June 25, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

Growing up in Atlanta in the 1920s, DeForest Kelley — who died after a long illness June 11 in Woodland Hills, Calif., at age 79 — wanted to be a doctor. His family couldn’t afford the schooling, but he would, eventually, become a physician — in the 23rd century as the U.S.S. Enterprise’s chief medical officer, Leonard ”Bones” McCoy, on Star Trek.

Creator Gene Roddenberry described Trek as ”Wagon Train in space.” Fitting, then, that he should cast Kelley, whose laconic drawl served him well in appearances on TV Westerns such as Gunsmoke and Bonanza, and opposite Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas in 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. Over three TV seasons (1966-69) and in six feature films (1979-91), Kelley proved to be the stabilizing element of the original Trek‘s central trio: The lovable gruffness of his country doctor was the ideal foil for both the earnest courage of William Shatner’s Captain Kirk and the glacial intellect of Leonard Nimoy’s Mr. Spock. It’s telling of Kelley’s memorable gravity that at news of his death, Trek aficionados could not resist the gallows humor of quoting his most famous phrase: ”He’s dead, Jim.”

For 33 years, Kelley lived in the shadow of McCoy, but it didn’t bother him a whit. ”Star Trek has been cream in the coffee,” he once said. In paying tribute to Kelley, Nimoy noted that his friend ”represented humanity, and it fit him well. He was a decent, loving, caring partner, and will be deeply missed.” In other words, he lived long and prospered.

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