Twenty years ago this month (June 11), Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley died. Although frequently used as a western bad guy early in his film career, he’s best remembered as the sometimes crusty but always compassionate Dr. Leonard McCoy on the iconic 60s sci-fi TV series and subsequent six films.
One of the most fascinating stories involving Kelley that I came across was told to me by Kristine Smith – a Star Trek fan-turned-family friend of Kelley and his wife, Carolyn, for over 30 years. Smith grew to know “De” well, eventually becoming his non-medical caregiver in the final year of his life.
“He was just a salt of the earth guy and incredible human being in so many ways,” Smith recalled to me. The two first met in 1968 after she had driven two hours to Washington State’s Wenatchee Apple Blossom Festival where the actor was appearing and she approached him for an autograph.
“I’d met other actors who were full of themselves, but he was just so down to earth,” she said.
Then 17 years old, Smith wrote about the experience for a creative writing class and her essay eventually found its way to the Kelleys who liked it so much they sent it a New York magazine, TV Star Parade, where it was printed in 1969 and launching Smith’s career as a writer.
Over the next two decades, the bond between Smith and the Kelleys strengthen even visiting each other’s homes – Kelley was a long-time Sherman Oaks resident living in a modest 1960’s single story 1,300-square-foot home. Off camera, Smith says Kelley was rather shy around people initially.
“Even when he got to know you, he was reserved and soft-spoken. You had to almost lean forward to hear him speak sometimes.”
She also remembers Kelley’s encouraging sense of humor which was never mean-spirited.
“If he ever corrected you, you felt blessed rather than criticized,” she said. “At a ‘Star Trek’ convention once, someone asked if William Shatner was hard to get along with. De said he absolutely loved Bill but had to straighten his ass out a time or two!”