DeForest Kelley, who played the irascible but wise Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy in the "Star Trek" television series and movies, died Friday at the Motion Picture and Television Fund Hospital in Woodland Hills. He was 79.
Kelley entered the convalescent home three months ago and died after a lingering illness, said A.C. Lyles, a longtime producer at Paramount Studios, where the original series was shot. Kelley's wife of 55 years, Carolyn, who was recuperating from a broken leg in the home, was by his side when he died.
Kelley was a supporting actor on film, stage and television for 20 years before landing his distinctive role on what would become a cult science fiction series.
"Star Trek," which aired on NBC from 1966 to 1969, was director Gene Roddenberry's saga of the star ship Enterprise, a 23rd century spacecraft with a mission to study unexplored worlds and transport supplies to Earth colonies in space.
On the Enterprise's motley crew, Kelley was the resident surgeon, diagnostician and humanist, the perfect foil for the coldly logical Mr. Spock played by Leonard Nimoy and the macho Capt. James Kirk played by William Shatner.
"He was one of a kind, a great friend and a very important part of a collection of personalities," Nimoy said Friday. "He had the humanist point of view in the show. It fit him very well. He brought a decency and sensibility that made you want to have him around."
The son of a Baptist minister, Kelley was born in 1920 in Atlanta, where he sang in the church choir. He left Atlanta after high school to visit an uncle in Long Beach, and joined a theater group.
In the mid-1940s he was discovered by a Paramount talent scout who saw him in a Navy training film. The scout offered him a screen test and later a contract. He made his film debut as a man who may have committed murder while under hypnosis in a 1947 film noir called "Fear in the Night," which showcased Kelley's distinctive arched eyebrows and occasional wild-eyed expressions.
He appeared in several more films before moving to New York, where he worked in theater and in early television anthology dramas such as "Schlitz Playhouse of Stars."
He returned to Hollywood in 1955 to resume his film work, appearing in director Sam Fuller's "House of Bamboo" and "Tension at Table Rock." He had a slight Southern drawl and a weathered face that he parlayed into roles as ranchers, town folk and minor villains in westerns such as "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral" in 1956.
In 1960 he landed more television roles, including the lead in a pilot written and produced by Roddenberry. Although Roddenberry later cast another actor, Edmond O'Brien, in the series "Sam Benedict," he did not forget about Kelley.
Kelley was not a fan of science fiction. But when Roddenberry invited him to a screening of the original pilot for "Star Trek," which starred Jeffrey Hunter, he did not turn him down.
After the screening, Roddenberry said: "Well, cowboy, what did you think?" Kelley replied: "Gene, that will be the biggest hit or the biggest miss ever."
Over lunch in the studio commissary, Roddenberry offered him a choice of two roles, one of which he described as "this green-painted alien."
Kelley chose the other role. "I'm glad it turned out that way," he told the Chicago Tribune some years ago, "because I wouldn't have been anywhere near Leonard [Nimoy]. He's been marvelous."
Although his character often clashed with Nimoy's character, the two were united in loyalty to Shatner's Kirk. He was often beamed down to hostile spots in the galaxy along with the other members of the show's trinity, but was most at home in the high-tech dispensary aboard the Enterprise.
McCoy's sarcasm endeared him to fans. "Did you see the love light in Spock's eyes? The right computer finally came along," McCoy said in an episode called "The Ultimate Computer," in which the Enterprise tests a computer designed to run the ship without a crew. Kelley stalwarts loved his trademark lines: "I'm just a country doctor," uttered when he was faced with some ghastly outer-space malady, and, "He's dead, Jim."
Few could have predicted the extraordinary longevity of the "Star Trek" craze. The original series, premiering on Sept. 8, 1966, was a ratings failure. It routinely lost in its time period. At its peak in 1966-67, it still ranked 52nd among all series. NBC canceled the show in 1969.
But a legion of "Star Trek" fanatics lobbied fiercely to return the program to network television. It achieved cult status in the 1970s and succeeded in reruns. Annual "Star Trek" conventions were held in the United States and abroad. An animated version ran on NBC from 1973 to 1975, with original cast members, including Kelley, supplying the voices.
Kelley developed his own loyal following over the years, welcomed by "Trekkies" at confabs around the world.
In 1989, the year Paramount released "Star Trek V: The Final Frontier," he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He reprised the role of McCoy in all seven "Star Trek" movies made with Shatner and Nimoy, beginning with "Star Trek: The Motion Picture" in 1979 and ending with "Star Trek: Generations" in 1994.
(A new generation of Enterprise officers was featured in the 1996 release "Star Trek: First Contact," which starred Patrick Stewart and Jonathan Frakes.)
Most of the movies were roundly panned, and the endless sequels became targets for late-night television show jokes. The last in the series fared best at the box office, grossing $70 million.
After a while, Kelley came to dread the critics' words.
"The one thing I always dread about critics' reviews of the 'Star Trek' movies is they first review us," Kelley said in 1991, when "Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country" was released. "We've heard it a hundred times, that Bill's getting fat and I'm looking like death." At the time, Kelley was 71, Shatner and Nimoy both 60.