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 a short while 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!)


Post a Comment