Check This Out: Gardner McKay

My stepfather was born in 1946 and he always says that 1962 – the year he was 16 – was “his” year. I’ve often thought that would indeed have been a great year to be born. If you’re American, being born in ’46 might have made you a cinch for Vietnam but I’m Canadian, so…

One television show from my stepfather’s youth that he always told me about in a dreamy, wistful way was Adventures in Paradise. Capt. Adam Troy, he would say, sailed his schooner all over the tropics, getting into adventures and living freely. It was presented to me as an idyllic way to live. I sought out the show and hoped to purchase it but found it unavailable. Until this wrong is righted, we’ll have to content ourselves with grainy episodes on YouTube. Which is OK by me; there’s something about public-domain-type decrepitude – like the crackle of your old LPs – that always seems fitting for something that’s coming to you out of the mists of time.

“Renaissance man” has been defined as someone who is “knowledgable, educated or proficient in a wide range of fields”. This description fits Gardner McKay perfectly. Born in affluence in New York City in 1932, McKay’s parents were advertising executive Hugh McKay and socialite Catherine Gardner McKay. Gardner’s great-grandfather was shipbuilder Donald McKay who was a Canadian born in Nova Scotia. Donald McKay was a renowned shipbuilder who’s firms built dozens of ships and set many sailing records. One ship built by the McKay firm was the Washington Irving that carried the first Kennedy – Patrick, grandfather of Joe Kennedy – to America from Ireland in 1849.

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Gardner modeling with Suzy Parker.

Gardner attended private schools in France until the death of his father at which point he went to live with grandparents in Lexington, Kentucky, a place he considered paradise. He went to Cornell University where he majored in art and wrote for local papers. He soon dropped out and moved to Greenwich Village where he began sculpting and took up photography, some of his photos being published in Life Magazine while his sculpting was exhibited in the Museum of Modern Art. When all of this attention lead to him being offered modeling work in France, he returned to Paris via the Île de France. During this trip, the ship passed the stricken Andrea Doria and McKay jumped into one of the rescue boats and snapped pictures and the photos were published internationally. He was eventually approached by an agent who took McKay to Hollywood. That’s a lot of boxes checked already. McKay was 25.

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After a few small movie roles (Raintree County), McKay was spotted in a coffee shop and was approached to star in his own TV series. James A. Michener was one of the most revered authors in American letters. He won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1948 book Tales of the South Pacific, a book that notably spawned the Rogers and Hammerstein musical, South Pacific. It also gave birth to a virtual cottage industry of music and television that appealed primarily to World War 2 and Korean War veterans who’s memories of being in tropical locations may not have been all horrific. Adventures in Paradise was billed as having been created by Michener when really it was only loosely based on his writings.

I can see why my stepfather loved Adventures in Paradise. To Have and Have Not (1944) may not be my favourite film but I’ve always said that Capt. Harry Morgan’s life in that film is a life I’d love to live; ex-pat boat captain living in a hotel in Martinique. The same goes for McKay’s show. Capt. Adam Troy was a Korean War vet who owned the schooner Tiki that sailed through the South Pacific picking up passengers and cargo and shuttling between ports. Capt. Troy never could seem to avoid intrigue and got up to all sorts of adventures involving nefarious crooks but also some lovely ladies. Notable guest stars include; David Janssen, Martin Landau and Vincent Price along with Canadian Yvonne De Carlo, Barbara Eden, Anne Francis, Suzanne Pleshette, Lizabeth Scott and Paulette Goddard who played Pleshette’s mother in Goddard’s fifth-to-last job in Hollywood. And an Elvis Aside: a regular cast member was Lani Kai, a Hawaiian actor and singer who played one of King’s friends in Blue Hawaii (1961).

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With Suzanne Pleshette.

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However, celebrity didn’t sit well with McKay. For example, near the end of his show’s run, director George Cukor offered McKay the chance to appear opposite Marilyn Monroe in Something’s Got to Give. The director was flabbergasted when Gardner declined. Monroe herself called McKay to make a breathy, female plea but it was to no avail. (The film, of course, never got made and Monroe was soon dead). Soon after, when Adventures was cancelled after three seasons, McKay escaped to the Amazon where he lived for two years before returning to France and then moving on to Egypt where he traveled the desert on camelback.

He returned to the US and appeared in The Pleasure Seekers (1964) as part of one of the most attractive casts to grace a movie at this time. His co-stars included Ann-Margret, Carol Lynley and Pamela Tiffin. After the ridiculously-titled I Sailed to Tahiti with an All-Girl Crew (1968) – another film featuring a gorgeous band of actresses – McKay was finally done with Hollywood.

He turned to writing, eventually authoring six plays and four novels and he also served as the drama critic for the LA Herald-Examiner. He taught writing classes at universities in Los Angeles, Alaska and Hawaii. He wrote TV movies and saw his plays produced on-stage. If all this wasn’t enough, a poem of his was set to music and recorded by David Soul! He bought property in Beverly Hills and kept something of a zoo there with African lions, ocelots, cheetah, goats, deer and mountain lions, three dogs, and a little monkey named Fink.

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At home with wife Madeleine Madigan.

Professional Bachelor McKay eventually did marry and he and his wife settled in Hawaii. Gardner had his own show on Hawaiian public radio when he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. He died in 2001 at the age of 69 and is buried in his beloved Kentucky. Interesting to me to think that although Gardner traveled the entire world, he considered Kentucky to be his paradise. His widow, artist Madeleine Madigan, finished McKay’s memoirs, Journey Without a Map, after his death. Appropriately, it features a forward written by Jimmy Buffett.

Sometimes you want an actor to always be a character you’ve seen them play. I hate the idea of Leonardo DiCaprio moving on from Rick Dalton. You think of how a person can immerse themselves in researching a role and diving in and really becoming that person and playing them onscreen in a movie or a show that you watch countless times. The idea that an actor will “turn their back” on that character can rankle me – but, of course, that’s what acting is all about, generally; various jobs portraying various characters. It seems, though, that Gardner McKay played Capt. Troy and then became him. A little like Jack Lord playing Steve McGarrett in Hawaii all those years and falling in love with the place and staying on there. Actually, though, it seems that in Gardner’s case he kinda was Capt. Troy already, played him onscreen and then afterwards carried on with his life being Capt. Troy, Capt. McKay. It’s this that places Gardner McKay in high esteem in my book.

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3 comments

  1. That’s quite a story. I remember that Gardner McKay, failing to become the icon that the Life magazine cover seemed to prophesy, was ridiculed as a kind of Troy McClure figure (except the Troy McClure didn’t exist yet)– an empty Hollywood mannequin. Seems there was more to him than that.

    • There sure was more to him than that. But I suppose if you’re working in Hollywood you are fair game – people are going to analyze your contributions and McKay was handsome but Olivier he wasn’t. I read that out of all the screen tests for “Adventures”, Gardner’s was nowhere near the best. They thought he was somewhat wooden but all agreed that he had that “something”. And that’s OK – after all, Keanu Reeves has worked in Hollywood for 30 years.

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