NEW YORK — Don Keefer played many distinctive roles in a long acting career. He was the son of Willy Loman’s neighbor in the original Broadway cast of “Death of a Salesman,” which opened in 1949, and for the next half-century he was a sought-after character actor onstage and in films, including “The Caine Mutiny,” Woody Allen’s “Sleeper,” and “Liar, Liar,” starring Jim Carrey.
But Mr. Keefer, who was 98 when he died on Sept. 7 in Sherman Oaks, Calif., may be best remembered for his role in a classic 1959 episode of “The Twilight Zone.”
The episode, “It’s a Good Life,” is set in a small town that has been paralyzed by the strange powers of an otherwise unremarkable 6-year-old boy named Anthony, played by Billy Mumy.
Anthony is able to transform people and animals that bother him into objects, or make them disappear, simply by concentrating. What sets him off more than anything are people who think “bad thoughts” about him.
Anthony’s tortured family and most of their terrified town have become practiced in humoring Anthony, but one neighbor, Dan Hollis, played by Mr. Keefer, reaches his breaking point.
Given a Perry Como record at his birthday party, hosted by Anthony’s parents, Hollis is urged not to play it, for fear it could anger Anthony. Hollis agrees but is frustrated and begins drinking. The alcohol soon overcomes him.
“You monster, you,” he says, staring at Anthony. “You dirty little monster! You murderer! You think about me. Go ahead, Anthony. You think bad thoughts about me, and maybe some man in this room, some man with guts, somebody who’s so sick to death of living in this kind of place and willing to take a chance, will sneak up behind you and lay something heavy across your skull and end this once and for all.”
No one does, and Anthony, as always, has his way.
“You’re a bad man,” Anthony says. “You’re a very bad man, and you keep thinking bad thoughts about me.”
With that, he points at Hollis and turns him into a jack-in-the-box, his cone-capped head bobbing on a spring.
Everyone is aghast but too afraid to challenge the boy. Anthony’s anguished father urges his son to do with the jack-in-the-box what he does with many of his creations — think it away to the cornfield outside.
Donald Hood Keefer was born Aug. 18, 1916, in Highspire, Pa., the youngest of three sons of a butcher and a homemaker. He graduated from the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1939 and performed excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays at the New York World’s Fair that same year.
In the Broadway staging of “Death of a Salesman,” directed by Elia Kazan, Mr. Keefer played Bernard, the studious son of Willy’s neighbor Charley, in a cast that included Lee J. Cobb (as Willy), Mildred Dunnock (Linda), Arthur Kennedy (Biff), and Cameron Mitchell (Happy).
Before then he had supporting roles on Broadway in “Junior Miss” and “Othello.” He studied method acting as an early member of the Actors Studio in Manhattan.
In 1951 he appeared in a film version of “Death of a Salesman,” his first movie role. He went on to appear in “Hellcats of the Navy” (1957), which starred Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis, the future first lady; “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming” (1966); and “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), among other films.