A Piece of Light

By Emily Gold Boutilier / May / June 2003
June 22nd, 2007
William Kelley, an Academy Award–winning screenwriter, best-selling novelist, and scriptwriter for some of the most popular television shows of the 1960s and 1970s, died of cancer on February 3. He was seventy-three and lived in Bishop, California.

Kelley shared a screenwriting Academy Award for the 1985 movie Witness, the story of an Amish boy who witnesses a murder. In the movie Harrison Ford plays a police detective who hides out with the boy and his mother (played by Kelly McGillis) after discovering that some of his colleagues were involved in the killing.

Kelley studied for the priesthood at Villanova before transferring to Brown, and religion is a theme in much of his work. His first novel, the 1959 best-seller Gemini, is the story of a young seminarian’s search for love and spiritual fulfillment. His last novel, A Servant of Slaves, which was published in 2003, is based on the life of Henriette Delille, who cofounded an order of African-American nuns in antebellum New Orleans.

“Writing is holy as most of the people in this world are holy,” Kelley said in accepting an award at the 2001 Las Vegas Screenwriters Conference, “and we must not fail them. We are uniquely empowered to lift audiences up and to give them their proper piece of light. We must show them how sweet and fair and noble life can be. We must help them believe that the best in mankind has yet to prevail.”

Kelley wrote more than 150 scripts for such well-known television shows as Gunsmoke, Bonanza, Kung Fu, and The Dukes of Hazzard. He also wrote for the miniseries How the West Was Won. He served in the U.S. Air Force in the late 1940s. As a Brown student he won numerous awards and literary contests, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa, and gave a senior oration at his graduation. He started his career as a book editor.

Kelley is survived by his wife, Nina, 864 Rocking K Rd., Bishop 93514; two daughters, including Shaun Kelley Jahshan ’86; four brothers, including John ’57; a sister; and three grandchildren

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May / June 2003