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