He was a staple of my childhood, but it wasn’t until I sat down to write this that I really learned much of anything about him. And I am . . . a little annoyed at myself, honestly, because Brian Keith seems to have been a pretty decent guy. The very first quote on his IMDb page is “In other words . . . you can’t be a misogynist and expect women to appreciate you.” Which is a heck of a decent attitude. I know I’ve just used the same adjective twice, but it seems to be the best one for him. He liked that Disney gave him the opportunity to play more than one sort of character. He was more interested in the kids he worked with than in fame and fortune. He worked as steadily as possible, even guest-starring on the first episode of Murder, She Wrote and voicing Uncle Ben on the ’90s Spider-Man cartoon. Just . . . decent.
Not that he had an easy life. His father had been character actor Robert Keith (probably best known as Lieutenant Brannigan in Guys and Dolls); his mother was stage actress Helena Shipman. His parents divorced when he was two; he seems to have been half-raised by a grandmother and half-brought up backstage. In 1927, his father married Peg Entwistle, who would have been nineteen at the time. They divorced two years later, and in 1932, after appearing in only one movie, she killed herself by jumping off the “H” in the Hollywood Sign. Brian Keith served as an air gunner during World War II. Depression seems to have run in the family; his daughter, Daisy, killed herself in 1997. Two months later, suffering from emphysema and lung cancer and apparently in financial difficulty, Brian Keith did the same.
In between, there, though, he made a ton of fine films. Not just the handful he did for Disney—I am not the only person who will always think of him as Mitch Evers first. But after Mitch, he was the police chief in The Russians Are Coming The Russians Are Coming. His character is scared in that movie; how not? He’s facing down the captain of a Russian submarine. Actually, he shows a wide range of emotions in the movie; it was Alan Arkin who got an Oscar nomination for the movie, but Keith’s performance is still worth noting.
He was cast a lot as a tough guy, before The Parent Trap. Apparently, he found it kind of frustrating. That was why he was so willing to work for Disney—the range. I haven’t seen much of his pre-Disney work—I don’t think “student at train station (uncredited)” in Knute Rockne, All American really counts. But even his first Disney movie, Ten Who Dared, is about the exploration of the Grand Canyon in 1869. Which is not the same as even the other Westerns he did, but it’s still your standard Man Against Nature piece.
Being Mitch Evers opened things up for him. I’m not sure he would have had the same opportunities had Disney not taken a chance on him and let him prove that he could be a loving father capable of wooing Maureen O’Hara, Society Matron. So even if you mostly know him from other things, I think there’s something to be said for remembering him for The Parent Trap. I honestly don’t know what he thought about that legacy, but I know he remained close to O’Hara for the rest of his life.
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