Watch television, and you will know Helen Kleeb
only as a spinster.
Listen to radio, and you will come to know her
as one of its loveliest voices,
lending life to women of all ages,
making them sound with a combination of strength and fragility.
Looking for a superb Helen Kleeb performance in Gunsmoke?
Check out the episode 'Fawn,'
where she plays a released Indian captive trying to return
to a white society that doesn't want her Indian daughter.
By 1959, Helen Kleeb had already started playing 'old,'
or at least 'older,' in the radio version
of the Have Gun Will Travel episode 'The Teacher.'
HGWT co-creator Sam Rolfe's didactic story
serves as an allegory & parody of all
and caught in the center is schoolmarm Helen Kleeb,
who tells Paladin, "Young man, I will teach the truth as it is!"
An exception to Helen Kleeb's usual soft-voiced performances
is her portrayal of the mother of a misguided sheriff
in the radio HGWT episode 'The Five Books Of Owen Deaver,'
yet another lessony story by Sam Rolfe.
Pay close attention, or you'll think it's lemony Jeanette Nolan
doing her patented wild & spunky & lively voice.
No, that's our quiet & gentle Helen Kleeb.
Helen Kleeb sparkles in her third HGWT episode, 'Bonanza,'
in which she plays a deep-pocketed mine owner's tipsy wife,
intoxicated by Twain & champagne.
Magnificent Obsession (1954) is as good a place as any
to see Helen Kleeb at the time she was appearing
on the air in radio Gunsmoke, and before she entered
the old biddy phase for which she is most known.
Her Gunsmoke companions in this movie were Joseph Mell
(who played Long Branch co-owner Bill Pence on tv) and Gregg Palmer
(who starting in 1960 would become a frequent guest star).
Gunsmoke fans used to seeing Gregg Palmer as a flabby sweaty slob,
will find it hard to believe it is the same man playing the coiffed, pomaded,
tailor-suited urbane lawyer Tom Masterson.
As Mrs. Eden, it is Helen Kleeb who is the first to reveal
to Helen Philips (Jane Wyman) that her late husband Dr. Philips
was the follower of a mystical way of living.
And before you can say 'subdural hematoma,'
social heel Bob Merrick (Rock Hudson) too is on the same path.
As his guide Mr. Randolph (Otto Kruger) says so inspiringly:
"But I warn you--the investment of one's life in others--
and the alignment of oneself with the forces that lead up and on--
this does not come cheap! Once you go into it, you're bound!
You'll never be able to give it up.
You'll find this furnishes your motive power!
It'll obsess you! Believe me--it'll be a magnificent obsession!"
By sheer coincidence--no one ever claimed
to have seen her near a grassy knoll--Helen Kleeb took part
in two politically paranoid movies of the 60s:
The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Seven Days in May (1964).
Helen Kleeb played the title character in 'The Healing Woman,'
an episode of Steve McQueen's series Wanted Dead or Alive.
The parents of a sick boy have to decide whether
to send him to the woman healer,
or to a doctor of Western western medicine played by James Westerfield.
This being a dogmatic episode of a male-oriented show,
guess which witch doctor prevails.
By this time, Helen Kleeb was no longer in radio Gunsmoke;
she had made her last appearance on October 12, 1958, in 'Doc's Showdown.' Warlockilly, James Westerfield made his only ever
appearance in radio Gunsmoke two weeks after, on October 26, 1958,
in the episode 'The Tragedian.'
That's called rubbing in the poultice, a year in advance.
Writer Kathleen Hite and director Harry Harris,
detached from Gunsmoke and luckily spared the horror
of the color years, gravitated toward a show possessed
of the same qualities--good writing, good acting,
good direction, good production--as b&w Gunsmoke:
Gunsmoke radio actor and then director Lawrence Dobkin
was also part of this convergence.
Of course, Helen Kleeb had already been there from the beginning,
appearing as Miss Mamie, one of the Baldwin sisters.
It wouldn't be unjustified to claim that Kathleen Hite did her best
writing in Fort Laramie. Similarly, one can make the claim
that her 'Army Wife,' the last episode of that series,
is not only its best, but also hers.
Helen Kleeb's performance takes its place
in that Wyoming sky of superlatives,
showing the heart and grace and steel of an army wife.
What a way to end that glorious series.
July 8, 2005
Copyright © 2006-2013 E. A. Villafranca, Jr.
All Rights Reserved
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