DeForest Kelley (1920-1999)

Georgia native DeForest Kelley was an actor best known for his role as Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy in the Star Trek television series and feature films.
Jackson DeForest Kelley was born on January 20, 1920, in Atlanta. He was the second son of Clora Casey and the Reverend Ernest David Kelley. His father's work as a Baptist minister kept the family moving throughout Georgia before they settled down in Conyers in 1930. As a young man, Kelley sang gospel songs for his father's congregation on Sunday mornings. His talents eventually earned him several performances on Atlanta radio station WSB. During this period, the Kelley family moved to Decatur, where his father took a job with the Works Progress Administration in 1934.
Following his graduation from Decatur Boys High School in 1937, Kelley traveled to Long Beach, California, to visit his uncle Herman Casey. He decided to stay on the West Coast, taking a series of odd jobs to support himself between theater- and radio-acting opportunities. Kelley was called into military service in March 1943, during World War II (1941-45), and worked as a public relations writer and control tower operator for the Air Corps in Roswell, New Mexico. During his service, he was involved in a long-distance relationship with Carolyn Dowling, an actress he had met in Long Beach a year earlier. In January 1945 Kelley was transferred to the First Motion Picture Unit in Culver City, California. The unit's purpose was to film military recruiting and training films. Kelley initially worked as a technical assistant, but he soon landed acting assignments alongside future U.S. president Ronald Reagan and friend George Reeves. Kelley and Dowling continued their relationship upon his return to California, and the two married on September 7, 1945.
A few months later, Kelley was released from duty, and Paramount Studios promptly offered him a seven-year contract. His first starring role was in the film Fear in the Night (1947), but a career as a leading man was not in the cards for the burgeoning actor. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, Kelley worked as a supporting player, often a villain, in a number of western films and television programs. His movie credits during this period include The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and Raintree County (1957), along with appearances on the television series Bonanza, Death Valley Days, The Fugitive, Gunsmoke, Lone Ranger, Perry Mason, and Rawhide.
In 1966 television producer Gene Roddenberry cast Kelley in the role of southern doctor Leonard "Bones" McCoy on his space-based adventure show Star Trek. Kelley's character was the emotional chief medical officer on the iconic U.S.S. Enterprise. The show brought Kelley the recognition he had sought since his early days as an actor, and his life and career were indelibly marked by his work on the landmark series. Despite the show's innovative premise and passionate fan base, NBC cancelled it after three seasons due to low ratings.
In the years that followed, Kelley suffered from typecasting and had difficulty landing quality roles. Star Trek found new life during this period, however, as the show gained popularity in reruns. In 1973 Kelley was given the opportunity to reprise the role of Dr. McCoy in Star Trek: The Animated Series, which ran for twenty-two episodes. He also found work with his fellow costars on the growing Star Trek convention circuit. The Star Trek series and Kelley's acting career were revived once more with the release of Star Trek: The Motion Picture in 1979. Between 1982 and 1991 Kelley starred in five Star Trek feature film sequels and guest starred as Dr. McCoy on the pilot episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
On December 18, 1991, Kelley received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his significant impact on the history of television and film. He and his wife retired to their home in Sherman Oaks, California, but Kelley continued to make appearances on the Star Trek convention circuit. He died of stomach cancer on June 11, 1999, at the age of seventy-nine.
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Further Reading
Terry Lee Rioux, From Sawdust to Stardust: The Biography of DeForest Kelley, Star Trek's Dr. McCoy (New York: Pocket Books, 2005).
Cite This Article
Summerlin, Donnie. "DeForest Kelley (1920-1999)." New Georgia Encyclopedia. 28 August 2013. Web. 20 September 2014.
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