Friday, October 15, 2010

Flipping Over Brian


Today’s hunk o’ spunk is a gentleman whose performing career length was severely limited. However, he still managed to make an impression on a generation of fans, some of whom, like myself, joined the bandwagon long after his acting days were over. A strong-looking actor with a warm inner core, he made the tough decision to venture beyond the expectations of his family, though he was ultimately robbed of the chance to show his full potential as an actor.
Brian Kelly was born (along with his twin brother Harry Jr.) on Valentine’s Day in 1931 in Detroit, Michigan. His father Harry Kelly was an extraordinarily distinguished lawyer who served as Michigan’s Secretary of State and two-term governor as well as serving seventeen years on the state’s supreme court. Initially, Brian intended to follow in his father’s footsteps as an attorney (the profession of several Kelly family members) and, after serving in Korea along with his brother as a Marine, he attended the University of Michigan Law School.

At some point, though, he switched gears and set his sites on becoming an actor instead. (It’s possible that the acting bug struck him as a teen when Jimmy Durante and Esther Williams filmed This Time for Keeps on Mackinac Island and he was able to meet both of them and observe the shooting process. That's him on the right as a teen.) He was making ends meet during college by modeling and soon after was utilized in radio and TV commercials. In time, he was spotted by a talent agent and invited to Hollywood. (His brother, by the way, went on to be a successful attorney at law.)

Already nearing thirty when he started to land roles on 1950s television series, he at least had dark good looks and a great physique from his Army training. His first role was as a guest on the 1958 Air Force-oriented anthology series Flight. Next was Panic!, a suspense anthology. He then landed a regular role (as a character named Brian!) on 21 Beacon Street, a forerunner to Mission: Impossible that only lasted thirteen episodes. The makers later sued claiming that Impossible had plagiarized the concept (the case was settled out of court.)

A slightly more successful program was 1961’s Straightaway, which featured Kelly and John Ashley as racecar drivers and their various adventures. It lasted for twenty-four episodes before biting the dust. He also played policemen on two different episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies, his posture and clean cut looks lending themselves well to soldiers and authority figures.

In his first feature film Thunder Island (co-written, by the way, by Jack Nicholson of all people!) in 1963, Kelly played a man trying to protect his wife and child in the midst of an assassination plot in an island nation.
That same year, Chuck Conners was headlining a family film called Flipper, all about a young boy (Luke Halpin) interacting with the title dolphin. The film was actually produced in 1961, but wasn’t released until almost two years later. A sequel, Flipper’s New Adventure, was quickly put together and this time Kelly was cast as the boy’s father, a ranger who looked after the vicinity’s marine life. (Conners’ role had been that of a commercial fisherman, not a ranger.)

Produced by Ivan Tors, a Hungarian who made so many underwater films and TV shows it seems as if it would have been pointless to dry off in between them, a series was then produced called Flipper. Kelly starred again as the ranger, Porter Ricks (love the name!), who watched over the adventuresome dolphin and his sons Luke Halpin and Tommy Norden (added for the TV show.) Tors ran a studio in Miami that included a massive tank for underwater filming. He had produced the hit show Sea Hunt with Lloyd Bridges as well as many other projects, often renting the facility out in between uses.

Flipper made a lot of young viewers happy in the mid to late 60s. Boys loved the show because of its depiction of the helpful and happy dolphin who somehow figured into each week’s story. They also identified with the two young boys who got to do all sorts of things that most kids of that era (and this one!) could only dream about. Then there was Kelly as the virile, handsome, upstanding father who instilled strong values in his sons. While he was loving and allowed his sons to take part in any number of exciting situations, he wasn’t above threatening to spank them if they disobeyed. He was the solid, dependable, warm, guiding, but firm, father that would soon give way to more goofy or lax parental figures in the coming decades. Thanks to Kelly’s chiseled face, snug uniform (with occasional foray into swim trunks with bare chest) and his caring nature, more than a few gay boys flipped for the show as well!

Kelly found it hard after a while to retain interest in the program, what with its kiddie appeal and the focus going primarily to Flipper himself or to the two boys. Tors helped keep him on board and satisfied by allowing him to direct a couple of the show’s episodes. Kelly had married fledging actress Laura Devon before the series in 1962 and their marriage was coming apart during his tenure on the show. They divorced in 1966.

While still in the employ of Tors, Kelly was cast in a feature film called Around the World Under the Sea. The top-billed star of the movie was Sea Hunt’s Bridges, but Kelly was given second billing and the interesting cast was rounded out with The Man from U.N.C.L.E.’s David McCallum, Keenan Wynn, Gary Merrill and Shirley Eaton, immortal for her brief role in the James Bond film Goldfinger.

The story concerned a submarine that is investigating increased seismic activity that threatens to produce more frequent and violent earthquakes. The team sets out to plant sensors that will help detect this activity, though once they have encountered a giant sea creature and an active underwater volcano, they have their hands more than full!

There is a fair amount of squabbling between the five-person team (and, hilariously, Eaton’s character had already ended a relationship with McCallum, was in one with another associate and now has her sites set on Kelly!) Kelly and Eaton share a Rock & Doris moment, the two of them being shown back to back in bed, aching over each other while smoking cigarettes. Then there’s the moment when Eaton, in the face of global disaster, goes for an elaborate, bikini-clad, Esther Williams-ish swim, stirring up the libidos of some of the men in the sub!

It’s more than a little goofy and the science doesn’t hold up well at all, but it’s also entertaining and there’s plenty of beefcake on hand. Who wouldn’t want to be stuffed into a cramped submarine with a frequently shirtless Brian Kelly (and Lloyd Bridges in his near-prime)? This type of colorful, undemanding entertainment is common for the mid-60s, but would soon become practically obsolete in the face of ramped-up special effects and increased action and violence in the decades to come.

Flipper left the airwaves in 1967 and Kelly headed off to Italy, as many other TV leading men did at that time such as Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, to make a spaghetti western. Shoot, Gringo…Shoot! reunited him with his Around the World costar Keenan Wynn and its dusty, mountain-filled setting was about as far from Miami as he could get! Freed from the restraints of the clean-cut Porter Ricks, Kelly began to let his hair grow.

Kelly then filmed a TV movie first called The Protectors, which was released to theaters instead under the name Company of Killers. It is believed that the violence it contained was still a tad much for the television airwaves, hence the change. He was third-billed behind Van Johnson and Ray Milland. Two other TV movies followed; the spy drama Berlin Affair, with him third-billed again behind Darrin McGavin and Fritz Weaver, and Drive Hard, Drive Fast, a race car/romance with Joan Collins and Henry Silva.

Things were about to change, though. Kelly had read for the leading role in an upcoming feature film based on a Jacqueline Susann novel. Valley of the Dolls, the previous movie based on one of her books, had been a startling success (even though she hated it) and now The Love Machine was forthcoming. All about a calculating, ambitious TV executive who leaves a string of jilted lovers behind on his way to the top, the 1970 project was expected to be another huge hit.

Kelly won the role of Robin Stone (with Susann’s stamp of approval) and began filming the sordid story, working with a cast that included Robert Ryan, Dyan Cannon, David Hemmings and others. It was a role that would no doubt break the typecasting he had as an upstanding, morally correct authority figure seeing as how the character treats women like dirt, beats up a prostitute, dabbles in bisexuality and stomps out any competitor at the network. Columnist Dorothy Manners picked Brian as a future star, profiling him in an article. (Click to enlarge the nearby blurb.)

Unfortunately, just three weeks into filming, Kelly was involved in a devastating accident while riding his motorcycle. He was not at fault, but was sent careening from the bike and was in a coma for a while afterwards. Upon awakening, Kelly discovered that his right arm and right leg were paralyzed (permanently.) The Love Machine’s producer, Mike Frankovich, had no choice but to recast the role of Robin Stone and hurriedly brought in John Phillip Law, who was forced to wear Kelly’s costumes with limited, if any, alteration!

Frankovich promised that he would find another role for Kelly as soon as he was well again, but the injuries from the accident proved fatal to Kelly’s onscreen acting career. He never again went before the camera. Then there was a court case over the accident and Kelly received $750,000 in damages. He would later parlay part of this money into film producing, 1982’s Blade Runner, being the chief project he was involved with.

In 1972, he married for the second time. He and his wife Valerie had two children together (he named the son Devin, which was surprising since his first wife’s last name had been Devon, but they had had a reasonably amicable divorce.) He remained married to Valerie for the rest of his life and they enjoyed a close bond with their family until he died of pneumonia in 2005 at almost the age of 74.

When Kelly had been serving in Korea, he went pheasant hunting along a path that had reportedly been mined by the enemy. Upon returning, another soldier went down the same path and set off a land mine, which cost him both his legs. Kelly cheated disability that time, but unfortunately could not escape it just as he was on the threshold of a new chapter in his career. (Ironically, his famous father had had one of his legs shot off in WWI. Neither man ever let these hardships affect the way they went after what they wanted in life.)

Though Kelly fell almost completely out of the public eye after 1970, he did manage to create a rewarding life for himself. Also, thanks to the magic of video, fans can still appreciate the bit of screen work he left behind (not to mention appreciating that handsome face and physique!)

9 comments:

TJB said...

LOVE Brian Kelly. As always, your taste in men is impeccable, and your commentary so thorough! I'd never seen some of these photos before, either. Nice job!

Poseidon3 said...

I have to have taste in men in order to make up for my utter lack of it in other things like music, movies and TV! LOL Thanks for reading!

normadesmond said...

yes, brian was a doll who i drooled over. didn't know what had happened to him, very sad.

Topaz said...

You seem to have a direct line to my psyche. I have always loved Brian Kelly.

I remember an episode of Flipper in which some woman from Porter Rick's past came down to visit him in Florida and there was some talk of them getting back together again, but she wanted him to go back to the city with her and he, of course, decided against it. Even though I was under age 10 at the time, I thought, "Wow, if I were her, I'd stay down there with him!"

Then, when I was a little older, I read my mom's copy of "The Love machine" and was thrilled to read he'd been cast because I'd figured there would be lots of shirtless scenes. Imagine my disappointment when he had to drop out of the picture.

Poseidon3 said...

Topaz, you scare me a little when you compare our psyches because I always feel like I'm partially insane! lol (Can one be partially insane?) It's great to know that anyone gives the slightest hoot about the long ago things I muse about here! Thanks, as ever.

iain said...

Lovely to have been directed here from google re Kelly. he was the reason I blazed home from school (in England) to watch Flipper which was, unaccountably, programmed during kids' tv hours over in the UK. My early teenage sexual awakening coincided with the weekly broadcasts of Flipper, which meant my young sexuality was wrapped around images of Kelly, while I sort-of hero-worshipped Luke Halpin (who played Kelly's son). Lovely pics and posting, thank you.

Poseidon3 said...

Iain, welcome and thank you for your comments! I don't know where I was during all this because I never saw "Flipper" as a kid and to this day have ever only seen small bits of episodes. A retail store once had Season One on DVD for $10, but I passed it up and have never seen it around since (though I'm sure I could get it online.) There is a little bit more of beautiful Brian at this link, all about "The Love Machine" -- http://neptsdepths.blogspot.com/2014/01/love-is-many-splendored-thing.html Thanks!

fshepinc said...

If you like Brian Kelly, check out his namesake nephew, actor Brian Darcy James. His work has mostly been limited to the stage, but he has been on television and in several films.

jason said...

I watched every week. Always glad to see the father and his oldest son. In their wardrobe. Son for his cutoffs and father in his always chrisp uniform.