(Ventura, Ca)- Actor, director and dramaturg Chester William (Bill) Keeler, Jr. died on May 28, 2015 at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura, California. He had a heart attack on May 27, 2015 in his car in front of Rubicon Theatre, where he was attending the first preview of the company’s production of Other Desert Cities. Bill had been Rubicon’s dramaturg for more than 15 years. He was rushed to the hospital and passed away the following morning from further complications.
Bill Keeler was a highly respected New York and regional theatre artist, whose illustrious career spanned more than 50 years. He appeared in the Off-Broadway, San Francisco and National Tour companies of Steve Martin’s Picasso at the Lapin Agile; and in productions with the Classic Stage Company in New York (Candide and The Learned Ladies). Bill spent five seasons with the Tony Award-winning Oregon Shakespeare Festival (OSF), appearing in more than 20 roles in a wide variety of productions, including Two Noble Kinsman, Troilus & Cressida, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Taming of the Shrew and Ah Wilderness!. He spent much of the ‘80s and ‘90s working at many of the country’s finest regional theatres, including Virginia Stage, The Cleveland Playhouse, Walnut Street Theatre, Kansas City Rep (then Missouri Rep), Milwaukee Rep, Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Rubicon Theatre and others.
Bill Keeler was born in Topeka, Kansas, the only child of Chester William Keeler, Sr., and Malvena Rinehart Keeler. Bill spent most of his childhood in Hayward, California, where he attended public school. He was raised and cherished by his parents until his father’s early death (also of a heart attack), as well as his grandparents (Sylvia and R. Van Amber) and, at various times, his father’s five aunts.
He was an active and imaginative child and a brilliant and accomplished student. He was an Eagle Scout, an R.O.T.C. candidate, the editor of his high school newspaper, and participated in his high school theatre and dance programs.
Bill received his undergraduate degree from U.C. Berkeley in 1966 in Dramatic Literature, and had already performed in 16 plays prior to graduation (including playing Edgar in King Lear at California Shakespeare Festival.)
He intended to pursue a professional acting career after his return from Vietnam, but his plans were cut short when his truck hit a mine field and shell fragments were lodged on his speech center, causing him to stutter. (Bill was a Captain in U.S. Army Intelligence and a member of Special Services.)
When he returned from service, Bill instead channeled his passion for theatre into his education and a teaching career.
Bill received his M.A. and Ph.D. from U.C., Santa Barbara, where he was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow. His master’s thesis was on Meyerhold, and his doctoral work was on the Brothers Fay and the Abbey Theatre. (Throughout the rest of his life, Bill was considered a leading scholar on Irish theatre.) He taught at U.C.S.B., at the University of Kansas, at Bowling Green State University, and was a part-time teacher and lecturer at Southern Oregon University.
While at the University of Kansas, through the miracle of electromagnetic surgery, the shell fragments were moved and Bill was able to return to acting. He briefly attended American Conservatory Theatre in San Francisco where the conservatory staff immediately recognized his talents and recommended him to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. His career eventually took him to many major regional theatres and to New York, where he appeared onstage and in commercials, television and film.
In addition to his work as an actor, Bill served as Dramaturg for more than 40 productions at Rubicon Theatre. Other dramaturgical credits include Juilliard and the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre in Canada. He also directed productions, including George Bernard Shaw’s The Devil’s Disciple and Picasso at the Lapin Agile (with longtime friend and associate Paul Provenza), both at Rubicon.
Bill was living in Ventura, California and working with Rubicon Theatre Company at the time of his death. He was “the heart and conscience of the art,” according to Rubicon co-founder Karyl Lynn Burns. Bill was 71-years-old.
Bill loved animals, and was preceded in death by his most recent cat, whom he dearly missed. He has no known living relatives, but leaves behind an adoring and grieving family consisting of Diana and Timothy Smith of Ventura, Paul Provenza of Los Angeles, Karyl Lynn Burns and James O’Neil of Ventura; and an extended family of friends, colleagues, former students, mentees and waitpersons at 24-hour restaurants in Ventura and New York.
The public is invited to remember and honor Bill’s life and work at a celebration on Sunday, July 19 at 4:00 p.m. at Rubicon Theatre Company, 1006 E. Main Street (the corner of Main and Laurel in Ventura). A light supper will be served in the reception room after the service. Those who wish to speak or send letters or thoughts about Bill should contact Stephanie Coltrin at (805) 667-2912, ext. 225 or via email to [email protected]. To R.S.V.P., please call (805) 667-2900.
Donations may be made in Bill’s honor to Rubicon Theatre Company for the “William Keeler Artistic Fund,” which will be dedicated to deepening the company’s artistic work through increased rehearsal time and research. Contributions may be sent to RTC at 1006 E. Main Street, Ventura, CA 93001, or by contacting Alyson Melling at (805) 667-2912, ext. 237.
Actor/Director/Dramaturg Bill Keeler Dies at 71; Celebration of His Life to Be Held on July 19