“DeForest Kelley – Star Trek and Beyond”

“I’d wanted to become a doctor and couldn’t, yet became the best known doctor in the galaxy.” 

DeForest Kelley


Some of my earliest memories of childhood are of me watching the original “Star Trek” television series with my grandparents. The show had already been in re-runs for over two decade’s worth of time, but for me, every episode was new, and something I wanted to see.

The new summer blockbuster “Star Trek Into Darkness” directed by J.J. Abrams (Super 8) is the twelfth installment in the film franchise, and has been reviewed by a number of my fellow bloggers whose work I read and enjoy. Rather than write about the movie, I decided to go back and look into the life of one of the main characters in the original series, (1966-1969) Dr. McCoy, a role embodied by the late DeForest Kelly. The reason I chose him over Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy) or Captain Kirk, (William Shatner) the other two actors who comprised the three main characters of the original Trek, is because he was the one I had both seen and knew the least amount about outside of the Star Trek universe.

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Jackson DeForest Kelley was born to Ernest D. Kelley, a Baptist minister, and Clara Casey Kelley, on January 20,1920 in Toccoa, Georgia.  He was delivered by his uncle, a doctor, at his parents’ home. The first dream DeForest ever had as a youth was to become a physician, but due to the depression era of 1930’s America, his parents simply couldn’t afford to send him to medical school.

Leaving his medical ambitions behind him, his next burning passion was to do something in the world of entertainment. He started that endeavor by singing on local radio shows in Atlanta, Georgia, before moving to California at seventeen years of age Once there, he found work as an elevator operator and usher, as well as performing in theater groups and on the radio. Kelley thought he got his big break when he was told he would be cast in the 1942 film-noir “This Gun for Hire,” a movie in which he would have starred opposite Veronica Lake (Sullivan’s Travels). The part instead went to Alan Ladd (Shane). During the same year, as a member of the Long Beach Theater Group, Kelley appeared in a stage production of “The Innocent Young Man” with a woman named Carolyn Dowling. After three years of dating, the two were wed on September 7, 1945, and were married for almost fifty-four years.

During the years 1943 through 1946, Kelley was a member of the United States Army Air Corps. First stationed in New Mexico, he was transferred to Culver City, California, which led to him receiving his first big break in entertainment. While making a World War II training film for the Navy in 1945, titled “Time to Kill,” a talent scout for Paramount Studios saw him in the short movie, and Kelley was offered a three year contract with the studio. His first film role was that of Vince Grayson in the 1947 crime drama “Fear in the Night, based on a story by mystery writer Cornell Woolrich (Rear Window). Kelley portrays a man, who dreams he has committed murder, only to discover upon waking that perhaps it wasn’t a dream after all. Afterward, he would go on to appear in twenty-seven films and seventy-six different television series; several notable ones among them were: “Bonanza,” “The Fugitive,” “Have Gun – Will Travel,” “The Lone Ranger,” and “Perry Mason.”

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In 1966, he auditioned and was cast in the most famous role of his career, that of Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, in Star Trek. Little did Kelley know that the premier series was to become the catalyst which would launch an entertainment juggernaut that is still thriving today. The character of McCoy was a compassionate individual, who possessed a strong ethical and moral compass, and who was genuinely concerned with the well being of others. During the initial series stint, Kelley made history when the “Journal of the American Medical Association” profiled him. He was the first actor they had ever done that for. Sadly, for DeForest and the other actors that comprised the crew on the maiden voyage of the Starship Enterprise, as well as for the die hard fans who petitioned the network not to take their beloved show off the air, after three years and seventy-nine episodes, the original Trek came to an end. “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” which premiered on September 26, 1987, would go on to have 176 episodes; more than double the amount of its predecessor.

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DeForest would revive his role of Dr. McCoy, first in 1973, doing voice-over work for the animated Star Trek series, which lasted twenty-two episodes. Next, McCoy, along with the original crew, appeared in “Star Trek: The Motion Picture,” which was released on December 7, 1979, and was the first of six feature Star Trek films that his character of McCoy would be in. In addition to lending his voice to the Star Trek video games “Star Trek: 25th Anniversary Enhanced,” (1992) and “Star Trek: Judgment Rites,” Kelly appeared briefly as Admiral McCoy in “Encounter at Farpoint,” which was the premier episode of “Star Trek: The Next Generation.”      

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In February of 1999, due to a battle with stomach cancer that entered the terminal stage, Kelley entered the “Motion Picture Country Home” in Woodland Hills, California, where he would live until his death on June 11th.  His body was cremated on June 15th and his ashes were scattered in the Pacific Ocean. He was the first of the main cast members from the original series to pass away, and the only one who never wrote an autobiography. Shortly prior to his death, Kelley received the “Golden Cowboy Boot” award, which honored the work he had done in the many westerns he had appeared in over the course of his career. One of the things he was most proud of in his later years was, when he learned from talking with and receiving letters from fans, that his character of Dr. McCoy had inspired many people to attend medical school. He was a lover of poetry, and wrote his own poems that he would share with the fans at the conventions. DeForest Kelley received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame; he was certainly a star among his colleagues, none of whom have ever had an unkind word to say about him. From humble beginnings, DeForest Kelley, denied from being able to achieve his first dream, certainly faired exceptionally well at his second and reached iconic status among millions of Star Trek fans around the globe.

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About robbinsrealm

I was born in Smithtown, New York, and grew up, worked, and lived in various areas of Long Island before moving to Boca Raton, Florida where I now make my home. In addition to being an aspiring writer, I am also an English teacher. I have a Bachelor of Arts in English and a Master’s Degree in Education, both from Adelphi University in Garden City, New York. In my spare time you will find me engrossed in books, watching movies, socializing with friends, or just staying active.
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28 Responses to “DeForest Kelley – Star Trek and Beyond”

  1. lauren says:

    It’s amazing he grew up wanting to be a doctor-I never knew that about him. McCoy is a great character.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      There were a great many things about him, minus the majority of the Star Trek related information that I didn’t know until I looked into his life for the purpose of writing the blog. Yes, he is a great character. Thank you for very much reading and commenting.

  2. What a great article 🙂

    Always a treat when I spot him in a western. Recently saw him in Warlock and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

  3. Sir Phobos says:

    I just can’t see him as a Jackson.

    Loads of good stuff here. I hate to say it, but I’m glad he didn’t get to go to medical school. But I think it evens out, since you pointed out that a lot of people did attend because of him.

    Random observation: I couldn’t understand why he turned into a good ol’ boy in Encounter at Far Point. Sure enough, though, there are times in TOS where he brings out the same accent. I still think it’s bizarre.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting and for the ‘follow.’ I greatly appreciate that. I thought it was wonderful that he learned through conversations with, and letters from, fans that he inspired a number of them, with his portrayal of Dr. McCoy, to want to attend medical school.

  4. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    This is enormously interesting. I’m not even a Star Trek fan but I loved this. Just to know someone’s beginning, you know, and how it happened, panned out.

    I mean, I work in an office in great unfulfilment and would so would love to do what I enjoy… and then reading this.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you very much for reading and commenting. I am glad that you found the blog interesting; I enjoyed writing it and learning more about him. To be able to do what one loves to do as a profession is certainly a dynamite way to earn a living.

  5. Neat post! Lots of stuff I never knew about ‘Bones’…I’m a fan of film noir, and I’ve seen ‘Fear in the Night’, but I never knew about his opportunity to work on ‘This Gun for Hire’!

  6. sstamm625 says:

    So, cool that he wanted to be a doctor!

    • robbinsrealm says:

      I agree it is very cool that he wanted to be a doctor. He might not have gone to medical school, but he gave the world an iconic character, and through his portrayal, I think it is wonderful that he inspired others to want to practice medicine.

  7. Troy Yeary says:

    Robbin, this is a great piece on one of Star Trek’s true class acts. Nice work.

    • robbinsrealm says:

      Thank you for reading and commenting. I greatly appreciate it. Yes, from everything I read about him, it seems like he was a wonderful person. I always enjoyed his character on the television series and in the movies.

  8. neeru says:

    He was the one who added that definitive spark to Star Trek. You can talk all about Kirk and Spock but without Bones the dynamic just doesn’t work. Kirk and Spock might be discussing something and McCoy enters and suddenly the conflict becomes razor-sharp.

    Thank you for blogging about my favourite character in Television history who is so often overlooked.

  9. greercn says:

    What a lovely and positive post! I enjoyed reading this. Thank you.

  10. terrepruitt says:

    I love Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy! When I was young we watched Star Trek. I didn’t know until I was older that I was watching re-runs! My husband is a big Star Trek fan.

  11. Reblogged this on blackwings666 and commented:
    Here is a good tribute to DeForest Kelley that I found and decided to REBLOG as a tribute on what would have been his birthday.

  12. Annie Torre says:

    Terrific article with great photos. Can’t say enough good things about Deforest

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