Bob Keeshan, 1927-2004

By Ken Tucker
Updated February 06, 2004 at 05:00 AM EST

EW remembers our captain, Bob Keeshan

The dignified, quietly garrulous Captain Kangaroo, Bob Keeshan — who died Jan. 23 at age 76 after a long illness — commenced his career as the exact opposite sort of character: the silent, seltzer-squirting Clarabell the Clown in the early years of The Howdy Doody Show. Even more ironic is that Keeshan was also an ex-Marine who originally intended to become a lawyer. Neither tough guy nor shark, Keeshan (who donned a white wig to assume the serene grandfatherly air he sought until his own hair turned gray) devoted most of his career to looking soberly into the camera and addressing children at home with calm respect while maintaining an impish sense of fun. No pop-culture snob, he also aired a wacky cartoon, Tom Terrific.

Whether chatting with the laconic Mr. Green Jeans (actor Hugh Brannum), being tricked out of carrots by the rascally puppet Bunny Rabbit, or listening patiently to the poetry recitals of Grandfather Clock, the Captain, puttering around his magical house, jangling a huge set of keys in his kangaroo-pouch-size pockets, can be seen through contemporary eyes as a precursor to Pee-wee Herman — but without any of the camp or the scandal. Captain Kangaroo, which premiered in 1955, ran first on CBS and then PBS for a total of nearly four decades, winning six Emmys, three Peabody awards, and countless baby boomers’ affection. It was a haven from what Keeshan himself came to call ”the Sesame syndrome” — short-attention-span children’s programming. He once said, ”Play is the work of children; it’s very serious stuff,” a remark worthy of a Zen master, not a mere captain.