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Richard Kiley; Epitomized ‘Man of La Mancha’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The “Man of La Mancha” is dead.

Richard Kiley, the Tony- and Emmy-winning actor who brought Don Quixote to life in the Broadway production of “Man of La Mancha,” died Friday at 76.

Arthur Kennard, the actor’s longtime manager, said Kiley died at his home in Warwick, N.Y., after a lengthy illness brought on by a blood disorder. He is survived by his wife, Patty, and six children. A private service is scheduled for Sunday.

In a long and accomplished stage, film and television career, Kiley was best known for his dual role as Quixote and Miguel de Cervantes in the 1965 Broadway musical, and for singing “The Impossible Dream,” the show’s most memorable song. He also played the role on Broadway in 1972 and 1977.

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A shy youngster who grew up in Chicago, Kiley came to acting relatively late.

“I disliked the idea [of acting] intensely,” he once told a Washington Post reporter.

“There’s a curious line of demarcation with the footlights,” he said. “If you are shy, it’s almost like an internal Maginot line.”

But in high school, he got the acting bug when there was an opportunity to appear in a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” with his classmate Steve Allen, who grew up to have a show business career himself. “It’s always easier to communicate with an audience onstage rather than making a recitation in school,” he said. “And there’s an additional removal with the character. I always loathed being out there with myself.”

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Born Richard Paul Kiley on Chicago’s South Side in 1922, the actor began his professional career doing roles on radio in such soap operas as “Ma Perkins” and “The Guiding Light.” He attended Loyola University before serving as a Navy gunnery instructor during World War II.

The early postwar years were a struggle for Kiley, who, after moving to New York, nearly gave up the theater to attend Syracuse University and pursue a career in forestry. But just when he was ready to quit acting, his break came in an audition for a touring company of “A Streetcar Named Desire.” He performed with that company from 1948 to 1950 and eventually replaced the show’s star, Anthony Quinn, in the role of Stanley Kowalski.

Three years after leaving “Streetcar,” he made his Broadway debut in a revival of George Bernard Shaw’s play “Misalliance.” Kiley’s strong baritone voice was noticed later that year when he played the caliph in “Kismet,” singing “Strangers in Paradise,” the show’s hit song. But he left the role after less than three months because he felt uncomfortable singing in the higher register required of the caliph.

He won his first Tony in 1959, when he starred with Gwen Verdon in “Redhead,” directed by Bob Fosse.

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Kiley bounced back and forth between straight drama and musicals, appearing in the adaptation of Allen Drury’s political novel “Advise and Consent” and then as Diahann Carroll’s leading man in “No Strings.”

In 1964, Kiley was offered what was to become his signature role, that of Cervantes and Don Quixote in “Man of La Mancha.”

The production, with book by Dale Wasserman, music by Mitch Leigh and lyrics by Joe Darion, arrived in New York in November 1965. With a paltry advance sale of just $3,000, the show was not expected to be around very long. But it caught on and became a sensation, running on Broadway for 2,238 performances from 1965 to 1971 and bringing him his second Tony, for best actor in a musical.

The musical is set in a 16th century jail, with Cervantes entertaining fellow prisoners--to keep their hostility at bay--by acting out the story of his most famous literary character. Kiley won over the critics with his deft ability to bounce between the demanding roles of the knight errant and the author.

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Kiley’s singing of “The Quest,” which is more popularly known as “The Impossible Dream,” became the standard against which many male singers of his generation were judged.

After its Broadway run, the musical traveled widely and has been performed in more than 45 countries and more than 20 languages.

Despite his affinity for the theater, what he once called “the primordial ooze out of which all actors crawl, where we were all born, where the art began,” Kiley was equally active in television and film.

On the big screen, he displayed his versatility in a number of films in the 1950s, most notably 1955’s “The Blackboard Jungle,” in which he played Joshua Y. Edwards, an idealistic young teacher whose faith is smashed along with the collection of jazz recordings he brings to class.

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That same year, Kiley starred in Phil Karlson’s cult classic “The Phenix City Story,” as a lawyer who tries to end corruption in his hometown.

After a fallow period in the ‘60s in terms of film roles, he came back in the next decade in stronger parts, including the aviator who counsels a young boy in the musical version of Antoine de St. Exupery’s ‘The Little Prince” in 1974 and Diane Keaton’s ill-tempered father in “Looking for Mr. Goodbar” in 1977. Most recently he appeared as a doctor in “Patch Adams,” starring Robin Williams.

Kiley worked steadily on television in both starring and supporting roles. He won an Emmy in 1983 for his portrayal of Meggie’s father in ABC’s “The Thorn Birds,” one of the most popular miniseries of all time. His second Emmy came in 1988 for his role as the widowed patriarch of a large Seattle family on the acclaimed but short-lived NBC series “A Year in the Life.” He received his last Emmy for his guest performance as the prickly father of Jill Brock in an episode of the CBS series “Picket Fences.”

Kiley’s mellifluous and warmly authoritarian voice brought him plenty of work providing narration for films, TV commercials and documentaries. He was the voice of a tour guide in the 1993 blockbuster “Jurassic Park” and narrated the “Search for Lost Worlds” series on the Discovery Channel.

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Steve Allen, Kiley’s longtime friend, remembered him on Friday in this way: “Dick and I have been good friends since the eighth grade, and whenever we spent time together we have almost invariably gotten innocently into trouble and laughed our way out of it. He was the kind of friend with whom the experiences you’ve shared will always be remembered.”

Times staff writer Susan King contributed to this story.


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