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Peter Kelley, an actor and singer on Broadway who spent nearly two decades as an agent at William Morris, where he repped the likes of Denzel Washington, Gregory Peck, Farrah Fawcett, Joan Crawford and Héctor Elizondo, has died. He was 97.
Kelley died Feb. 28 of natural causes at an assisted living facility in Suffolk, Virginia, his daughter Sara Blessington told The Hollywood Reporter.
Kelley began in show business as a singer at the Boston Latin Quarter, then acted in regional theaters throughout New England. His first New York performance was as a singing Seabee and Lt. Cable in the original Broadway production of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, which starred Mary Martin and Ezio Pinza and opened in 1949.
He returned to Broadway in 1952 to play Chick Miller in Joshua Logan’s Wish You Were Here and to appear alongside Bette Davis in Two’s Company, then managed theater companies in and around New York before being hired at WMA in 1972.
Kelley launched the career of eventual two-time Oscar winner Washington and represented E.G. Marshall, Lloyd Bridges, Arthur Godfrey, Gene Barry, Ann Miller, Lauren Bacall, Vivian Vance, Robert Vaughn and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, among others.
He was known for matching personalities with promotional and advertising opportunities. “It has been said that if you saw a celebrity in a television commercial in the ’70s or ’80s, they were likely as not a Peter Kelley client,” his family said in a statement.
He retired from William Morris in 1991 after serving as vice president and head of the agency’s commercial department and moved to Vero Beach, Florida.
Kelley was born John Peter Smith on Dec. 17, 1925, in Indianapolis. He attended Cathedral High School, and in 1943, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, joining the 100th Infantry Division. After being captured by German soldiers in Northern France in December 1944, he suffered at the hands of his tormentors, enduring freezing and near-starvation conditions.
Despite the hardships and being forcibly marched to several Nazi/SS POW camps, Kelley and his friend Robert “Rabbit” Smith managed to escape twice; the second time, they were rescued by their Army colleagues.
For his service, Kelley was awarded the Silver Star for gallantry in action against the enemy, a Purple Heart, a Combat Infantry Badge, a Prisoner of War Medal, a Good Conduct Medal, a WW2 Victory Medal, a Sharpshooter Badge and a Legion of Honor, awarded by France.
Kelley attended Purdue University on the G.I. Bill, was a member of the Varsity Glee Club and met Lois Ann Eckhart, whom he married in November 1947. He then pursued graduate studies in music at the University of Indiana.
Survivors include his children, Rebecca, Michael, Timothy, Catherine, Mary and Sara; 10 grandchildren; and 11 great-grandchildren. His wife died in September 2009.
A Mass of the Resurrection will be celebrated at 11 a.m. on March 20 at St. Paul Catholic Church, 522 High St., Portsmouth, Virginia. He will be laid to rest with his wife at Arlington National Cemetery.
Contributions in his memory can be made to your local St. Vincent de Paul or Catholic charities. Condolences may be registered at BWFosterFuneralHome.com.
“Pete was a larger-than-life personality whose love of his family eclipsed everything but was almost matched by his love of good food and good company,” his family said. “No doubt forged by his near-starvation experiences in WWII, wasting food was never allowed when Pete was around, and no serving of butter — no matter how big or small — was safe in his presence!”
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