Don Keefer, Who Was Turned Into a Jack-in-the-Box on 'The Twilight Zone,' Dies at 98

Keefer pleads for somebody to kill the child monster in the 'Twilight Zone' episode 'It's a Good Life.'
Courtesy Don M. Keefer

The actor was in 'Caine Mutiny,' 'Sleeper' and the original 'Death of a Salesman' on Broadway

Don Keefer, a versatile character actor for six decades who starred in the original 1949 Broadway production of Death of a Salesman and made an indelible impression as “a bad man, a very bad man” on The Twilight Zone, has died. He was 98.

Keefer, a founding member of the legendary Actors Studio in New York, died Sept. 7 of natural causes in his Sherman Oaks home, his son, Don M. Keefer, told The Hollywood Reporter.

Keefer is perhaps best known to audiences as the terrorized, Perry Como-starved man who can't help but think “bad thoughts” during his birthday party and thus is transformed by a petulant 6-year-old (Billy Mumy) into a macabre jack-in-the-box with a dunce cap in the disturbing 1961 Twilight Zone episode “It’s a Good Life.” (Cloris Leachman plays the boy's mom.)

As Bernard, the Loman family’s young next-door neighbor, Keefer was the last surviving castmember of the original Pulitzer Prize- and Tony Award-winning Broadway production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, directed by Elia Kazan and starring Lee J. Cobb. He then reprised the role for his movie debut in the 1951 film version, which Miller detested.

Keefer played the scientist who woke up Woody Allen in Sleeper (1973), was Carrie Snodgress’ father in the screen adaptation of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run (1970) and appeared as the school janitor confronted with a monster in a box in a segment of Stephen King’s Creepshow (1982).

Keefer’s final onscreen appearance came when he portrayed a homeless panhandler on the courthouse steps in the 1997 box-office hit Liar, Liar. He improvised his two scenes with star Jim Carrey, and at the end of his weekend of work, Keefer was escorted off the set by director Tom Shadyac amid applause by the cast and crew, his son recalled.

Keefer also appeared with Humphrey Bogart in 1954’s The Caine Mutiny (co-starring Fred MacMurray as the character Lieutenant Keefer); opposite Ronald Reagan and future wife Nancy Davis in Hellcats of The Navy (1957); with Carl Reiner and Alan Arkin in The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming (1966); with Paul Newman and Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969); and with Redford and Barbra Streisand in The Way We Were (1973).

Keefer also held his own with some big names in the 1940s and ’50s on Broadway: Helen Hayes in Harriet, Paul Robeson, Uta Hagen and Jose Ferrer in Othello (he played Iago's henchman Roderigo) and Zero Mostel in Kazan’s Flight Into Egypt.

Moving to Hollywood from New York in the mid-1950s with his wife, the late actress Catherine McLeod, Keefer also starred in an acclaimed stage version of John Hersey’s The Child Buyer and in the John Houseman productions of Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull and Antigone at UCLA in the ’60s.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Keefer created and performed the titular role in An Evening With Anton Chekhov, a one-man show based on the writer's early comedic works, at such venues as the Fringe Theater Festival in Edinburgh, Scotland. That led to an invitation to visit Stanislavski’s Moscow Arts Theater as part of a State Department-sponsored cultural exchange program during the Cold War.

A native of Highspire, Pa., Keefer was a regular on the short-lived 1960-61 Desilu CBS series Angel, featuring French starlet Annie Fargue; had fun as a beatnik musician on The Jack Benny Show; was Mission Control Director Cromwell on an episode of Star Trek; and appeared in multiple installments of Gunsmoke (twice with his wife), Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Andy Griffith Show.

He guest-starred on dozens of other series, including Have Gun, Will — Travel, Bonanza, The Real McCoys, Bewitched, The Munsters, Mission: Impossible, Starsky and Hutch, Ben Casey, The F.B.I., ColumboER and Highway to Heaven.

Actor Kevin McCarthy (Invasion of the Body Snatchers) and his sister, Mary McCarthy — author of the 1963 best-selling novel The Group — served as best man and matron of honor at the Keefers’ 1950 wedding, and actor Montgomery Clift was there too, as a guest.

Keefer’s survivors include two other sons, John and Thomas, and grandchildren Bryson and Samantha.

Twitter: @mikebarnes4

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