At age 20, he worked briefly as a singing waiter at the Paris Inn Cafe in Los Angeles. Tonight, half a century later, Howard Keel finally makes his L.A. debut as a concert performer, at the Greek Theatre.
Although he has starred in various L.A. productions over the years--his last appearance was in "I Do, I Do" with Jane Powell a decade or so ago at the Pantages Theatre--Keel has never performed here in concert.
"No opportunity, I guess," he says with a measure of modesty. "I don't think they have been doing these kind of things very much except for the big superstars and rock stars for the last 20 or 30 years. Most of my concerts have been in England."
Keel said he has been touring Britain annually for five years and is looking forward to returning in September. Judging from his popularity there, it's no wonder. His reviews have been glowing.
He recorded an hourlong video of his concert at London's Royal Albert Hall, released last year, and earlier recorded two albums on cassette, the first for Warwick Records in 1984. Titled "And I Love You So," it sold more than 100,000 copies within a week of its release and quickly climbed to No. 3 on the British album charts.
"I'd like to get something going in this country," he says. "Jimmy Nederlander (Greek Theatre producer and a longtime friend) is taking a shot with me. When the old brass ring comes around, you've got to grab it."
If Howard Keel is struggling, it isn't with his career, which has had few dips in 45 years.
Is he sensitive about his age?
"Never have been," he replies. "The thing that bugs me . . . I've never lied about my age, and they never get it right. In England they had me having my 72nd birthday. I was born April 13th, 1919 (in Gillespie, Ill.). I'm 70 years old. If anybody can prove I'm 72, I'll give 'em a million dollars."
Known to millions of TV viewers as oil tycoon Clayton Farlow in "Dallas," Keel has been a series regular for nine years and even now is busy filming episodes at the old MGM lot for the coming season.
Frankly, he'd rather be singing.
Keel virtually started his career on Broadway after Oscar Hammerstein II liked what he heard and gave him an understudy role in "Carousel." Eventually, Keel became the star of the musical, then later took over the lead in the Broadway production of "Oklahoma!"
Although unknown in Britain at the time, Keel was asked to play the amorous cowboy Curly McLain in "Oklahoma!" on the London stage in the spring of 1947.
He proved an instant success, which led to a part in a British movie in 1948, "The Small Voice," in which he played an escaped convict. Two years later MGM changed his name from Harold to Howard and signed him to a seven-year contract.
His concerts today feature many of the classics he sang in such films as "Annie Get Your Gun," "Show Boat," "Kiss Me Kate" and "Seven Brides for Seven Brothers."
"As long as I can sing halfway decent, I'd rather sing (than act). There's nothing like being in good voice, feeling good, having good numbers to do and having a fine orchestra."
His favorite song? "I never tire of 'Old Man River.' That's a great old song, and it fits my voice."
Meanwhile, the real struggle continues--on the golf course. A member of Bel-Air Country Club for 37 years, Keel carries an 11 handicap.
A longtime resident of Sherman Oaks, where he lives with his second wife and 15-year-old daughter, Keel admits his wife sometimes is a "golf widow." But apparently she doesn't mind. She surprised him with a birthday party in April and got him his favorite gift--golf balls.
"If you need any," he says, "let me know. I got 75 dozen."