John Keston, British-born actor and singer who broke long-distance running records in later life – obituary

·3-min read
John Keston with some of his trophies - © Ryan Brennecke,
John Keston with some of his trophies - © Ryan Brennecke,

John Keston, who has died of Covid-19 aged 97, was, at various times in his life, a stage actor, singer, university professor and record-breaking long-distance runner.

He was born Francis Douglas Arthur Keston in London on December 5 1924. After wartime service in the RAF he trained as a singer in Italy and became an accomplished tenor, singing and acting in clubs, and in musicals and plays on stage.

He appeared in London productions of The Sleeping Beauty, The Ideal Husband, Private Lives (directed by John Gielgud), and the musical Billy.

His sole West End credit was in the original production of Neil Simon and Cy Coleman’s Sweet Charity, as Vittorio Vidal, “a famous Italian movie star”, opposite Juliet Prowse at the Prince of Wales Theatre. The production, directed by Bob Fosse, won the 1967 London Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Musical.

In 1974, when Frank Dunlop and the Royal Shakespeare Company revived William Gillette’s rewriting of Conan Doyle’s play Sherlock Holmes (famous as the origin of the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson”, which never appeared in any of the stories), Keston appeared as Sir Edward Leighton when the show moved to Broadway.

When it ended after 491 performances, he decided to remain in the US, taking a job at Bemidji State University, northern Minnesota, teaching voice and classical singing.

He continued to perform, mainly in local stage and musical and operatic productions, and wrote a thesis on the composer Gerald Finzi, but in later life he became better known for his achievements as an athlete, after taking up long distance running aged 55 to combat mild hypertension.

John Keston competing in 2005 aged 81 - © Ryan Brennecke
John Keston competing in 2005 aged 81 - © Ryan Brennecke

He went on to break numerous US Track & Field (USATF) world records and course records for different age groups at various distances.

Between 65 and 69, he was ranked as the top US distance runner for his age group and, aged 69, he became the oldest marathoner to break the three-hour barrier, completing 26 miles 385 yards in 2hr 58min 33sec.

Two weeks after turning 70, he broke the half-marathon for his age group record by 51 seconds, in 1:25:36 and then set out to break the 3:01:14 marathon record for the 70-74 age group.

He came painfully close during the London Marathon of 1995: “I ran a 3:01:35 and would have broken the world record had I not been tripped between mile 13 and 14. I was stunned. I lay on the pavement with a bloody elbow, bloody knee and bloody hip. I left some skin on the pavement, along with my world record.

“I lost at least 40 seconds getting up and getting started again. That would have been ample time to break the record.”

He reached his goal at the 1996 Twin Cities Marathon in Minneapolis with a time of 3:00:58. In 2001 he was inducted into the USATF Masters Hall of Fame.

In 1995 Keston appeared in his one-man show, Expressions of Aging, a two-act play with music in which he reflected on his life, performing selections to audiences in the US for many years.

He also won a cult following as the voice of the arch villain Gehn in the video game Riven: The Sequel to Myst (1997), in which, when gamers click on a hidden hotspot known as an “Easter egg”, he can be heard singing O Sole Mio.

As a runner, he was known to treat competitors at the starting line with renditions of national anthems. He continued to run into his 90s.

John Keston, who took US citizenship in 1995, is survived by his wife Anne, by their two sons and a daughter and by three sons from a previous marriage.

John Keston, born December 5 1924, died February 18 2022

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