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DeForest Kelley: Dr. McCoy of the Enterprise

Published: 6/11/2014
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DeForest Kelley (Getty Images / CBS)

Before DeForest Kelley died June 11, 1999, at 79, the actor known best for his portrayal of Dr. Leonard McCoy on the television series Star Trek told an interviewer he hoped his character's catchphrase – "He's dead, Jim” – did not appear on his headstone.

It didn't happen – possibly because Kelley was cremated and his ashes scattered in the Pacific Ocean – but his fear offers a testament to the power of a show that originally ran for only three years in the late 1960s.

Kelley, born Jan. 20, 1920, had already spent 20 years as an actor on screen, stage and television before joining the Star Trek cast. He was a suspected murderer in the 1947 film noir Fear in the Night and appeared in numerous Westerns, as "he had a slight Southern drawl and a weathered face that he parlayed into roles as ranchers, town folk and minor villains," as his Los Angeles Times obituary noted.

But he remains "best known as the crusty physician on the USS Enterprise, known by Trekkies as 'Bones,' who was Captain Kirk's confidante and Mr. Spock's occasional sparring partner," said his obituary in The New York Times.

Oddly enough, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry gave Kelley his choice of roles: He could play the ship's doctor or the second-in-command, an alien with pointy ears. Kelley picked the former role because "he thought his rather lived-in features better suited the role of the old-fashioned doctor. Roddenberry agreed," according to bbc.co.uk.

In a 1993 interview in the Chicago Tribune, Kelley said he was never a fan of science fiction and told Roddenberry the show will be either "the biggest hit or the biggest miss ever made. It turned out to be a bit of both."

He also said he was glad he hadn't tried to tackle the role of Spock: "I wouldn't have been anywhere near Leonard (Nimoy). He's been marvelous."

Kelley's doctor was a "cranky but humane physician who served as sounding board for Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and quick-tempered foil for the painfully logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock," people.com noted in a remembrance. "Bones's two signature lines have both become comedy-skit staples. Confronted with a fresh intergalactic crisis, he'd sputter,  'Jim, I'm just a country doctor!' Or examining a victim of some alien foe, he'd emphatically declare, 'He's dead, Jim.'"

Star Trek was canceled by NBC in 1969. In the years after, Kelley worked as a guest-star on numerous television shows, including Ironside, Room 222 and The Cowboys.

But all roads always led back to Star Trek. From 1973 to 1974, Kelley supplied McCoy's voice on an animated version of the show. As the show gained cult status and sparked numerous gatherings of obsessed viewers, "Kelley had no qualms about being typecast and was an enthusiastic regular on the fan conventions circuit," said bbc.co.uk. "He remained loyally at the core of the movie franchise, dismissing critics of the films who said he and the original crew were getting too old and tubby to appeal to audiences."

Kelley reprised his role as Bones in six movies, his last one being 1991's Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, which grossed $70 million in the U.S.

In an interview with the Houston Chronicle a year before his death, Kelley said he knew his character had inspired people to become doctors, "all kinds of doctors who save lives. That's something that very few people can say they've done. I'm proud to say that I have."

As Bones said of Mr. Spock in 1982's Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, "He's really not dead, as long as we remember him."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."

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