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Jack Kelly; ‘Maverick’ Star, City Councilman

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Kelly, the gruff-voiced, wise-cracking actor who co-starred in television’s “Maverick” series and later became a city councilman and mayor, died Saturday, three days after suffering a massive stroke. Kelly was 65.

Kelly’s wife found him unconscious at their home Wednesday afternoon, and he never regained consciousness, city officials said. He died at Humana Hospital-Huntington Beach, when doctors took him off life support systems after determining that hemorrhaging had left Kelly with no brain activity.

A public memorial service will be held Thursday at 11 a.m. at City Hall, where flags were lowered to half staff this weekend on order of Mayor Jim Silva. Kelly is survived by his wife, Jo, and daughter, Nicole, 21, who visited him Saturday morning before he died.

Donations in Kelly’s name may be sent to the Huntington Art Center, care of City Hall. Some of Kelly’s organs will be donated to UC Irvine Medical Center in Orange, and his body will be cremated.

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“Jack was a very good-hearted man, very concerned about people,” said City Administrator Michael Uberuaga, citing Kelly’s advocacy of affordable housing.

“He called it the way it was,” Uberuaga said. “He didn’t politic, he just told it the way he saw it, and I think that is a real value in politics today.”

Kelly had been in declining health since April 28, when he suffered a heart attack. He underwent heart bypass surgery in early May and returned to work as a Huntington Beach city councilman June 1. But his council colleagues said Kelly never regained his former vigor and had trouble eating and walking in recent days.

Kelly gained fame as television’s Bart Maverick, brother of Bret Maverick, played by James Garner. The “Maverick” series, which ran from 1957 to 1962, was a television innovation: a humorous western, with the Maverick brothers as antiheroes who tried to dodge gunfights and occasionally cheated at poker.

Kelly’s film career began in 1950, in “Fighting Men of the Plains” with Western star Randolph Scott. He went on to appear in the 1954 movie “The Country Girl,” starring Grace Kelly and Bing Crosby, and Audie Murphy’s autobiographical World War II-era film, “To Hell and Back.”

In an interview in 1988, Kelly said the “Maverick” role was the high point of his acting career. He also said he had no grand illusions, either about that role or his ability as an actor. “Let’s face it, the character was not like playing ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame,’ ” he said.

After the “Maverick” series ended, Kelly appeared in some light comedies and occasionally appeared on television. Last year he had a cameo role in the television mini-series “Luck of the Draw: The Gambler Returns.”

Mainly, however, Kelly spent the years after “Maverick” investing in real estate and managing property. Garner once joked that Kelly “owns all of Orange County.”

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Kelly said real estate was “the only thing I know a little bit about.” In addition to land, Kelly bought a venerable weekly newspaper, the Huntington Beach News. That newspaper fell on hard times in recent years and folded after Kelly’s heart attack.

Kelly was at the midpoint of his third four-year stint as a city councilman. He was first elected to the council in 1980 and reelected in 1984. After sitting out two years, because city law does not allow three successive terms, Kelly was reelected to the council in 1990. He twice served in the one-year, largely ceremonial role as mayor--a rotating honor on the City Council.

Kelly loved acting and politics. He combined the two in his role as a councilman in this coastal city of 185,000. He often used colorful Hollywood metaphors in his breezy, shoot-from-the-lip discourses while a member of the council.

He once referred to opposition to a project by saying, “We’ve got all these extras coming out of the woodwork saying this isn’t what they want.” And at a recent council meeting, he joked when staff members fumbled some answers to council questions. “I guess this is why in the movie business they insist you don’t go on the sound stage until you’ve learned your lines,” Kelly said.

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A native of New York City, Kelly was born into an entertainment family and christened John A. Kelly Jr. His father was a theater ticket broker and his mother, the former Ann Walsh, was a model and stage actress.

Kelly’s sister, Nancy Kelly, also had a lengthy acting career, winning a Tony award for the portrayal of the distraught mother of an evil child in “The Bad Seed.”

Kelly began his professional career when he was 2 weeks old, posing for a soap ad. As he grew up, he worked as a child actor in stage and radio dramas in New York.

The Kelly family moved to Los Angeles in 1938, and Kelly attended St. John’s Military Academy and University High School. After graduating from high school in 1944, he attended UCLA until he was drafted by the Army. He served as a weather observer in Alaska until his honorable discharge in December, 1946.

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In 1947, Kelly drove with a bunch of young friends back to his native New York and landed a job there on television’s “Philco Playhouse.”

Kelly’s humor leavened many otherwise dull meetings of the Huntington Beach City Council. “He was a very colorful man,” Mayor Jim Silva said.

Kelly also got into political trouble for failing to disclose ownership of some of his property on a state form required of officeholders. For that offense, which he said was a bookkeeping oversight on his part, he was fined $4,000 by the state Fair Political Practices Commission in 1988.

Kelly’s campaigns for the City Council were heavily financed by development interests, and he usually voted for development projects that came before that body.

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With his questions and comments, Kelly often poked fun at the political process.

“I’m a nonconformist, flamboyant,” he said. “But, hey, this isn’t a solemn court with red ermine collars and powdered wigs. It’s only politics.”


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