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© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

One Pontabee brother (1919-2004) and at least two Jennings brothers (1940-2004)

Such are age demographics that, upon his death at the age of 85, most people alive will remember Howard Keel (if they remember him at all) for playing a character on the 1980s TV series Dallas, when he was in his 60s. Fans of musicals of the screen and stage will have a different memory of him.

For some reason, I always want to remember him for playing the singing cowboy Curly in Oklahoma!, and he did indeed play that role. But I never saw him play it. He played it on the stage in London in the 1940s. The 1950 movie version of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical starred Gordon MacRae in the role. But Keel was no stranger to musicals filmed for the big screen. He acted and sang in productions scored by the very best, including Irving Berlin (Annie Get Your Gun), Jerome Kern (Showboat), and Cole Porter (Kiss Me Kate).

His most famous movie performance, however, was in a Johnny Mercer-Gene DePaul musical, featuring a lot of fine dancing choreographed by Michael Kidd. That was Stanley Donen’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers in 1954. A tribute to the civilizing effect that women have on men, this musical was conceived and written directly for the big screen and was adapted from a Stephen Vincent Benêt story called “The Sobbin’ Women,” which in turn was adapted from (and made a pun of) The Rape of the Sabine Women by Plutarch. Anticipating such male-dominated TV westerns as Bonanza, it featured an all-male family (the titular Pontabee brothers) living in the wilds of mid-19th-century Oregon. Keel played Adam, the oldest brother, with his siblings played by actors mostly known more for their dancing than their film work. The youngest brother was played by Russ Tamblyn, who would appear seven years later in the film version of West Side Story and 36 years later in the TV series Twin Peaks. The brides included Jane Powell and a very young Julie Newmar. The movie was an inspiration for the Seattle-set TV series Here Come the Brides, which launched the career of David Soul (of Starsky and Hutch fame) and briefly made Bobby Sherman a teen idol phenomenon.

In addition to the musicals, Keel appeared in more than a few westerns (among them Across the Wide Missouri, Ride, Vaquero, Waco, Red Tomahawk and Arizona Bushwackers), so it may have been inevitable that he would wind up on 1980s TV’s update to mythical wild west morality tales, the seminal series Dallas. He came aboard in about the series’s fifth season. He was essentially a replacement for Jim Davis, who played the Ewing clan’s patriarch Jock but who died in 1981. Keel played Clayton Farlow, who wooed and wed Jock’s widow, Miss Ellie, who was played by Barbara Bel Geddes, except for one season, in which she was played by Donna Reed. Oddly enough, the season that Reed, who was nothing like Bel Geddes physically or temperamentally, played the role wasn’t even the one that got dismissed as being a mere dream. The white-haired, manly Keel made a fine foil for his conniving stepson J.R., played by Larry Hagman.

After Dallas went off the air, Keel continued to work on the big and small screens as well as on the stage. As good as he was on a primetime soap, nobody who has heard him sing with his distinctive baritone voice can doubt what was the best use of his considerable talents.

* * *

Larry Hagman, it turns out, is the unlikely link between both of the two pretty much unrelated subjects of my double tribute this week. That is because one of the few TV roles played by Don Briscoe, who died on Halloween at the age of 64, was a one-off appearance on Hagman’s second best known TV series, I Dream of Jeannie, back in 1967.

Now there is a very good chance that you have never heard of Don Briscoe. He made some sort of appearance years ago in The Guiding Light, as well as playing a regular character for a while in 1967 on another daytime soap, Days of Our Lives. Otherwise, he had a few other TV guest appearances, appeared in some commercials and did some stage work. He appeared in just one movie, and that was based on the only other TV series in which he was a regular, yet another daytime drama. And, if you have followed this web site at all for any amount of time, you have probably already guessed what that TV series must be.

Yes, it was Dark Shadows. And that means that, despite his paucity of film and TV work, there is a legion of people out there, united mainly by the internet, who know of Briscoe’s passing and are moved by it.

A Mississippi native, in 1968 Don Briscoe was boyishly/manly good-looking fellow, with a bit of a young Don Johnson aura about him. He showed up on episode #554 of Dark Shadows, playing a character named Tom Jennings, who was the handyman on the estate of the Collins family. He had the bad luck to stumble onto a coffin that contained the bewitching 18th-century sorceress Angelique who, for reasons too complex to go into here, was during this interim a vampire. Tom was attacked, killed and resurrected as a vampire himself. A few episodes later, Tom had a stake driven through his heart by Barnabas Collins who, for reasons too complex to go into here, was during this interim not a vampire.

This was the last we saw of Tom Jennings and, so we thought, of Don Briscoe. But it turned out that Tom had a twin brother Chris, also played by Briscoe, who soon arrived at Collinwood. But Chris Jennings had his own problems. After a lengthy time travel story arc, it emerged that Chris was secretly a descendant of Quentin Collins, who 71 years earlier had been afflicted with the curse of the werewolf by a vengeful gypsy woman. As Quentin’s eldest (presumably by a mere few minutes) male descendent, Chris was doomed to become a howling beast during every full moon. And, given the penchant of the makers of Dark Shadows to keep casting the same actors over and over, Briscoe had still more roles to play. When Barnabas traveled back to 1897 to sort out the werewolf problem (as well as a little Turn of the Screw-type haunting issue, involving young David Collins and Chris’s little sister Amy), Briscoe played a character named Timothy Shaw. Later on, Barnabas passed over to a parallel universe in contemporary time, where Briscoe had managed to become full-fledged member of the Collins clan, as Chris Collins. Dark Shadows also provided Briscoe with his one and only big-screen role. When DS impresario Dan Curtis brought his primary cast away from the daily series to make a feature motion picture (House of Dark Shadows), Briscoe was cast as Todd Jennings, the boyfriend of the Collins family’s young adult brat, Carolyn, who in the film version wound up being bit by Barnabas and becoming (that’s right) a vampire.

What actor could ask for more of a legacy than this? In the world of old gothic TV show fans, it is more than enough. I have seen references to health issues that apparently prevented Briscoe’s career from flourishing, and this is too bad. I have a feeling that he would also like to be remembered for performing in such stage plays as The Boys in the Band, Come Back Little Sheba and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

-S.L., 11 November 2004

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