Captain Fantastic

updated 02/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/09/2004 AT 01:00 AM EST

When Michael Keeshan was a tot in the 1950s, he and his younger sisters Laurie and Maeve faithfully watched Captain Kangaroo at their Long Island, N.Y., home. None of them had any idea that the amiable man with the Dutch-boy do, walrus mustache and pouchlike pockets was their own father, Bob Keeshan. "My dad thought it very important for us to appreciate the show as everyone else did," says Michael, now 52 and an ad consultant. When Maeve was 7, she visited the show's Manhattan studio. Michael recalls, "My father came up to her in costume and said, 'Hello.' He then came back as Bob Keeshan and she said, 'Oh, Dad, you should have been here, you just missed Captain Kangaroo!' "

Now the generations who grew up watching him weekday mornings will miss him too. Keeshan, who died Jan. 23 at 76 in a hospital near his Hartford, Vt., farm after a long battle with heart disease, loved to mix whimsy and wisdom. For 29 years on CBS (and, after a break, six more on public TV), his gentle byplay with regulars like Mr. Green Jeans, Dancing Bear and Mr. Moose was peppered with low-key lessons on safety, health and ethics—a formula that would earn Keeshan six Emmys.

The Lynbrook, N.Y., native, who worked as an NBC page while in high school, made his TV debut in 1948 as Clarabell, Howdy Doody's horn-honking clown. He was only 28 when he leaped to stardom as Captain Kangaroo in 1955. Celeb guests from Dolly Parton to Fred Rogers came by to say, "Good morning, Captain." "I grew up on him," says American Idol judge Randy Jackson. "No matter what kid dramas you were dealing with, he'd always cheer you up."

"Off the air," says Dr. Joyce Brothers, a onetime regular, "he was just as kind. There was nothing fake about him." Despite his ailing health (he had a triple bypass in 1987) and the blow of his wife Jeanne's death in 1996, Keeshan remained active after Kangaroo ended its run in '91, writing children's books, cofounding a chain of workplace daycare centers and lecturing against TV violence. His favorite pastime was being a granddad. "At Christmas Laurie and I had four of the six grandchildren together," says Michael. "All he wanted to do was to hear their stories. He said it was the best Christmas he ever had."

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