Best remembered for his work on television, where his rugged good looks made him a natural for westerns and for facial close-ups, Bruce Yarnell also had a career in musical theater. He played Sir Lionel in the original cast of the Broadway hit Camelot, created the role of General Kinesias in The Happiest Girl in the World, and shared the limelight with Ethel Merman in a 1966 revival of Annie Get Your Gun. Possessing a fine baritone voice, he also performed with the San Francisco Opera in his final years.
Born in Los Angeles in 1935, he achieved widespread recognition by his mid-twenties as the recurring character Chalk Breeson in the television series “Outlaws,” a drama about the untamed west. In 1963 he also made a guest appearance in another western, “The Wide Country.” Shortly afterward he played in two episodes of the epic cowboy series “Bonanza.”
His Broadway debut took place in 1960, when he created the role of Sir Lionel in Lerner and Loewe’s Arthurian musical Camelot in the esteemed company of Julie Andrews, Richard Burton, John Cullum, and Robert Goulet. Hugely popular and known as one of President Kennedy’s favorite shows, Camelot won multiple Tony Awards®. The following year, Yarnell played General Kinesias in the original cast of The Happiest Girl in the World, a musical based on Aristophanes’s Lysistrata, with a score adapted from works by Jacques Offenbach. Cyril Ritchard directed and played many of the roles, and Yarnell won the Theatre World Award for his work as a supporting actor. Columbia issued an original cast recording.
In 1966 Yarnell made his last appearance on the Great White Way, starring as Frank Butler in a revival of the Rodgers and Hammerstein hit Annie Get Your Gun, with Ethel Merman reprising her performance as Annie Oakley, a role she had created twenty years earlier. The following year Merman and Yarnell starred in a television broadcast of Annie Get Your Gun, with a cast that included Jerry Orbach as Charles Davenport.
Yarnell’s later television work included appearances on “Hogan’s Heros,” “The Smothers Brothers Show,” and “The Legend of Robin Hood,” a 1968 musical series in which he played Little John, with a cast including Roddy McDowall, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., and Walter Slezak. Yarnell also played Hippolyte in the film Irma la Douce (1963), starring Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine.
In the last years of his short life, Yarnell became a member of the San Francisco Opera, where his roles included Sharpless (Madama Butterfly), Amonasro (Aida), Dr. Falke (Die Fledermaus), and Marcello (La bohème), as well as four parts in Lulu.
Yarnell died in a plane crash in 1973 at the age of thirty-seven.