Jack Kehoe, Character Actor Par Excellence, Passes Away at 85

Legendary character actor Jack Kehoe passed away on January 14 (although this is open for debate; the venerable and mucho lauded Hollywood Reporter has Mr. Kehoe’s death listed as the 14th while MSN Entertainment has it listed four days earlier on the 10th. You pays your money and you takes your choice, Dear Reader) and when I heard about his departure all I could think of was the vast array of subtle and nuanced work he had done throughout the years that, unbeknownst to me, had become ingrained in the fabric and DNA of my pop culture and film world blood. Not too shabby for a New Yorker from Queens.

 And speaking of that particular borough in NYC, Jack was born there on November 21, 1934 the same date that the renowned Dutch airliner “Uiver” returned from Schiphol in the London-Melbourne air race. With that kind of pedigree right out of the gate, is it any wonder that Mr. Kehoe was destined to take a seat at the table with other popular character actors such as Ward Bond and Thomas Mitchell?

 After serving a hitch with the U.S. Army in the early days of the 1950s, Jack studied acting with the acting teacher of that time, the renowned Stella Adler before going Broadway-bound in the 1963 production of Mr. Edward Albee’s The Ballad of the Sad Café. The Great White Way knew a good thing when they saw it, and before too long, Jack Kehoe was a welcome fixture with the theatre crowd in such noted undertakings as Drums in the Night and A Moon for the Misbegotten. Titles that would make Barton Fink blush, but they got the thirtysomething thespian noticed and it wasn’t long before Hollywood came a’knocking with a bevy of celluloid roles that became Jack’s bread and butter.

And that’s where I came in. Or, to be more accurate, that’s where we came in as the so-called cinephiles that took comfort and joy with Kehoe’s never too flashy acting. The man made fans of all of us with turns in so many iconic film and television parts that it behooves me to at least rattle off a very brief list of some of the more notable work: Serpico, The Sting, Reds, Quincy M.E., The Pope of Greenwich Village, Call to Glory, Miami Vice, Fame, The Twilight Zone, The Untouchables, Midnight Run, Dick Tracy, Young Guns 2, Falling Down and The Game or just a very few of the cherry-picked dozens of substantial film and television work the man had a hand in over the course of a decades long career. If I were ever an actor I would not only want Jack’s innate acting talents, but also his agent.

 Kehoe perhaps made the biggest impression on this budding film aficionado twice during my teenage years: Once as the bookkeeper of interest to both Al Capone (Robert De Niro) and Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in Brian De Palma’s 1987 masterpiece, The Untouchables where he seemingly gave Don Knotts lessons on the art of being both nervous and anxiety-ridden. Most eyes may have been on Costner and a young Andy Garcia in a showstopper of a scene that took place at the Chicago Union Station, but Jack Kehoe was the actor my peepers couldn’t stay off of.  The man had an everyman look about him, so while I might never be mistaken for good old Kevin Costner or fellow Untouchable Garcia, Kehoe was definitely a point of relation. He looked like me. Or I looked like him. Whatever. The point here is that his very relatability to audiences kept him up to his very distinctive nose in meaty character parts for the remainder of his career.

 So, what’s that second Jack Kehoe performance that has wormed itself into my psyche? Gads, I’d love to say it was his tour de force acting in a film like Reds or Serpico. Those are the two roles after all that most of my fellow film critics, god love ‘em, would cite first and foremost. And deservedly so. But I was nothing growing up if not a child of the late 80s and early 90s so the bread underneath my butter was not sourdough or roti but garden variety Wonder Bread straight from the local Piggly Wiggly. This is all my rather cheap foreplay in order to break the news to you that one of my all-time favorite Jack performances was in the B-grade western programmer, Young Guns 2. God, I loved, loved, loved that movie and I loved, loved, loved Jack’s role as a (you guessed it) nervous and anxiety-ridden newspaperman tasked by Pat Garrett to write a fanciful version of the life of Billy the Kid (that’s Mr. Emilio Estevez to you and me). As I said earlier, you pays your money and you takes your choice. While far from being The Searchers or Red River, Young Guns 2 was at least a neat little acting showcase for one of America’s neatest character actors.

 So Jack Kehoe is no longer with us. Except, you know, he is. The magic of film is that our cinematic friends never really leave us, no matter when or how they ultimately check out. Looking at my film library which covers the better part of two whole walls in our home, I see Jack Kehoe everywhere. And that’s a hell of a legacy.

About Ryan Vandergriff

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