William Kelley, 73; Writer Shared Oscar for 'Witness'

Times Staff Writer

William Kelley, a television and film writer who shared an Academy Award for screenwriting for his work on the 1985 movie "Witness," has died. He was 73.

Kelley died of cancer Monday at his home in Bishop, where he had lived since 1994.

"Witness" was co-written by Earl W. Wallace and based on an original story by Kelley, Wallace and Pamela Wallace.

It is a tale that begins with an Amish boy's witnessing a murder while on a trip to Philadelphia with his mother. When the police detective in charge of the case discovers that the murder plot originated in the department, he hides out among the Amish to protect both the boy and himself.

Peter Weir directed the movie, which starred Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis.

Kelley and Earl Wallace first met in the 1970s when Kelley was writing scripts for "Gunsmoke" and Wallace was the show's executive story consultant.

"Bill had a marvelous sense of humor, in addition to being very well-educated," Wallace recalled Thursday. "He had a tremendous love of poetry and could recite it by the hour in that marvelous, Irish raconteurish way. He was just a joy to be around.

"I think his strength as a writer was that sense of humor, a particular affection for bigger-than-life characters and marvelous dialogue that could have you rolling on the floor one moment and wiping a tear from your eye the next moment."

Born on Staten Island, N.Y., in 1929, Kelley served in the Air Force in the late 1940s. He studied for the priesthood for three years in the early '50s at Villanova University, but then transferred to Brown University, where he received a bachelor's degree in English literature in 1955.

After earning a master's degree in Irish literature from Harvard in 1957, Kelley became an editor at Doubleday and later worked as an editor for McGraw-Hill and Simon & Schuster.

"Gemini," the first of his six novels, was published by Doubleday in 1959 and became a bestseller.

Kelley began writing for television in the late 1960s. His more than 150 credits include episodes of "Judd for the Defense," "Gunsmoke," "Bonanza," "Kung Fu," "Serpico," "Petrocelli" and "The Dukes of Hazzard." He also wrote for the miniseries "How the West Was Won" and wrote TV movies, including "The Winds of Kitty Hawk," "The Blue Lightning" and "The Demon Murder Case."

In recent years, he returned to writing novels.

His most recent novel, "A Servant of Slaves," was published this month by Crossroad Publishing. It is based on the life of Henriette Delille, a 19th-century free woman of color who co-founded a New Orleans-based order of African American nuns, the Sisters of the Holy Family.

Kelley is survived by his wife of 48 years, Nina; two daughters, Maura Kelley Deering of Davis, Calif., and Shaun Kelley Jahshan of Sunnyvale, Calif.; four brothers, Edward of Petaluma, Calif., Michael of Oroville, Calif., Thomas of Boise, Idaho, and Jack of Cody, Wyo.; a sister, Patricia Vaughan of Grand Prairie, Texas; and three grandchildren.

A private memorial service will be held today.

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