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Sentimental Celt

DENNIS O’KEEFE, born James Edward Flannagan, is as Irish as any good American can be, and as masculine as a sock in the jaw. The first thing that impresses you when he enters a room is his bigness and his breeze. The kind of frame that makes a well-tailored tweed look as if the pleasure were mutual, and a step as easy as his grin. The next thing you notice is his eyes, not only because they are such a good unabashed blue, but because of the mixture of friendliness, intelligence and tolerance all mirrored therein. Young eyes, but they’ve been around.




The O’Keefe career has covered more territory than any other on the screen, if you count the mileage of his ups and downs. He is the only actor since Gable to climb from the limbo of the extra ranks to the top. Early in his course he knew the swift excitement of being rocketed to stardom, before he was ready for it—and soon after that, he had firsthand experience with the dull thud that follows when an actor takes the blame for a producer’s million-dollar mistake. When ready and qualified for stardom, he learned what it meant to have to slug his way back through uninspiring roles in uninspired pictures.

Today, success is something he holds securely in his two big fists. His roles in the past few months have set a record in versatility: Virile adventure in “The Fighting Seabees,” broad comedy in “Up In Mabel’s Room,” musical romance in “Sensations Of ’44,” and serious drama in “The Story Of Dr. Wassell.” “Brewster’s Millions,” now in the making, will again raise him to full stardom. As for those years in between when he knew hunger, disillusionment and the double-double-cross, he prefers to look back on them and grin. It was a hard fight, Ma, but he won.

It was on that hard and uninviting come-back trail that Dennis met and married pretty Louise Stanley. It didn’t last very long and he’s never talked much about it, but for several years his attitude toward marriage was like that of the fellow who was invited by a friend to accompany him to the library, and said, “Well, thanks—but I’ve read a book!” It was a nice, handy attitude to take along on a good time—self-winding and shock-proof—until he encountered the delightful Duna.

Steffi, born something we can’t pronounce, is petite and provocative, with warm brown eyes and a blithe habit of combining English wordage and Hungarian phrasing into something more intriguing than Esperanto will ever be. She is a native of Budapest, and “Duna,” which means Danube, is the name given her by Noel Coward when he discovered her dancing at the Wonderbar in Berlin. Encouraged by Coward, she accepted a London engagement and achieved a success which eventually brought her to Hollywood. She, too, had chalked up one unhappy marriage as the former Mrs. John Carroll.

She and Dennis met on a blind date, which doesn’t quite describe it, for Steffi, at least, had her eyes wide open. She had seen a picture called “The Chaser,” featuring a hunk of man named O’Keefe. Like every feminine creature from six to sixty she had had her screen crushes, but this was the first time she “had ever wanted a man to come down off the screen.” In her forthright manner she decided to do something about it. She got Virginia Field, who was engaged to young Britisher Richard Greene, to get Dick to ask best pal Dennis to dinner.

The date almost didn’t come off. “With her cute little Hungarian slyness,” as her husband now recalls it, Steffi thought it best that Dick didn’t tell Dennis who it was that. wanted to meet him. She Had no way of knowing, of course, that the big screen thrill of the O’Keefe boyhood had been Renée Adorée, whom she closely resembles.

He Forgot the dinner party. He was lounging in the locker room of his golf club, somewhat the worse for wear after a strenuous eighteen holes, when Dick phoned him.

“I had on a pair of slacks so old they were a hop ahead of a pension, and a very tired old leather jacket. all I could do was borrow a suit of clothes. Truman Bradley lent me a clean shirt that didn’t fit and I had to wear the borrowed pants falling off my hips all night, in one of those Gary Cooper belt-lines—

“I might add, that was my last night for lingering in locker rooms—wives have a way of making you forego the postmortems and get on home.”

The dinner party was pretty hard on the lend-lease togs, because every time Steffi aimed one of her “happily hashed” bits of conversation in his direction—which was continuously—Mr. O’Keefe nearly laughed off Mr. Bradley’s shirt buttons. He was convinced that Miss Duna was a girl of rare discrimination where males were concerned—and she should see what he could do in a suit that fit him. He made a date for the very next evening, and since all actors have a pretty fair wardrobe, managed to fill in all of her time until i she left on a road tour with a George Jessel show.

He put up with her absence until she got as far as St. Louis. The long-distance proposal cost $80 with no war tax, and the punch line came when Steffi insisted she was just a working girl and couldn’t walk off her. job. “But if you weren’t a working girl, you wouldn’t need your job!” said O’Keefe. Not Standard romantic phrasing perhaps, but he is proud to recall that it was all A-picture dialogue.

They were married in the picturesque Spanish quarter of Phoenix, Arizonia, a few minutes after Steffi arrived by plane. Not till several weeks afterward did the groom find out that all her life the bride had harbored a fear of flying. Evidently it was no time for a girl to be squeamish about such things as life and death.

Sentimental, as every other Celtic soul, Dennis still remembers every detail of their wedding trip. After four years, you can interrupt him in the midst of any conversation with a question such as, “What was the most beautiful sight you ever saw in your life?” and he’ll answer quickly, “The Painted Desert—on the first day of my honeymoon—

“To get good and mushy about it, it seemed like all nature was alive with the color of my own happiness,” he’ll recall. “In one day Steffi and I drove through miles of beautiful sunset, through a cloudburst and a rainbow, a hail storm and, finally, as we headed up the mountains, through falling snow. Purple snow, falling at sunset on a canyon rim. It was the hail that really fascinated Steffi—they don’t have a word for it in the Hungarian language. ‘Look, Dennis,’ she said, ‘ice-pieces it’s raining!’ ”

His wife’s English is still his greatest source of amusement and delight. One night recently they were Mocambo-ing with friends when another male in the party thought it might be fun to tease her with some deprecating remarks about her mate. Steffi took it wide-eyed for a minute, then turned to him in distress. “Dennis, you better stop him—” she wailed, “he’s building you down to me!”

“I am beginning to suspect,” he says, “that Steffi is pretty cunning about that garbled lingo of hers. I happened in when she was arguing with a delivery boy one day and she was giving it to him in straight English. I think she knows just how to charm me—”


The O’Keefe’s, Mr. and Mrs., at first moved into a home owned by Steffi, mostly because she couldn’t dispose of it. With a mannish desire to provide shelter of his own, Dennis bought a cottage at Malibu Beach. Although they have since acquired a more formal residence, the “shack” continues to be their favorite possession.

“It’s one of those places where you think the roof is going to come down every time a wave breaks. I bought it when it was just a hop ahead of complete collapse. We each took a thousand dollars and got to work fixing it up. Steffi bought furniture, curtains and things—I did the painting, inside and out, put a few nails in the roof and built a fence around it. You can’t imagine the fun—it turned into a race to see who could get the most effect with the least money.

“We don’t care much for formal parties—I’m always self-conscious in a crowd. It’s not claustrophobia, but it might bel ‘elephantitis’—I never lumber across a room without knocking over somone’s cocktail. I am also addicted to mistaking those large hats ladies wear for lampshades, and trying to find the pull-cord—”

The O’Keefe household now numbers four, including dark-eyed Juliana, Steffi’s daughter by her first marriage, and small Edward, who is a sort of bird’s-eye view of dad Dennis. Their home proper is in Beverly Hills.

“It’s not a new house—we like the feel of a place having been lived in. The architecture is none too brilliant—Mediterranean in style—but we’ll do it over, a room at a time, after the war. Meantime, it has all the things we both wanted—all kinds of room for the kids, and four bathrooms, which delights Steffi. There’s a small guest-house in the back—no pool for the kids to fail into—but a nice large solarium upstairs. What attracted us to it in the first place was the lovely trees—three beautiful straight palms out front—they’re our landmark.”

It’s easy to see that somewhere, back in those days when the big things weren’t coming too easy, this very intelligent young Irishman learned the pricelessness of small things. Success is a great mental satisfaction, he admits, but materially it’s mostly a matter of being able to buy a $4 steak once in a while at a place he used to pass by, sniffing, on his way to coffee and doughnuts. He belongs to an expensive country club now, where he shoots golf in the low 70’s, but he still likes to play baseball on the lots with the extras. One of the things he’s retained from those days when fate was treating him like a yo-yo, is the memory of how some of these fellows stepped back and pushed him up front of the cameras, to “give the kid a chance.”

It’s a satisfaction, too, to be able to repay his mother for the unfailing humor and good sense which helped him when he was, “sitting by a telephone struck dumb, when it should have been ringing with calls from the casting departments.

“There was a kid across the Street doing extra work just like I was, and it didn’t help any when I’d see him dash out of the house on his way to a job somewhere. One day I saw him come out of the house in a tuxedo, headed for a wedding scene to which I hadn’t been invited, and it made me sore. ‘That does it,’ I yelled. ‘If that guy can keep working when I can’t, I’m going to get out of pictures!’ I remember my mother washing dishes at the sink, and chuckling. ‘What do you mean, get out of pictures?’ she asked. ‘You haven’t even been in them yet!’ ”

It’s been interesting for him and Steffi to discover that sentiment, and also superstition, is practically the same in any language—it isn’t any better to walk under a ladder in Hungarian than it is in English. He has a private superstition against being superstitious about black cats. It dates back to a time when he turned around on the street to avoid an ebony feline and hit a car, strewing the automobile he was driving (a borrowed one) all over the street.

When Producer Edward Small first announced his intention of giving him over-the-title billing in “Brewster’s Millions,” Dennis protested.

‘‘My idea of being starred is that it puts the actor in the same spot as the comedian who walks out on the stage with baggy pants, floppy shoes and a nose that lights up. After all that build-up, he’d better be funny—and the star had better be good!”

Steffi just smiles—she knows Dennis won’t have any trouble living up to Mr. Small’s “build down”!







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