The self-directedBruce Kessler

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“I did things that other people didn’t do,” Kessler once told his little brother, Stephen — and it started early. Growing up in Los Angeles, Kessler had some older friends. One kid had moved back to town after spending time in Indiana; the kid, six years older than Kessler, liked to race cars, which fascinated Kessler. The kid was Steve McQueen, who later went on to be a movie star who liked to do his own stunt driving in movies …and still raced cars. McQueen often brought another kid who also liked driving fast, and parked his motorcycle in the Kessler’s garage: James Dean.

Kessler in an undated family photo.

When Kessler was 16, he drove in his first race — thanks to having fake I.D. to make him appear old enough. He drove his mother’s Jaguar XK120 roadster; it’s unclear if his mother knew about what he was doing. He did well for the first several years, and was dubbed “Little Lead Foot” says his brother, Stephen, “for his astonishing skill at the wheel in sports cars, winning races and setting track records.” He sometimes drove on a team with another kid his own age, Lance Reventlow, who became well known in racing circles and had no problems affording race cars: Reventlow was the only child of “poor little rich girl” Barbara Hutton, heiress to a third of the Woolworth Company, the popular “5 and dime” store chain.

In 1955, Kessler and Reventlow, on their way to the Salinas Road Races, stopped for snacks along the highway. Shortly after, a brand new Porsche Spyder pulled in for the same reason. It was James Dean, by then quite a famous actor, who had just wrapped filming his scenes for the movie Giant. He was driving with his factory-trained Porsche mechanic, Rolf Wütherich. Kessler had planned to ride with him, but Wütherich went along instead, so he instead rode with Reventlow. The four chatted, and agreed to meet later for dinner. Kessler and Reventlow left, and a bit later Dean and Wütherich followed. Not too far down the road a 1950 Ford Tudor, driven by 23-year-old U.S. Navy veteran Donald Turnupseed, made a left turn in front of the Porsche, which witnesses said was going about 85 mph. Dean tried to avoid hitting the car, but couldn’t. Dean, 24, died before he could get to a hospital; Wütherich survived with serious injuries, and Turnupseed was essentially uninjured; the crash, and Dean’s death, were ruled accidental.

Kessler with Steve McQueen before that fateful 1959 race in Pomona, California. (CBS Television)

In 1958 while driving for Ferrari at night in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in France, Kessler couldn’t see a crashed car and hit it. He was seriously injured, but managed to race again. In 1959, Kessler and McQueen entered the Examiner Grand Prix in Pomona. Kessler crashed, “which I witnessed from the grandstands where I was sitting with my horrified parents,” said his brother Stephen, now a newspaper columnist. He was in a coma for days. After a third crash in 1962, he “retired from racing in the prime of his driving years, having decided not to tempt fate further,” Stephen wrote. Kessler found he had a knack for directing after making a short film funded by Reventlow, The Sound of Speed (1962), about getting a car ready to race. He excelled in the fast-pace environment of TV shows, starting with several first-season episodes of The Monkees, and many other shows — The Flying Nun, Mission: Impossible, It Takes a Thief, I Dream of Jeannie, Adam-12, Alias Smith and Jones, Marcus Welby M.D., Ironside, The Rockford Files, Quincy M.E., Baretta, McCloud, Barnaby Jones, B.J. and the Bear, Freebie and the Bean, ChiPs, The A-Team, Knight Rider, The Greatest American Hero, The Fall Guy — it goes on and on until his last assignment, an episode of Renegade in 1997.

Film poster for The Sound of Speed (1962)

In retirement, Kessler loved to boat and fish, and rebuilt commercial fishing boats into fishing yachts. “He described this to me as no different than chopping the hot rods he drove as a teenager,” Stephen said, which his brother called “logical modifications.” He lived aboard his boats for more than 25 years with his wife, the actress Joan Freeman, recording more than 100,000 nautical miles and 25,000 hours in his captain’s logbooks. Stephen said Bruce’s “epic personal journey earned him accolades and fame in three different fields, any one of which would have sufficed for most adventurers.” Bruce, he said in homage, “must’ve planted in my subconscious the idea that one need not have a conventional life; that you could modify your own hot rod, so to speak, write your own script and direct your own story. He showed me that you didn’t have to conform to anyone else’s expectations and, if you had the nerve and learned the skills, you could surprise yourself and everyone else by living the way you liked.” Bruce died at his home in Marina Del Rey, Calif., under hospice care on April 4, 11 days after he turned 88.

From This is True for 7 April 2024

4 Comments on “Bruce Kessler, The self-directed”

  1. He seemed to have managed to do what most people would want to do, if only….

    Yep. And had some incredibly lucky breaks along the way. -rc

    • I have a cousin who appeared to have a charmed life, but in fact it was also due to hard work and when a lucky break came along was ready to take advantage of it. Hard work, long hours, some lucky breaks and “suddenly” after thirty years he’s really ‘lucky’. So this guy had talent, hard work, connections and yes, a bit of luck, so he was able to get ‘lucky’. Good for him.

      I have been a successful writer for 40 years, and it took a huge amount of work, schooling, honing my craft, and planning. But I would be a fool not to recognize that luck played a part too. Luck works a lot better when you set yourself up to ride the wave if and when it comes. -rc


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