Derek Keeling, Broadway actor and one-time reality competition contestant, has died. The Scott Depot native was 38.
Keeling, a 1999 Winfield High School graduate, caught his first big break in 2007 when he took third place in the NBC reality competition “Grease: You’re the One That I Want!”
The winners of the show were then cast in a Broadway revival of the musical. After contest winner Max Crumm left the production, Keeling took on the role of Danny Zuko.
His success with “Grease” led to other opportunities, many of them productions built around the music of the 1950s.
In a 2011 interview with the Charleston Gazette, Keeling said, “At first, I kind of fought that, but I’ve sort of become the guy to call. It’s really become a niche for me. At least, it gets me the audition.”
Along with playing one of the leads in “Grease,” Keeling played the Fonz in a musical based on the television show “Happy Days,” Chad in the Elvis Presley jukebox musical “All Shook Up,” and Skip in the ’50s era-musical “Life Could Be A Dream.”
He also appeared in “A Tale of Two Cities” on Broadway and won the Midtown International Theater Festival award for Best Actor in a Musical for his role as Barry in “Connect-Disconnect.”
Outside of his turn as Danny Zuko, Keeling is probably best remembered for playing Johnny Cash in “Million Dollar Quartet,” which was based around an impromptu jam session in the 1950s with Cash, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis.
It was a role Keeling reprised several times. He toured nationally with the production and even brought the music of the “man in black” back to West Virginia in 2013 for a hospice benefit at South Charleston’s LaBelle Theater.
Keeling said that touring and playing Johnny Cash gave him a new perspective on his career.
In 2013, he told the Gazette, “Touring was amazing. I had no idea the tour was going to be like that, and it kind of changed me a lot in the sense that, when I was a lot younger, I played a lot of music. I used to think of myself as more of a musician, but then I got into the theater world and became more of an actor.”
While on tour, he began to play out with the band to help promote the show, which led him back to performing concerts and writing music again.
Keeling took a brief break from acting and released at least one record before returning to live theater. He was again performing as Cash in 2017.
Capital High School drama teacher Jeff Haught remembered Keeling as a talented young performer, a good singer and a true athlete who loved where he was from.
“He was a good friend,” Haught said.
The drama teacher worked with Keeling when they were both at Winfield High School in the 1990s and they stayed in touch after the musician and actor left for college and through the television competition and the career that followed it.
Haught remembered going to see him on Broadway.
“He used to take all kinds of time with his fans,” he said. “He loved doing selfies and whenever he walked into a room, all the girls went wild, but it was just Derek.”
Keeling died Dec. 12, according to an obituary in Sunday’s Gazette-Mail. The cause of death was not given.
A celebration of Keeling’s life will be held Jan. 20 from 2 to 4 p.m. at the Valley Park Conference Center in Hurricane. Everyone is welcome.