April 23rd, 1915 — January 13th, 1981
Energetic serial star Robert Kellard had a wide acting range, which came in handy over his varied cliffhanger career. Playing both heroes and supporting heroes, he had to be able to convey either sagacity or impetuosity, depending on his character’s place in the cast; he could portray an impulsive co-hero or a cool-headed and shrewd leading hero with equal skill. Although a key player in two of Republic’s best serials, Kellard is an often-forgotten cliffhanger star, perhaps because he was not top-billed in his two best outings, while the two serials he did headline were weaker efforts. Kellard may never have had a really memorable serial vehicle all his own, but he still was an important part of some classic chapterplays.
Robert Dorsey Kellard was born in Los Angeles, the son of silent-era leading man Ralph Kellard; interestingly, the senior Kellard was also a serial hero in his day, co-starring with Pearl White in the 1916 chapterplay Pearl of the Army. Robert began his own acting career on Broadway in 1934, and would work there and in New York stock companies for the next three years; Twentieth-Century Fox signed him to a contract and brought him to Hollywood in 1937. Like many young studio contract players, he was relegated to secondary romantic leads, juvenile parts, and various bit roles, and never landed a leading role; Fox let him go when his contract expired in 1940, and he began freelancing for low-budget studios like Monogram and Continental. Also in 1940, Republic Pictures hired him to appear in two different serials, the first of which was Drums of Fu Manchu.
Drums was one of Republic’s most atmospheric and memorable serials, based on the popular series of novels by Sax Rohmer. Henry Brandon was cast as Rohmer’s sinister Chinese mastermind, William Royle assumed a convincing British accent as his opponent Sir Denis Nayland Smith, and Kellard was cast as Allan Parker, Smith’s partner in the battle against Fu Manchu. The Parker character, while not actually taken from the books, was a combination of various younger heroes that assisted Smith in the later novels. The plot, also original to the serial, dealt with Fu Manchu’s plan to gain control of the lost scepter of Genghis Khan and use it to enlist hordes of Asiatic tribesmen in his schemes for world conquest. Smith battled him from the rainy streets of Los Angeles to the steppes of Asia, aided by young American archeologist Parker, whose father was killed by Fu Manchu’s minions in the first chapter. While Royle as Smith orchestrated the campaign against Fu Manchu, Kellard’s Parker took center stage in most of the action scenes and was involved in most of the chapter-ending cliffhangers. Kellard’s character was quick-thinking and courageous but rather impetuous, and Kellard played him with enthusiasm, forming a good counterpoint to both Royle’s level-headed Smith and Brandon’s diabolically cunning Fu Manchu. The dynamic of the three leads was akin to that of Buster Crabbe, Frank Shannon, and Charles Middleton in the first Flash Gordon serial, but Drums of Fu Manchu, though an enormous success for Republic, did not jump-start Kellard’s career in the way Flash Gordon did Crabbe’s.
Above: Robert Kellard (seated, center) has been caught trying to infiltrate Fu Manchu’s secret “Si-Fan” group by Fu Manchu himself (Henry Brandon, standing). Si-Fan member George Pembroke (at the end of the table) looks on with obvious satisfaction in this scene from Drums of Fu Manchu.
Kellard’s second Republic serial was released only seven months after Drums of Fu Manchu. This cliffhanger, King of the Royal Mounted, was another one of Republic’s best, with beautiful location shooting and exciting action. Kellard, as Corporal Tom Merrit, was aide-de-camp to leading man Allan Lane, as Sergeant King of the RCMP. King, Merrit, and their fellow-Mounties battled German agents trying to smuggle a valuable chemical called Compound X out of Canada, a chemical that could be used to destroy England’s naval defenses. Though more of a sidekick than a co-hero this time out, Kellard still delivered a strong supporting performance, and dominated the serial’s closing chapter. His character, imprisoned with King in the torpedo room of the villains’ escaping submarine, knocked Sergeant King out, shot him through a torpedo tube to safety, and then blew up the sub, sacrificing his own life but preventing the heavies’ return to their country with the precious Compound X. The final scene of the serial had Lane and leading lady Lita Conway (as Merrit’s sister) eulogizing Kellard’s character for his heroism. The torpedo-room sequence allowed Kellard to deliver some of the best acting of his career–arguing with Lane (who planned to sacrifice himself and shoot Kellard to safety), getting the better of him, and then grimly confronting the terrified villains before blowing up the sub.
Kellard did no more work for Republic; instead, he went back to freelancing in other studios’ B-films, and also did some West Coast stage work. He became a frequent player at Columbia Pictures around this time playing bits, heavies, and second leads in their B-films; his next serial was also for Columbia, 1942’s Perils of the Royal Mounted. Perils was a Mountie saga with extensive location shooting and a good cast, but was unfortunately not in the same league as King of the Royal Mounted. Kellard (now billed under the new screen name of Robert Stevens) starred as Sergeant MacLane, a Mountie combating villains (led by Kenneth MacDonald) who were trying to engineer an Indian war for their own purposes. Directed by former comedy director James W. Horne, the serial featured slapstick elements that undermined its action scenes without being strong enough to make the serial an out-and-out comedy. Though Kellard got to take center stage for the first time in his serial career, he overplayed his role (undoubtedly at the behest of director Horne) to an irksome extent; his exaggeratedly tough and aggressive bearing towards the serial’s bumbling heavies often made him come off as more bully than hero. The serial overall was a frustrating misfire.
Kellard played a few more parts at Columbia under his Robert Stevens moniker, including a memorable villainous turn in the Charles Starrett B-western The Fighting Buckaroo. He joined the Navy late in 1942, and served throughout World War 2, not returning to Hollywood until 1946; upon his return, he resumed his original screen name and again began working chiefly at Columbia, taking various small roles in both their A and B movies. He also played one major role for Columbia–the title part in their 1948 serial, Tex Granger. This serial, based on a comic book series, cast Kellard as an easygoing frontier newspaper editor who assumes the guise of the “Mystery Rider” to combat three different outlaw factions in a crime-ridden town. Though the serial itself was painfully dull, Kellard did a fine job in the lead, making his Tex Granger seem tough and determined but also very cagy and intelligent, fully capable of outwitting sly villains Smith Ballew and I. Stanford Jolley. He also engaged in some witty banter of a Clark Kent/Lois Lane nature with heroine Peggy Stewart (who was unaware of his character’s heroic dual identity), and interacted amusingly with comic sidekick Britt Wood.
Kellard’s last film work seems to have been on the Lone Ranger TV show, which featured him in frequently in supporting parts as heavies, sheriffs, and other characters, starting in 1949 and ending in 1951; he also worked in a behind-the-scenes capacity on the show, serving as a dialogue director. He then seems to have abandoned acting altogether and returned to the seagoing life he had known during the war; a 1953 Honolulu ship-arrival form finds him serving as a crewman on the civilian-staffed US Navy supply ship Tallulah, while a similar form from 1954 finds him working aboard another Navy supply ship–the Cohocton, voyaging from San Pedro to Japan. Following this peacetime Naval service, he began a career as a salesman circa 1957, working for a time with a film company called “Showcase;” how long he pursued this line of work is unknown, but he was still living in Los Angeles when he passed away (in a Veterans’ Administration hospital) in 1981.
The most popular serial heroes played starring roles in first-class cliffhangers–Ralph Byrd (the Dick Tracy serials) and Kane Richmond (Spy Smasher) being two examples. Robert Kellard, whose two solo starring efforts were not first-class serials, thus misses out on fame. But while he didn’t take top-billing in Drums of Fu Manchu he certainly handled most of its heroics, and he helped to make King of the Royal Mounted memorable as well. If he had ever taken the sole lead in a serial as good as those two cliffhangers, his fame would be greater, but as things stand he still deserves attention from serial buffs.
Acknowledgements: Boyd Magers’ profile on Robert Kellard in the Serial Report section of his Western Clippings site provided me with some valuable information utilized in this article–and also, happily, served to confirm the guesses I’d made in an earlier edition of this piece, by substantiating that the Robert Kellard I’d found in shipping records was indeed the one who’d formerly been a movie actor.