Honor roll: <EM>Hardcastle & McCormick</EM>'s Keith and Hugh-Kelly Honor roll: Hardcastle & McCormick's Keith and Hugh-Kelly

Question: What was the last show Brian Keith did? The one with the car, I mean. Thank you.

Answer: Well, that's really two answers, Mary Pat. The late Keith's last show wasn't ABC's Hardcastle & McCormick, which ran from September 1983 to July 1986. That would be NBC's sitcom Walter and Emily, which was on the schedule for a year beginning in November 1991, and even that was preceded by CBS' 1989 comedy Heartland and ABC's Pursuit of Happiness.

Hardcastle was a hit for ABC for a short while, and it's funny that you remember it as "the one with the car." I'm sure Keith, who played crusty retired judge Milton Hardcastle, and costar Daniel Hugh-Kelly, who played sidekick and crack driver "Skid" McCormick, would have much preferred their show to be remembered as a buddy comedy. In fact, in a 1984 TV Guide interview, the equally grumpy-in-real-life Keith tried his darndest to pretend that's what drew him to the show, even when he'd sworn off series TV after pulling down truckloads of cash from Family Affair and saying publicly he never needed to work again.

"I get tired of sitting home and doin' nothing," said the actor, who'd left network TV after five years of FA to enjoy life in a $2.5-million house on Diamond Head, Hawaii, with his wife and kids. "If I'm doing something eight months of the year, I don't mind loafing the other four. But, lately, I've been finding fewer and fewer movies I'd like to do. And when that happens, I get hard to live with. Then this thing came along. I read it. I liked it. This character Hardcastle: I figured I could live with him for five years if I had to. There was something going on there. You don't get a helluva lot of character in series TV. They're more likely to star the car."

When pressed by a reporter, however, the cranky star, who at one point asked his publicist why writers can't ask him something sensible for a change, conceded that the car was a big part of the show's appeal. Did that get annoying after a while? "I don't pay any attention," he said. "The stunt people take care of all that. All I do is get in and out of the Coyote [the car Skid drove, which required anyone riding in it to enter and exit through the window], which is no mean trick. You can't get into the S.O.B. without bending yourself into a pretzel. Me, I'd rather drive a pickup."

Why take such a show? "You learn to read a pilot script," Keith explained. A pilot isn't designed to be good, but only to spell out to the network what it is that's going to make people tune in. Everything has to be either stark drama or screamingly funny with everybody dropping their pants all the time. You read most pilots and tell yourself, 'no, no, no, that's not life!' So you go with the character and ignore the hardware."

Producers Patrick Hasburgh and Stephen J. Cannell didn't name Keith as their first choice for the part. In fact, they were considering Jack Warden, Fred Astaire and Keenan Wynn before Cannell came up with Keith, who then refused to read for them because he didn't think he needed to. "I never heard of these guys," he said. "Of course, I can be talking to 40 Academy Award winners and never know the difference. People in Muncie, Indiana, probably know more about them than I do. But I figure what the hell, if they're smart enough to hire me, they must have something."

Sadly, Keith's toughness of spirit couldn't carry him all the way through life. The actor, reportedly under treatment for cancer and depressed because of the chemotherapy and the recent suicide of his daughter, took his own life in 1997.