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The 1950s brought rapid change to television, mostly because Hollywood's movie studios, once in fear of the new medium, decided that if you couldn't beat the TV networks, it might be a good idea to join them.

Warner Brothers took the lead and began filming television shows almost faster than they could be shown. Most of the shows were Westerns and they found a place on the ABC prime time schedule. The studio was practically dragging handsome young men off the streets to star in this programs, which included "Cheyenne," "Sugarfoot," "Bronco" and the best of the bunch, "Maverick."

James Garner, who had been in a few Warner Brothers movies, as well as four episodes of "Cheyenne," was on his own as Bret Maverick in 1957 when "Maverick" was launched. Soon a brother was needed to ease Garner's work load. Enter Jack Kelly.

I never met Garner — well, I was introduced to him during my one visit to Hollywood when I was given an MGM tour that took me to a set that was being used for the World War 2 movie, "36 Hours," and I exchanged a "Hello, nice to meet you" with Garner, Eva Marie Saint and Rod Taylor — but I did have the opportunity to interview Jack Kelly in Ohio a few months after "Maverick" was canceled:

Akron Beacon Journal, September 9, 1962
Scene: a smoke-filled room on the Old Frontier. The assembled politicians had resorted to using a beautiful woman in an attempt to sway a popular hero.

"We want you to be our candidate," cooed the woman, cuddling up to the hero.

The hero was impressed, but not convinced. "I do not choose to run," he finally declared.

CALVIN COOLIDGE? No, the reluctant candidate was Bart Maverick and the scene was typical of the way television's most entertaining Western poke fun at life. "Maverick" glorified the slow draw and the fast wit.

Brothers Bret and Bart Maverick preferred cards and women to horses and gunplay. If forced into battle, the Mavericks actually aimed their guns before shooting. Often they missed their targets. Their first choice, of course, was to con someone else into doing the fighting for them.

"There was a lot to be proud of in the 'Maverick' series," said Jack Kelly — alias Bart Maverick. "People will be talking about the show for years."

Kelly is in Canal Fulton today, wrapping up a week as star of "The Moon Is Blue." His five-year association with "Maverick" ended last spring when ABC-TV canceled the show.

"Maverick" was unheralded when it made its debut in 1957. James Garner, then an unknown actor, was all alone at the poker table when he startled critics by beating Ed Sullivan and Steve Allen, his Sunday night ratings rivals.

The work of filming a 60-minute Western on a weekly basis made it impossible for Garner to do the job by himself. A co-star was needed, one who would carry the show every other week.

"I was in Hong Kong at the time, making a film," said Kelly. "I had never heard of 'Maverick' until I returned to Hollywood and my agent said Warner Brothers was looking for someone to play Bart. I learned about the show and got my job in the same afternoon."

GARNER AND KELLY were a perfect team for nearly three years until Garner packed up his cards and left the show. He was missed, but Kelly's popularity sustained ratings that ordinarily would have been high enough to keep the show on the air.

"ABC didn't like the show because the didn't own enough of it," Kelly said. "They weren't sorry to see us go because they'll have a better financial arrangement with their new Sunday schedule."

Kelly claimed ABC didn't even notify stations last fall when the 'Maverick' time slot was changed from 7:30 to 6:30 p.m. on Sundays. "I had friends calling me at 7:31 asking me when my show was taken off the air."

The actor was further annoyed when he learned his show had been given the ax. "But I guess it's good to leave the air when the show is still popular," he rationalized.

KELLY'S WIFE, former actress May Wynn, mentioned something that added to her husband's disappointment:

"Jack felt the 13 shows they filmed last year were so good that 'Maverick' would have no trouble being renewed."

Kelly back up the statement: "The worst one of those 13 was better than anything we did the first year."

Which might have been true. One of the things that contributed to the success of "Maverick" was its novelty. As the novelty wore off, so did the program's appeal, though Kelly was correct about the ratings — they remained high enough to warrant renewal . . . most of the time.

Kelly has turned down all television offers since "Maverick's" death. "I'm going to New York to talk about a possible Broadway play. It will give me a chance to sharpen up as an actor."

He performed in three plays this summer — "The Music Man," "Under the Yum Yum Tree" and "The Moon Is Blue."

"I couldn't make up my mind which one to choose, so I did them all."

KELLY ALSO refuses to do guest shots on television, thinking he might wear out his welcome if he does too many inconsequential roles.

"I see actors plunge into guest shots after their series are canceled. Every time I turn on my TV set, I see them . . . for weeks. Pretty soon I stop seeing them. They have no more places to work.

"Naturally I'm looking for another series. Something light, but with dramatic substance. I haven't seen any good ideas yet. The medical show is the craze today, but I'm not sure it will last.

"I don't intend to take Bart Maverick and put him in another setting," said Kelly, who added that he would draw from the formula that made "Maverick" such a huge success.

"We got that formula by accident," he said. "We had well qualified writers and they introduced interesting characters . . . such as Samantha Crawford, Dandy Jim Buckley and Gentleman Jack Darby.

"These characters were so colorful we had to work them into stories again and again. We were able to use them to continue little jokes for several weeks. If I ever have another series, I'll make sure we have a similar group of characters.

"IN FACT, the best 'Maverick' show — in my opinion — was 'Shady Deal at Sunny Acres' and we used all of our oddball characters in that one."

"Shady Deal" had Bret Maverick being swindled out of $10,000 by a banker. Bret spent most of the show whittling wood in front of his hotel, while Kelly and his friends swindled the banker. Brother Bret got his money back without leaving the rocking chair at the hotel.

"We had great writers," said Kelly, "but the trouble was our budget. We'd find a young writer with a great story and buy it from him at a low cost. That show would be a hit and the writer's price would go up so much we couldn't afford him anymore. We used between 15 to 20 writers during the five years."

Mrs. Kelly wrote three scripts for "Maverick," but was unable to sell them.

"I couldn't understand it," said Kelly. "Those scripts were all very good. One of them is so good that a producer is thinking of making it into a movie."

The "Maverick" characters mentioned by Kelly no doubt contributed to the show's success. Samantha Crawford was played by Diane Brewster, Dandy Jim Buckley by Efrem Zimbalist Jr. and Gentleman Jack Darby by Richard Long. Those roles might well have been the best those actors ever had. Other colorful characters were Cindy Lou Brown (Arlene Howell), Big Mike McComb (Leo Gordon) and Doc Holiday, who showed up in 13 episodes, seven of them with Gerald Mohr in the role, six of them with Peter Breck playing the part. John Dehner appeared in five episodes, one of them the classic "Shady Deal at Sunny Acres," which cast him as the crooked banker. He also appeared in "The Rockford Files," in a two-part episode that was similar, though this time he was working for the good guys.

Kelly was a bit of an enigma to Roy Huggins, who created "Maverick." The actor was engaging and considered very funny — off-camera. As a performer, however, he was not as entertaining as Garner. Huggins said Kelly dropped a funny line "like a ton of coal."

Huggins was at a loss to explain why — during one period early in the show — Kelly's ratings were slightly higher than those episodes that featured Garner. He concocted some theory that Garner generated interest in the following week's episode, which starred Kelly, and that Kelly diminished interested in next week's episode, which starred Garner. For whatever reason, I was a bigger fan of Bart Maverick than Bret Maverick, the first time around. I didn't become a big James Garner fan until his string of movie hits. And two of Garner's television series — "Nichols" and "The Rockford Files" — are two of my all-time favorites.

Kelly never hit it big on television after "Maverick," though he has a long string of credits. In 1969 he even hosted the daytime game show, "Sale of the Century," on NBC, before he was replaced by Joe Garagiola. He also was a regular on the last ten episodes of the short-lived series, "Get Christie Love! (1974). And I know I've just piqued your curiosity — detective Christie Love was played by Teresa Graves. Kelly also appeared in several episodes of "The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries."

He played a bad guy in two episodes of "The Rockford Files" and worked with Garner after that when they played the Maverick brothers to boost ratings for a 1978 TV movie, "The New Maverick," that introduced Charles Frank as Ben Maverick. Frank then played the character in a short-lived series.

Kelly also played Bart Maverick in an episode of Garner's 1981-82 series, "Bret Maverick." Garner had plans to revamp the series, but it was canceled before he had a chance. In that show Bret Maverick owned a ranch and part interest in a saloon, which kept him tied to one location. Garner intended to bring in Kelly as Bart Maverick for the second season and have him run the ranch and the bar, freeing Bret Maverick to roam in the fashion that made the original "Maverick" a hit.

Kelly was the younger brother of actress Nancy Kelly, best remembered for her Oscar-nominated role as the mother in "The Bad Seed." She had won a Tony Award for her performance on the Broadway stage.

As Jack Kelly's on-camera acting career slowed down he continued to do voice overs in several commercials and got involved in real estate and politics. He was mayor of Huntington Beach, California from 1983-86.

He and May Wynn divorced two years after I met them. She never did have her scripts produced. She married Jack W. Custer in 1968; they were divorced 11 years later.

Kelly married Jo Ann Smith in 1969; a year later they had a daughter, Nicole. Kelly's drinking was a frequent problem, and he was significantly heavier during the last ten years of his acting career than he was in his prime as Bart Maverick. His last TV appearance was in 1991 when he played Bart Maverick again in "The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw." In 1992 he suffered a fatal stroke.

 
Jack Kelly on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com)
 

 

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