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Geoffrey Keen (1916-2005) Obituary

By: Anders Frejdh
Geoffrey Keen
Geoffrey Keen - mogul oil chief in 'The Troubleshooters' and a prolific actor in professional and authority-figure roles - passed away today.

Geoffrey Ian Knee (Geoffrey Keen), actor: born London 21 August 1916; married first Hazel Terry (marriage dissolved), second Madeleine Howell (marriage dissolved), third Doris Groves (died 1989; one daughter); died Watford, Hertfordshire 3 November 2005.

One of the screen's leading character actors for four decades, Geoffrey Keen was forever typecast as dour authority figures. After 20 years perfecting the type in British films, he landed a starring role on television in Mogul (1965), a topical drama about an oil conglomerate, at a time when drilling was just beginning in the North Sea.

Keen played the shrewd and ruthless Brian Stead, one of the company's bosses, in a 13-part series that gained increasing popularity - and sales to more than 60 countries, as well as many awards - after it was retitled The Troubleshooters (1966-72) and ran for a further 123 episodes. The BBC's initial publicity hailed:

Exciting stories about oilmen and the world they work in. The oilmen are everywhere. They walk in the corridors of power, drill wells in the desert, serve on the motorways. They sustain governments, dominate the Exchange, alter the face of the Earth, and keep most of the human race on the move. Oilmen are prospectors, tearing across rugged country in huge trucks; they also work in offices and have pension schemes. Some are scientists, some politicians, some are engineers, and some are very rich - and every oilman with a major company like the Mogul corporation is a subject of a vast feudal kingdom.

Over seven years, filming took place in glamorous locations as far-flung as Venezuela, Antarctica and New Zealand. Although Keen did some location shooting, he was often stuck at Mogul's head office in London, where he would be seen stepping in and out of his Rolls-Royce.

Stead, a widower who had to battle health problems - including two heart attacks - rose from his position as the company's deputy managing director and director of operations to become managing director, but the actor was frustrated at playing what he considered to be a dictator. So merciless was Stead that Keen's own daughter, Mary, refused to watch her father on television and would sit on the stairs with her hands over her ears. The actor also found the grind of making a weekly programme very hard. "At present, I have no domestic life at all - you have to give yourself completely to a series," he said at the time.

Keen soon switched back to films to play his most enduring screen role, as the Minister of Defence, Sir Frederick Gray, in six James Bond pictures. At the end of the first one, The Spy Who Loved Me (1977), set at the Polaris submarine base in Scotland, he is seen peering into an escape pod to discover 007 under the sheets with a naked "Bond girl", Barbara Bach. "Bond, what do you think you're doing?" he asks. "Keeping the British end up, sir," Roger Moore retorts.

The sight of an embarrassed minister occurred several times over the following 10 years, as the dignified, by-the-book, upper-class Sir Frederick wrestled with Bond's playful attitude to his job and refusal to take missions seriously, in Moonraker (1979), For Your Eyes Only (1981), Octopussy (1983), A View to a Kill (1985) and The Living Daylights (1987, in which Timothy Dalton took over as Ian Fleming's secret agent).

Born Geoffrey Knee in London in 1916, he had a difficult childhood. His mother and father, Malcolm - a stage actor also seen in films as doctors, detectives and aristocrats - split up before his birth. (Father and son both changed their surname to Keen by deed poll.)

He and his mother moved to Bristol, where he attended the city's grammar school and worked briefly in a paint factory, before joining the Little Theatre there and spending a year in repertory productions, making his stage début as Trip in Sheridan's The School for Scandal (1932) at the age of 16.

Briefly unsure about acting as a career, Keen started studying at the London School of Economics but left after two months and was awarded a scholarship to Rada, where his father was teaching, and won the prestigious Bancroft Gold Medal (1936).

He then joined the Old Vic Theatre, playing Florizel in The Winter's Tale (1936) and Edgar in King Lear (1936), and continued on stage until fighting with the Royal Army Medical Corps as a corporal during the Second World War and performing with the Stars in Battledress concert party. During that time, he made his film début, directed by the legendary Carol Reed, as a corporal in The New Lot (1943), an army training film that starred Bernard Lee (later to play 007's boss, M, in the Bond films).

After the war, Reed cast Keen in two thrillers, as a soldier in Odd Man Out (starring James Mason, 1947) and a detective in The Fallen Idol (written by Graham Greene and featuring Ralph Richardson, 1948). Once he played an MP in The Third Man (another Reed-Greene collaboration), the actor was on the way to becoming typecast.

"It got around the studios that I only played the type of character who scowled and thumped tables," he explained, adding:

I accepted any role that came my way. This is a tough profession. You can't be too choosy - you may never get another chance.

As a result, he was seen as policemen in The Clouded Yellow (1950), Hunted (1952), Genevieve (1953), Portrait of Alison (1955), The Long Arm (1956), Nowhere to Go (1958), Deadly Record (1959), Horrors of the Black Museum (1959) and Lisa (1962), soldiers of all ranks in Angels One Five(1952), Malta Story (1953), Carrington V.C. (1954) and The Man Who Never Was (1955), the Assistant Chief of Naval Staff in Sink the Bismarck! (1959), a doctor in Storm Over the Nile (1955), priests in Yield to the Night (1956) and Sailor Beware!(1956), a solicitor in A Town Like Alice (1956), headmasters in The Scamp (1957) and Spare the Rod (1961), a prison governor in Beyond This Place (1959), the Prime Minister in No Love for Johnnie (1961), a magistrate in The Cracksman (1963) and a British ambassador in The Rise and Fall of Idi Amin (1980).

So prolific was Keen as a character actor, at the height of British film- making, that in one year, 1956, he appeared in 12 pictures. The following year, he and his father both acted together in Fortune Ii a Woman, playing the Young and Old Abercrombie in the crime drama starring Jack Hawkins.

Keen's starring role on television in Mogul and The Troubleshooters came as British cinema was passing its heyday. He had already acted many character parts on the small screen, including a short run as Detective Superintendent Harvey in Dixon of Dock Green during 1966, and later took the role of Gerald Lang, the managing director of a merchant bank, in The Venturers (1975). But he was less happy acting on television and, by the 1980s, was working little except for in the Bond films. He retired in 1987, after making The Living Daylights.

His first wife was the actress Hazel Terry and his third the actress Doris Groves, who died in 1989.

Geoffrey Keen's obituary was written by Anthony Hayward for Independent, published December 6, 2005.



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