"I first met Howard Keel back in Ninety Nine, through his youngest daughter, Leslie, who worked for me at the time as an associate producer for my directorial debut, 'My Father's House,' which I had been trying to get off the ground for three years at that point. She was also my art director and storyboard artist. Anyway, I had been desperately trying to cast the role of 'Roy Mardis' for quite awhile with no luck whatsoever; and Leslie, who I didn't even know was related to Howard at the time, believe it or not, humbly suggested him near the tail end of a meeting one afternoon. But I calmly played it off at first, trying to be cool, saying something like, 'Yeah...? Well... Sure, I've thought about him before, but...' Etcetera. Inside, though, I was thrilled. One of my sisters had been in love with Howard practically all of her life. I mean, she couldn't get enough of him and all those old musicals he was in. Stuff like, 'Seven Brides For Seven Brothers,' and... I don't know... Wasn't he in 'North To Alaska,' too? Oh, no, that's right. That was John Wayne. 'Kiss Me Kate.' Yeah, that's right. Howard was in that one, I think. Anyway, when I was a kid, she made me sit and watch every single one of them, everything he was in, and every other damn singalong she had in her collection. And man oh man I hate musicals. Still do. But, of course, I knew who he was and how valuable he could be to the story I was trying to tell. Man oh man, this really takes me back a long ways, even though it was only about five years ago. Okay, now, let's see... Hanne was with me, of course, along with Kipling Rowe, who is an old friend and was another one of my other associate producers at the time. And Leslie and her mom - Howard's wife, Judy. And the big guy himself. We met at his house first, I think, and then we all went and had lunch somewhere out there in Palm Desert. And before I even had a chance to order a fucking glass of water, he just turned to me and said, with that great voice of his, 'Well, do I get the job or not?' And I just cracked up and said, Yeah. Yeah... Okay. Let's do it.' And that's what I remember and respect the most about who he was - he was a tough old bird who said and did exactly what he wanted to when he wanted to, honestly and directly, regardless of where he was, who he was with, or what time it was. He listened to the ticking of his own clock, as they say. And I really like people like that. Ya know, just give it to me straight, even if I won't like it. And what could i say back to him, anyway? And he was right to just cut to the chase without any birdseed first. He was 'Roy Mardis,' the way I originally envisioned the role, anyway. And I remember thinking to myself all the way home that day, 'I've got Howard Keel. I've got Howard Keel. Howard Keel is 'Roy Mardis...'
The last time we ever spoke was right after his last day of shooting on that film, back in June two thousand. It had been a really rough shoot already, and we were only about halfway through it. And I went up to him to just thank him for his efforts, shake his hand, and say goodbye. But then I ended up saying something like, 'Hey, Howard, even though I know I don't really know what I'm doing here and all, directing-wise, I really do hope you had a good time, and that it was worth you getting involved, and that I was there for you in some small way.' And he just looked me square in the eyes and said, 'Yeah, well... Thanks for saying that, kid. You'll be fine, probably. But let me give you some advice... You tend to over-direct. And that's not good. Uh uh. Not good at all.' And I wanted to just punch him right in his big, old mug, right then and there, because I didn't agree with him at all, not at all, not in the least. But now... I do. I really, really do. I could've done a helluva lot better job directing him and everybody else in that picture, even though I'm still really really proud of it, and always will be. As well as the fact I didn't just suddenly collapse and die while I was shooting the damn thing. But that's a another story, and one I've already told too often. But, yeah, I guess I did let him down that way. And the rest of that gang, too. And I'm sorry for that. Really am. But he sure as hell wasn't a Sunday picnic to direct, either, I'll tell ya that. And neither were they. For example, one day I tried to basically cut him pretty much out of a scene that I just didn't think was working - twenty-odd takes later. It was a bummer, but he just didn't have the goods that day. And when he got wind of it, he just screamed at me at the top of his lungs, 'Hey! I'm not a damn quitter! And I'm not quitting this damn scene! Uh uh! Now, come on! Put down that fucking script of yours, and your little fucking red pen, and let's do this sucker!' Something like that. Well, maybe he didn't cuss. I really don't remember. But man oh man, he was mad as hell. Then he calmed down a little and kinda whispered something like, 'You said you wanted to do this thing, right? Well, then let's do it. Come on.' And we eventually did. We got it. We got the scene. Well, pretty much so, anyway. Even though it didn't make the final cut. And he was as tall as building, and still in fucking amazing shape. And he was eighty one fucking years old. Incredible. He was like one of the ancient redwood tress or whatever you call them. I mean, what was I supposed to say back to him? Except, 'Yes, sir. You're right. Sorry about that. But I'm trying. I really am.' - which is pretty much what I did say. I mean, he would kicked my little ass right there and then. And I sure as hell didn't have all the stripes that he had on his sleeves. And I still don't. And that's why I'm not saying anything else about the man even though I have just found out that he's gone from this world. Except - Thank you, Mr. Keel. I'll never forget the experience of meeting and working with you.
My heart really does goes out to Leslie and Judy, who I haven't seen or spoke to in a long, long time, as well as the rest of his family. I mean, how do you ever replace a big guy like that? Just like Johnny Cash and Richard Farnsworth and Ray Charles and Charles Bronson. You can't. You just can't. God just doesn't bless us with enough of that kinda stock."
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