DeForest Kelley will always be known to Star Trek fans as Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the gruff but lovable doctor from Star Trek: The Original Series. Kelley, known to his friends as just De, portrayed his iconic character for all three seasons of the show’s run. He reprised the role for Star Trek: The Animated Series and the original Star Trek movies.
According to a tribute published in People Magazine after his death, Kelley rarely acted after appearing in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. However, he loved reliving his Star Trek days by talking to fans at conventions.
The beloved actor passed away on June 11, 1999, at a Los Angeles hospital. He spent his last days with his wife, who was in the same hospital with a broken leg. Longtime friend, producer A.C. Lyles, told People that he worried more about his wife’s leg than his own life in those last few days.
How did Kelley Die?
At the time of Kelley’s death, the cause of death was not widely known. Many publications, like Variety and The LA Times, reported that hospital officials would only say that he died after a long battle with a chronic illness. A couple of weeks after his death, Lyles told People that he’d passed away after a year and a half long battle with stomach cancer.
Kristine M. Smith, a close personal friend of the Kelleys, spoke to The Spectrum about the end of Kelley’s life for a tribute piece the publication did in 2016. She told the publication that even as he got sicker, Kelley kept his illness well-hidden from all but his closest friends. Smith said that his main concern was making sure others weren’t worrying about him.
She also revealed the reason he never publicly announced his illness. Kelley loved his fans, especially his Trekkie fans. He always answered letters and cards personally, even after he began to get sick. He told Smith that he knew publicly announcing his illness would lead to a deluge of fan mail and that he was in no condition to answer each card and letter personally. When Smith suggested sending a form letter, Kelley vehemently objected. He told her he’d continue to sign pictures for as long as he could, which he did up until the end.
Kelley Wanted to be a Doctor, but he Settled for Playing One on TV
According to Variety’s tribute to the actor, published shortly after his death, Kelley had wanted to be a real doctor from a very young age. His childhood hero was his uncle, the doctor who’d helped bring him into the world. However, he couldn’t afford to go to medical school. He ended up acting almost by accident. He made it onto the cast for a local stage production and just kept acting from then on.
Before he was cast in his iconic role, Kelley was actually known for Westerns. In the 1950s and 1960s, Kelley had small roles in several Western-themed television shows including the seminal show Bonanza.
However, his role as Dr. McCoy shaped the rest of his career. After Star Trek, he had a series of television small roles. Once Star Trek: The Animated Series came out, the rest of his career was rooted in the Trek universe.
Almost 22 years after his death, Kelley’s portrayal of McCoy is still treasured by Star Trek fans around the world.