On Valentine's Day last month, Richard Kiley felt too sick to go out and buy a gift for Patricia, his wife of 31 years. "He hated to shop anyway," she says. So she asked him to do something he loved: to sing. "He was always singing to me, [even] when we were driving in the car," says Patricia, 71. He made her a tape of 1930s romantic ballads, old Irish songs and poems. "I told him it would be something I would treasure," she says.

On March 5, Kiley—whose 50-plus-year acting career stretched from his signature role in Broadway's Man of La Mancha to films and Emmy-winning TV turns—died at 76 from myelodysplasia, a bone marrow and blood disorder, at a hospital near his Warwick, N.Y., home. At his funeral, a flutist brought mourners to tears by playing "The Impossible Dream," which Kiley had performed more than 2,000 times in La Mancha. "We all lost it," says Patricia.

Born in Chicago, Kiley "was strikingly handsome, and he also had talent," remembers comedian Steve Allen, a high school friend. Breaking into Broadway in the 1950s, Kiley won raves in both dramas and musicals, earning Tonys for 1959's Redhead and the long-running La Mancha, which opened in 1965. The versatile actor—"He always felt he was a character man in a leading man's body," says Patricia—appeared in films including Blackboard Jungle, Looking for Mr. Goodbar and, most recently, Patch Adams. A grandfather of 12 (he had six children before splitting with first wife Mary Bell Wood), Kiley also acted in dozens of TV productions, including 1983's The Thorn Birds, and lent his baritone to voice-overs. But his passion was the theater. "He made you feel that what you were doing for a living was still an event," says pal Adam Arkin. "He loved being on the stage," says Patricia. "That's where Richard's heart was."