of people, caught cold and got over it without getting off the bike--great! How was I to know you weren’t supposed to do things like that if you were gonna be a big star. . . .”
In Hollywood, he entered the old “studio system” and was given a role in a 1942 musical called “For Me and My Gal.”
“Actually, that wasn’t my first movie job,” he recalled later. “I had a role in something called ‘Chained’ when I was just 19 years old and unable to defend myself. Don’t go see it if you can. But the early work at MGM wasn’t all that much better. . . .”
Wynn had featured roles in such films as “See Here, Private Hargrove,” “Lost Angel,” “The Clock,” “Weekend at the Waldorf,” and “Easy To Wed.”
“And nearly lost my mind,” he said.
“My father had a line when he was playing Vegas in the 1950s: ‘I’m Keenan Wynn’s father, and if you don’t know who Keenan Wynn is, he is the guy when Esther Williams dives in the pool, he gets splashed.’
“I didn’t resent him saying it, either. It was fair.
“I was under contract to MGM for 13 years and by my own count I made 70 films and was called on to act in eight of them. . . .”
Nonetheless, the half-century of his active career was remarkably prolific, with appearances in more than 250 television shows, 100 stage productions and 220 motion pictures, including “The Hucksters,” “Finian’s Rainbow,” “Kiss Me, Kate,” “The Great Race,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “The Great Man,” “A Hole In The Head,” “The Americanization of Emily,” “Once Upon A Time In The West,” “Nashville,” “Just Tell Me What You Want” and “Best Friends.”
There was also a short-lived television series, “The Trouble-Shooters,” in the late 1950s.
Along the way, he recalled a few “side-effects” in his 1959 autobiography: two failed marriages, and deafness that originated with a longtime fascination with noisy motorcycle, airplane, speedboat and automobile racing.
“I got my lumps,” he said in a 1985 interview. “Who hasn’t? But I got one kid who’s a writer and director (Tracy) and one who’s a writer and actor (Edmond) and in a family like mine--it’s velvet. They’ll keep me working forever!”
His most recent appearances were as a seat-of-the-pants flier whose son flew U-2 missions in the canceled ABC-TV series “Call to Glory,” and as Digger Barnes in the prime-time soap opera “Dallas.” A final film, “Hyper Sapiens,” is scheduled for release later this year.
And he enjoyed it all.
“I was always a second man,” he said. “My billing was always ‘with’ or ‘and’ or ‘also,’ and that was just fine with me. I worked oftener than the people with their names above the titles and the billing didn’t worry me.
“Let the stars take the blame. I had the fun. . . !”