June 28, 1999 12:00 PM

Late one night in 1972, Paramount producer A.C. Lyles ran into his friend, Star Trek’s DeForest Kelley, at their Tucson hotel. Deciding to grab a snack, they drove to an all-night food mart. “He got some crackers, and I got some cookies, and we opened the milk and started talking,” Lyles recalls. As they ate in the store, they were suddenly blinded by lights. An alien ship? No, but definitely a close encounter. “Cars were driving up like crazy,” says Lyles. “The cashier had called all his friends and said, ‘Guess who’s here? DeForest Kelley.’ There must have been 25 cars. He got out and talked to them, posed for pictures and signed autographs. He loved being a part of it.”

“It,” of course, is that pop cultural supernova known as Star Trek. The NBC science fiction series had a mere three-season run, from 1966 to 1969, but lives long in reruns and prospers to this day, having inspired three TV shows and eight feature films, not to mention millions of rabid fans worldwide. And it made a star of the unassuming Kelley—”De” to friends—who died June 11 in Los Angeles at age 79 after an 18-month struggle with stomach cancer. When Kelley saw the show’s pilot in the early ’60s, he turned to series creator Gene Roddenberry. “Gene,” he said, “that will be the biggest hit or the biggest miss ever.”

Kelley played Dr. Leonard “Bones” McCoy, the cranky but humane physician who served as sounding board for Capt. James T. Kirk (William Shatner) and quick-tempered foil for the painfully logical Vulcan, Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy). Bones’s two signature lines have both become comedy-skit staples. Confronted with a fresh intergalactic crisis, he’d sputter, “Damn it, Jim, I’m just a country doctor!” Or examining a victim of some alien foe, he’d emphatically declare, “He’s dead, Jim.”

Off-camera the Atlanta native maintained the gentlemanly reserve of his Southern upbringing. “He was a great guy,” says James Doohan, Star Trek’s Scotty. “But he liked to keep to himself.” Author Harlan Ellison, who wrote for Star Trek, calls his friend Kelley “a courtly man. You can call 1,400 people, and not one would have a bad word to say about him.” Remembering that Kelley could discuss writers as obscure as Lao-tzu, Ellison adds, “He cared about things of greater value than just ‘How big is your part?’ If you talked to Shatner, all you’d get is, ‘Leonard has five more lines than I do.’ ”

In fact, at the time Star Trek premiered, Kelley, a veteran of several movies, was at least as well-known as his two costars. The son of Baptist minister Ernest Kelley and his wife, Clara, young DeForest sang in his father’s church choir and on Atlanta radio shows. In Hollywood, where he moved in 1937, Kelley eventually found a niche as a character actor, playing villains in Westerns such as 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and TV’s Bonanza. He also became a favorite of ex-cop Roddenberry, then an aspiring producer, who cast him in two unsuccessful TV pilots. “Gene loved working with him,” says Roddenberry’s widow, Majel Barrett, who played Bones’s assistant, Nurse Chapel. “He brought him with him.” When it came time to cast Star Trek, Roddenberry offered Kelley a choice—Bones or Spock. He never regretted turning down the pointy ears. “I wouldn’t have been anywhere near Leonard Nimoy,” he once told the Chicago Tribune. “He’s marvelous.”

Kelley all but retired after appearing in 199l’s Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country. He loved mingling with Trekkers at conventions around the world but, unlike many of the show’s stars, declined to write a memoir. “I’ve got stories that people might find interesting,” he said last year. “It just seems like such an enormous job to me.” He told the Houston Chronicle that his greatest legacy was to “have inspired a great number of people to enter the medical world.”

Kelley’s favorite chore was pruning the 50 rosebushes at the modest one-story ranch house in Sherman Oaks, Calif., that he shared with his wife of nearly 55 years, former actress Carolyn Dowling. The couple, who had no children, met as actors in a play in Long Beach, Calif., in 1942 and married three years later, exchanging two 25-cent Indian rings. “They were the most loving couple you’ve ever seen in your life,” says Barrett. Entering the terminal stages of cancer four months ago, Kelley moved from a hospital near his home to one in Woodland Hills, Calif., where his wife, 82, is still recuperating from a broken leg. “He was more worried about Carolyn than himself,” says Lyles. “Carolyn would visit him in her wheelchair.” She was by his side when Kelley crossed the final frontier.

Tom Gliatto

Tom Cunneff in Los Angeles

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