Thursday, August 3, 2017

Keir Today!

Today's featured actor figures heavily in one of the cinema's most enduring sci-fi movies, yet fell short of significant stardom. Still, he has established a career on TV, in films and on stage that is close to sixty years long. Keir Dullea isn't exactly a household name, but has worked with quite a few folks who are (or were.) Glibly written off upon first meeting by famed playwright Noel Coward who uttered the famous phrase, "Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow!," he's actually still active today, 52 years after the remark was made.

Dullea was born on May 30th, 1936 in Cleveland, Ohio, though he was actually raised in New York City. His parents owned and operated a bookstore, lending an intellectual quality to their son which would come through in many of the projects he later took on as an actor. (His mother read Shakespeare to him as "bedtime stories!") Initially attending two universities (Rutgers and San Francisco State), he ultimately sought (and found) work on stage and was employed therein by age twenty.

After a number of theatre credits, Dullea made his TV debut in 1960 with two roles. One was playing the son of tyrannical Everett Sloane in the pilot episode of the popular TV series Route 66. The other was in a television production of Mrs. Miniver, which starred Maureen O'Hara. Dullea appeared, with his Aryan looks used to their best advantage, as the German pilot who crash lands in O'Hara's yard and must be dealt with by the British housewife.

Things picked up swiftly in 1961 when he took part in the Biblical TV-movie Give Us Barabbas! with James Daly and Kim Hunter, appeared in several other television guest parts and then won a key role in his first big-screen movie, The Hoodlum Priest, starring Don Murray. In it, he plays a young tough in a low-income neighborhood who is sentenced to die in the gas chamber while Murray, as the title character, tries to intervene on his behalf. Dullea was noted for his gut-wrenching portrayal of a man being executed, still a new experience to witness so graphically on-screen in 1961.

During the filming of Priest in 1960, Dullea married for the first time to Broadway actress Margo Bennett. The two maintained a (often long-distance, thanks to her work in NYC and his in Los Angeles) marriage until 1968 when they divorced. (She then began a relationship with and later wed Malcolm McDowell until he left her for Mary Steenburgen.)

1962 was a splashy year for Dullea as he starred (alongside newcomer Janet Margolin) in David and Lisa, a psycho- logical drama in which he, as a young man petrified of being touched, is sent to a sanitarium. There he meets Margolin, a detached young girl who only speaks in rhymes. They form a tentative bond, each of them slowly breaking through to the other.
The movie was rather ground- breaking in its approach to mental health and generated a fair amount of interest and publicity. It was becoming clear that Dullea was capable of generating intense emotion on screen and providing a wide array of characterizations. For his work on David and Lisa, he won awards including a Golden Globe as Most Promising Newcomer-Male. (A similar award from BAFTA yielded a nomination, but James Fox won it for The Servant.)
Odd, considering the impact his first leading role made, he worked exclusively (albeit busily) in television for the next year. This was the age of the anthology show and he popped up in several of them along with guest roles on Bonanza, Naked City and Going My Way. In 1964, he wound up in the highly-obscure Italian film Le ore nude, aka-"The Naked Hours," opposite Rosanna Podesta. In his career, Dullea often found himself doing scenes either bathing, showering or languidly lying in bed with a costar.

That same year brought more traditional cinematic fare as well such as Mail Order Bride, all about aged westerner Buddy Ebsen keeping a promise to his deceased friend in taming the pal's wild son (Dullea.) The answer Ebsen comes up with is to mate him to the title character, played by Lois Nettleton. The old-fashioned, outdoorsy frolic (renamed in some cases "West of Montana") didn't appear to help or hurt Dullea's career.
A more significant part came with the leading role in The Thin Red Line, opposite Jack Warden. The well-regarded James Jones war novel had its characters condensed to focus more on the relationship between these two men instead of a more ensemble feel to the story (as the 1998 remake leaned more toward.)
In 1965, Dullea worked for director Otto Preminger on the moody mystery Bunny Lake is Missing. Starring Laurence Olivier as a police inspector, the story dealt with young mother Carol Lynley fretting over her daughter (the Bunny Lake of the title), who may or may not even exist!
Lynley's brother is played by Dullea and their relationship appears to have hints of incest- uousness to it. (It's nearly a half hour before we discover that Lynley and Dullea aren't husband and wife! Even Olivier seems to think so at first.) The movie features memorable Saul Bass titles in which pieces of black paper are torn away to reveal the credits.
This was the instance in which Noel Coward (who portrays a lascivious landlord) uttered, "Keir Dullea, gone tomorrow" to our featured actor, apparently not feeling it - or perhaps just playing with his head. Coward is but one of a few interesting supporting players in the piece including Martita Hunt, Finlay Currie, Clive Revill, Adrienne Corri and Anna Massey.
Next for Dullea was the role in which I was first introduced to him. As a kid of about ten or so, I came into the living room and saw my mother curled up on the couch watching a "woman's picture" on TV. She was utterly captivated and before long I, too, was drawn into the circuitous story line. The movie was 1966's Madame X, starring Lana Turner as a put-upon heroine who undergoes a roller coaster experience after marrying wealthy John Forsythe, tangling with his mother Contance Bennett and canoodling with Ricardo Montalban.
Turner is sent packing and winds up a degenerate drunk, eventually running afoul of grizzled, boozy old con man Burgess Meredith and eventually stands trial for murder, with the idealistic (and very pretty in color) Dullea assigned as her defense attorney. So tender was he with the degraded Turner and so passionately did he deliver his defense that by the time it was all over, my mother was in tears and I was right there with her (but also strangely drawn to the angelically lit eyes and face of the young actor.) Time was, this movie was a litmus test I used on people I was getting to know. If they didn't have a lump in their throat by the end of the film, I knew we would never be more than acquaintances rather than close friends!
Ever attempting to diversify his roles, Dullea next worked for director Mark Rydell in an adaptation of a D.H. Lawrence novel, The Fox. The story concerns two female friends (Sandy Dennis and Anne Heywood) running a Canadian chicken farm which is being beset by a fox. Then one day the son (Dullea) of the farm's former owner show up, offering to help them run the place. He becomes something of a figurative fox in their hen house as well. Get it?

A lesbian element figuring into the story was still daunting in 1967. While the movie was daring, it's also looked upon now by many viewers as degrading and insulting, something that can happen when eyes look back on fifty year-old product and expect the same sensibilities of the present day to be found there. Later in 1967, Dullea was chosen by Ira Levin to make his Broadway debut in the short-lived play "Dr. Cook's Garden" opposite Burl Ives.

Based upon his work in The Fox, and with no reading, audition or any further sort of demonstration of talent, Stanley Kubrick selected Dullea for his upcoming sci-fi epic, a movie that would endure as a classic of its genre and which would come the closest to making Keir Dullea a household name. The movie was 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The meticulous, obsessive Kubrick put gargantuan amounts of time and energy into building the elusive, cerebral, yet compelling and at times psychedelic 1968 film, which is considered by many to be a masterpiece. Dullea (and his fellow astronaut Gary Lockwood) were the "everymen" shown performing routine tasks on board a spacecraft until one day when the computer on board decides it has some ideas of its own.
Initially determined to be confusing and dull (88 minutes of its running time contain no dialogue at all), the movie was almost ready to be yanked from theaters when business picked up thanks to sci-fi buffs and a fair amount of students who enjoyed taking hallucinogenic drugs during a particular visually-elaborate sequence. Eventually, the picture found it audience as well as a place in cinema history (just prior to man's landing on the moon.) Dullea wed in 1969 to Susan Lessons, but the union was over within a year.

Dullea's next project was 1969's confusingly constructed De Sade, a supposed biopic of the legendarily sexually sadistic Marquis de Sade, though there isn't much fact to be found here. Behind the scenes disagreements led to the narrative being left unclear as Dullea drifts from instance to instance with a startling lack of any engrossing activity.
Instead of any real sexual heat, there is a lot of loud laughter, some scantily-clad ladies cavorting and an extended scene of destruction that quickly becomes both dull and annoying. One bright spot is the luscious Senta Berger as his primary love (as well as elegant Lilli Palmer as his commanding mother-in-law), but generally this film has to count as a miss and obviously contributed to his decline as a motion picture star (right at a time when he ought to be rising.)


Still, he was beautifully photo- graphed (often wearing sky blue to accent those eyes) and it was an opulent production with some staggering settings and eye-catching costumes. And one can never go wrong watching Senta Berger do anything! She is radiantly beautiful throughout.
All was not lost, however, as he did return to Broadway late in 1969, this time in a successful play, "Butterflies Are Free," as a young blind man trying to live life on his own. He worked with Blythe Danner as a kooky, free-spirited neighbor and Eileen Heckart as his controlling mother. Dullea was thirty-three, but his boyish looks allowed him to portray characters younger than he (for a while.)

He and Danner spent a significant stretch of the show in their under- clothes, part of the permiss- iveness (though mild when compared to "Oh, Calcutta!" and "Hair") that was then seeping into both the stage and onto the big-screen. By the time this show was turned into a movie in 1972, Edward Albert and Goldie Hawn had inherited the roles, though Heckart kept hers (and won an Oscar for her trouble.)

He appeared in a few TV-movies during this time such as Black Water Gold (1970, with, as shown here, Ricardo Montalban and Aron Kincaid), Montserrat (1971, a filmed play in which he played the title role) and the British-made A Kiss is Just a Kiss (1971) with David Hedison.
It was in fact 1972 before he made another movie himself, the Franco-Italian mystery thriller Devil in the Brain, which had him involved in a murder in which a young boy is suspected of killing his father, but cannot recall the details, thanks to shock. That same year he made an uncredited appearance in Liv Ullman's Pope Joan. Also, in 1972, he wed Suzanne Fuller, an actress he met while working in the London production of "Butterflies Are Free."

1973 brought the Canadian- made Paperback Hero, with Elizabeth Ashley. He played a cocky hockey star who likes to strut around town in a cowboy hat making plays for various women, asserting himself and generally getting into trouble. (His teammate shown here is John Beck.)
He and Ashley share an extended, fully nude shower scene wherein they contort themselves to keep from displaying their full montys, yet manage to reveal copious amounts of skin nonetheless. Ashley was in tip-top physical condition at this point and those who saw her in it found themselves more than pleased. She and Dullea share some particularly intimate moments with her soaping him up and massaging his inner thigh.

A mustached Dullea then took part in a Canadian sci-fi series called The Starlost. (The title no doubt inspired somewhat by the name "Starchild" from Dullea's 2001 film.) It concerned a futuristic space ark with hundreds of domes containing samples of Earth life (the planet having been destroyed years before), which is on a collision course with an uncharted solar star and must be righted. Among the guest stars was Star Trek's Walter Koenig, though the low-budget show (much of which was eaten up in securing Dullea as the lead) only lasted 16 episodes.

In 1974, Dullea had a featured role in Paul and Michelle, which was a sequel to the 1971 sleeper hit Friends (in which he did not appear.) A more enduring work was the low-budget thriller Black Christmas, in which he starred with Olivia Hussey, John Saxon and Margot Kidder as an intensely driven pianist. The chiller, about sorority house murders, was fondly remembered by genre fans and was later remade in 2006 (to no great effect, as is often the case.)
This was also the year he returned to Broadway, this time in an updated production of "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," which featured a revised script by the author Tennessee Williams. Dullea played the sexually-tormented alcoholic whose wife (Elizabeth Ashley) has slept with his best friend, resulting in tragedy.

Meanwhile, his father "Big Daddy" (Fred Gwynne) is unknowingly dying of cancer, to the distress of his mother (Kate Reid.) The well-regarded production found Dullea's Paperback Hero costar Ashley receiving most of the attention and acclaim, though Dullea (who'd worked earlier with Cat's original Big Daddy Burl Ives) would later revisit this piece.
He returned to Broadway (albeit briefly) in 1975 with "P.S. Your Cat Is Dead!" opposite Tony Musante as a married robbery victim who begins to have feelings for the gay thief who's trying to rip him off! (From the looks of this ineffectual Playbill cover it may as well have been called "Pardon Me, But Your Turtleneck is Showing!") Tragedy struck in 1976 when Dullea was set to costar with Sal Mineo in a Los Angeles production of this play (which Mineo had successfully mounted just prior in San Francisco), but Mineo was murdered in a robbery one night after rehearsal.

During this sojourn on the stage, Dullea's on-screen credits were limited to a guest appearance on Switch (seen here with fellow guest Julie Sommars) as a blackmailing actor and the TV-movie Law and Order, about a family of police officers.

1977 brought two more Canadian- made features for him. There was the sci-fi/western hybrid Welcome to Blood City, costarring Jack Palance and Samantha Eggar, in which he plays a man who finds himself awakening in a kill-or-be-killed old west town in which violence reigns supreme (and is overseen by scientists), clearly inspired by Westworld.

Also, he costarred with Mia Farrow in The Haunting of Julia, playing her wealthy husband who thinks she may need to be locked up when she begins seeing visions of a little girl in the wake of the death of their young daughter. (The two scarcely shared any screen time together for whatever reason.) A third 1977 film, Three Dangerous Ladies, was actually cobbled together from three British TV episodes, his being "The Mannikin" opposite Ronee Blakley.

Dullea had by now worked almost exclusively in Canadian and U.K. projects for years rather than in Hollywood and 1978 would prove no differently. Leopard in the Snow (a "Harlequin Romance" production!) had him playing a reclusive former race car driver who is discovered by Susan Penhaligon. Also in the film were Kenneth More, Billie Whitelaw, Jeremy Kemp and Gordon Thomson. Next he costarred with Karen Black in Because He's My Friend, an Australian TV-movie about a naval sergeant with a developmentally disabled son who moves there with his wife for submarine training.
Back in the U.S., he popped up (as General Custer!) in the 1979 telefilm The Legend of the Golden Gun. Then 1980 brought two more TV-movies, Brave New World, an adaptation of Aldous Huxley's sci-fi novel, and The Hostage Tower, this one casting him as a criminal mastermind who holds the Eiffel Tower for a $30 million ransom.
A colorful cast included Peter Fonda, Billy Dee Williams, Maud Adams, Britt Eckland and others. The campy, uninten- tionally funny heist flick had him cavorting with Eckland in a steamy bathtub and wearing ridiculous sunglasses, though he soon underwent a makeover and was back to the more handsome look we're used to, seen below.
I definitely recall the 1981 TV film No Place to Hide, which placed him in support of Kathleen Beller and Mariette Hartley in a story which had someone terrorizing young heiress Beller. In any case, he made an impression on Hartley who shared love scenes with him and got so worked up that she went home each night and took it out on her husband!
More sci-fi based movies followed, most of them lesser-known, such as 1982's Brain- waves (shown above), wherein his injured and comatose wife was given a transplant that allowed her to see snippets from the donor being murdered, and Blind Date (1984), in which he played a doctor (with fluffy blond hair) who uses an electronic device to allow a blind man (Joseph Bottoms - but for who? LOL) to "see" again in a fashion. (He also can "see" what a serial killer is up to, in a bit of a rip-off from Eyes of Laura Mars. The killer ends the movie in a Speedo, by the way. Gotta love the '80s.) In 1983, he and third wife Suzanne Fuller founded the Theater Artists Workshop in Westport, CT.
1984 also brought The Next One, in which he played a time traveler who washes up on the shore of a Greek island to find single mother Adrienne Barbeau. He was also put to use in the belated sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, 2010, which featured Roy Scheider, John Lithgow and Helen Mirren.

Once again, Dullea headed to Broadway for a final time. He took over John Cullum's role in the play "Doubles," which took place in the locker room of a racquet club. Cliff Gorman and Robert Reed were among the cast in this moderately successful comedy.

Following this, Dullea still acted on screen from time to time, but was mostly busy somewhere on the stage. There was the Canadian Oh, What a Night in support of Corey Haim (!) in 1992, a role in The Audrey Hepburn Story (2000) as the actress's father (Audrey played here by Jennifer Love Hewitt) and guest roles on shows like Witchblade, Ed and Law & Order.
He has continued to work in various movies and on popular shows such as Castle and Damages. In The Good Shepherd (2006), he played a senator and the father of star Angelina Jolie. He has movies in pre-production as I type including Valley of the Gods with John Hartnett and John Malcovich. He is eighty-one at present.

Stage-wise, things came full circle for Dullea in 2013 when he portrayed Big Daddy in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" at the Province- town Tennessee Williams Theater Festival, nearly forty years after having played Brick. In this production, Big Mama was played by Dullea's wife since 1999, Mia Dillon. (His previous wife had died in 1998 at only age fifty-eight.)

We always enjoy seeing the soft-spoken (and well-spoken) Dullea in many movies and on lots of television, though he is most fondly remembered in The Underworld for his idealistic young defense attorney in Madame X.

4 comments:

Gingerguy said...

Whenever I dive into the underworld I am always ready for surprises. I had no idea Keir was American. The name made me think Irish, but I wondered also if he was German. Handsome and haunted looking. "Bunny Lake" is strange for so many reasons. He and Carol Lynley are both so low key that the movie is very low energy for a thriller.
His hairy legs in "De Sade" kind of don't match the rest of him.
"Black Christmas" scared the pants off me back in the day, I don't remember him in it, more that horror had gotten very sadistic and explicit.
Lol on turtlenecks. That sounds like an odd play and sad that Sal Mineo was killed. Why did I always hear he was killed by a hustler? I also LOVED "Madame X" and anything about it, his film career may have taken some odd turns but that alone makes him special. I totally remember Ronee Blakley from "Nashville"! great research here Poseidon.

Michael O'Sullivan said...

Great piece on Keir. A fascinating odd career with at least one classic that is always on show:2001, one of my top 10 movies. We liked BUNNY LAKE too and DE SADE is a hoot now.
He would have been a terrific Brick in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF on stage, and I would have liked to have seen PS YOUR CAT IS DEAD.

We saw him on stage in London in 1976 in a revival of BUS STOP with Lee Remick as Cherie, and he was ideal as that very annoying cowboy.

Rick Gould said...

Hey Poseidon, your post on Keir is most informative!
When I wrote my post on 'Bunny Lake Is Missing,' I was surprised that Dullea had been married (more than once, right?)

I just assumed he was gay because a) Dullea had played so many "gay friendly" parts and b) because all my Mom's heart throbs from back in the day turned out to be gay!

I'd love to see 'The Fox' and yes, I too, get sick of PC revisionism when looking back at movies, books, etc. from decades ago!

Just watched 'Madame X' recently and of course, checked on your review : ) I actually prefer Lana after she hits the skids, as opposed to her trying to convince as a shopgirl newlywed at nearly 45. Lana and Keir's scenes are most touching.

Every time I see a picture of Keir Dullea's face from his heyday, I think "angelic!"

I must say 'Bunny Lake is Missing' is yet another of those movies that bombed on release, but now has a cult of current day film buffs who insist it's a misunderstood masterpiece. You know, like 'Marnie' or 'Kiss Me, Stupid.' I swear, enough time will go by when Ed Wood will be considered on par with Steven Spielberg!

I found the Saul Bass titles and the lovely score the most memorable aspects of 'Bunny.' Cheers, Rick
Here's my blog post on it here:
http://ricksrealreel.blogspot.com/2017/05/is-bunny-lake-is-missing-actual-child.html

Poseidon3 said...

Gingerguy, as he did so much Canadian product, I always felt like he must be one himself! He definitely gave off a vibe that wasn't wholly U.S. of A., in any case. As for "Bunny," I wanted (and waited) to see it for so long before I finally did that I was captivated despite its slow pace. But also somewhat disappointed. Then the second time I saw it, I enjoyed it more for some reason. (Except I don't get the "appearance" of the rock group The Zombies at all...) Interesting note about his hairy legs. I wonder if they shaved his chest because I think it was rather hairy at other points in his career, though never significantly so. I think because of Sal's lifestyle and his association with "Fortune and Men's Eyes" there were rumors that he was killed by a hustler, but in actuality the robber-killer had no clue at all who he was. He was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sad. I'm glad (and relieved) that you love "Madame X!"

Wow, Michael, he'd have been getting pretty old by 1976 to play that cowboy part! His baby-faced looks seemed to help him play younger than he was for a period. I know that when he auditioned for "David and Lisa," he was already 26, but had JUST gotten a haircut that made him look younger. First impressions count for casting directors!

Hi, Rick! Yes, Keir was married four times. Two divorces, one time widower and then the present wife. He's scarcely ever been single, in fact (and, yes, I was surprised, too!) When I was working on this post and reviewing Keir's scenes with Lana, I am ashamed to say that even then, without the build-up, I was crying all over again! I think it must be a childhood sense memory thing. But the worst is that this was a mere hour before our lobby display head shots were to be taken for the show I'm about to do (a week from today!) I had to pull it together and pray I didn't have bleary, puffy eyes. LOL I had read your take on earlier, but enjoyed it again now. We both can't seem to grasp the Zombies thing! Ha! I love - and fully agree with - your idea that Noel ought to have been gunning for Keir, not Carol! Their two faces together in that one photo really make them appear related (more so than in the actual movie.) Thanks!!