Emmett Kelly Jr. carried the torch of his father, Emmett Kelly Sr., as one of the best-known and most instantly recognizable American circus clowns, and, unlike his dad, an iconic presence in U.S. films and television programs. Born November 13, 1923, in Dyersville, TV, Kelly debuted as an onscreen presence in the early '50s. All of his film roles entail variations on the clown persona -- most extreme and unconventional.
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Kelly's initial bow, in 1951's The Fat Man, exemplifies this trend. Director William Castle's attempt to spin a Nero Wolfe-style yarn involves a gourmand detective (Jack Smart) who investigates the murder of a dentist and a dental hygienist; Kelly plays the wonderfully named Ed Deets, a homicidal clown responsible for the crimes, brought triumphantly to justice by Smart. Kelly chose a more traditional path in Cecil B. De Mille's 1952 Best Picture winner The Greatest Show on Earth, with a supporting role as himself, in full clown regalia. He then joined the cast of Nicholas Ray's oddball 1958 naturalist drama Wind Across the Everglades, as Bigamy Bob, a clown with multiple wives. In 1968, Kelly headlined the truly bizarre (and best forgotten) so-called "children's film" The Clown and the Kids. This U.S.-Bulgarian joint production cast Kelly as The Piper, the head of a family circus traveling through the Balkans, who summons a bunch of children with his flute and induces them to destroy an evil miller. The catchy soundtrack includes such numbers as "I Hate Kids," "I Mean He's Mean," and "I Used to be a Griper." Perhaps taking the film's disastrous reception as a cue, Kelly then ducked out of big-screen motion pictures altogether.
Prior to, during, and immediately following Kelly's onscreen work, he toured with a myriad of circuses and entertained at over 2,800 hospitals. He became a fixture on television commercials and in print advertisements, particularly during the 1970s and '80s. Emmett Kelly died in Tombstone, Arizona, of complications from pneumonia, on November 29, 2006. ~ Nathan Southern, Rovi