Gardner McKay, whose dashing good looks landed him a starring role in television’s “Adventures in Paradise” in the early 1960s but who abandoned acting to pursue a writing career, died Wednesday of prostate cancer at his home in Oahu, Hawaii. He was 69.
As Capt. Adam Troy, a freelance skipper plying the South Seas, McKay had a three-season run on the ABC series. When it debuted in 1959, Life magazine predicted that “this is the face that will launch a million sighs and burn its romantic image into the hearts of hordes of American females.”
But it was as a playwright, novelist and poet that McKay enjoyed greater creative fulfillment over the past four decades.
“He wouldn’t be happy at all to be remembered as an actor,” Brian Madigan, his brother-in-law, said Wednesday. “It was not what he was proud of. He really just wasn’t comfortable with his acting.”
The 6-foot, 4-inch McKay once received more fan mail than any other star at 20th Century Fox, and was sought after by director George Cukor to appear with Fox star Marilyn Monroe in “Something’s Got to Give.” Even Monroe called McKay, urging him to take the role. But he walked away from it all.
Instead, he fled to the Sahara where he rode with the Egyptian camel corps. Later he crewed on yachts in the Caribbean and hiked through the jungles of the Amazon.
“I never knew what I was searching for, only what I was not searching for,” he told People magazine in 1999. “My life is defined by what I’ve quit.”
Born George Cadogan Gardner McKay in Manhattan in 1932, McKay was the son of an advertising executive whose job took the family to Paris, where McKay spent his early years.
At Cornell University in the early 1950s, McKay served as editor of the campus humor magazine and wrote a film review column for the student newspaper. But he left school after two years and moved to Greenwich Village, where he wrote and sculpted.
It was at an exhibit of his sculpture that McKay’s chiseled good looks caught the eye of photographer Richard Avedon, who invited him to Paris to shoot a series of photographs with model Suzy Parker.
Town and Country magazine also included a photo of McKay surrounded by his sculptures in its Man About Town section. “The next thing I knew an agent called,” McKay later said. “It was all a stupid fluke.”
In Hollywood in the late ‘50s, McKay was a minor supporting player who had a secondary role on a short-lived syndicated Western, “Boots and Saddles,” and made guest appearances on “Death Valley Days” and other television shows.
But in 1959 Dominick Dunne, then a producer at 20th Century Fox, spotted McKay in a coffee shop. At the time, the studio was conducting screen tests for the starring role in “Adventures in Paradise.”
“I didn’t know who he was,” Dunne told The Times on Wednesday. “He was an extraordinarily handsome guy. I said, ‘Are you an actor?’ I gave him my card and said, ‘If you’re interested, call me.’ ”
“I think we did 10 tests [of actors],” recalled Dunne. “His was the worst, but everybody reacted to him, I mean everybody--especially the women. He just had something that was appealing on film and he got the part.
“He was never a great actor, but he became a big television star.”
After abandoning his acting career, McKay continued to live in Los Angeles for many years.
“Gardner had a passion for lions and cheetahs, and actually had pet cheetahs at his place in Beverly Hills until his neighbors complained,” said actor Colby Chester, a friend.
“I remember going with him to visit one of his lions, which was being housed on a game farm in Tujunga. I remember him saying, ‘It’s probably best if you don’t go in the cage with me.’ I didn’t know quite how to take that. I remember watching him literally lying down with his lions.”
McKay wrote dozens of plays, the most notable being “Sea Marks,” which won a writing award from the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle and was shown on PBS; “Masters of the Sea” and “This Fortunate Island.” Of “Sea Marks,” presented in 1974 at the Hollywood Center Theater, then-Times theater critic Dan Sullivan wrote that though flawed, “where it counts, ‘Sea Marks’ does come through. We meet two people we haven’t known before, and we end up caring about them.”
McKay served as drama critic and theater editor for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner from 1977 to 1982, and had stints teaching play writing through extension programs at UCLA, the University of Alaska and the University of Hawaii.
Since 1995, McKay had been writing and reading short stories for a weekly program called “Stories on the Wind” on public radio in Hawaii, where he moved in 1987.
His first novel, “Toyers,” a thriller--published by Little, Brown in 1999--was well received by critics. At his death, his family said, he was nearing completion of his autobiography.
Living in a house on a hill in Koko Head about five miles from Honolulu, with a sweeping view of the mountains and ocean, McKay had found his slice of paradise.
“It was a very tranquil place for him,” said Madeleine Madigan McKay, his wife of 19 years. “It’s very close to the water, and every day he’d go out in his kayak. He just enjoyed the serenity of the place.”
In addition to his wife, McKay is survived by his son, Tristan Gardner Lebaile McKay of Paris; his daughter Liza McKay of Petree, Calif.; his brother Hugh McKay of Los Angeles; and a granddaughter.