'Top to toe an artist '
From his impeccable ensembles to his pitch-perfect manner and masterful comedic timing, David Kelly was an actor from a different generation whose talent was matched only by his charm
THE DEATH of David Kelly, among the most treasured of Irish actors, severs a living link with an older, sweeter class of Irish performance. A man of supernatural charm, a master of the theatrical anecdote, Kelly, who was 82, never came across as a tortured artist or a brow-beating existentialist. This is not to in any way diminish his intelligence or versatility. He was famously brilliant in a 1959 production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape. Playing the desperate Rashers in the esteemed 1980 TV adaptation of James Plunkett’s Strumpet City, he brought Dickensian degrees of pathos to the damaged embodiment of the capital.
But Kelly forever came across as a popular entertainer. Never seen in anything other than the most dapper of clothes, he always looked ready to burst into song or tap dance his way around the nearest lamppost.
Born in Goatstown, Kelly was the son of a publisher. Although tolerant of his son’s theatrical ambitions, the older Kelly manoeuvred his son into a job as a calligrapher and artist. David continued to paint and claimed that he began wearing bowties as part of an attempt to take on the aspect of a bohemian artist. Then somebody told him that the only people who wore such garments were architects and bookies. “So I’ve looked like an architect or a bookie all my life,” he told this writer in 2005.
Having developed a talent for comedy and playacting as a way of distracting the bullies at Synge Street CBS – the same institution that gave us Eamonn Andrews, Gay Byrne and his great mate Milo O’Shea — Kelly was never likely to stay long in the day job. By the early 1950s he was working with Micheál MacLiammóir at The Gate.
“You didn’t live the life of Riley, but you never stopped working,” he said. “There weren’t very many of us, because only an idiot would do it. This is long before it seemed possible to be rich and famous. The idea that any of us would be rich and famous was ridiculous. It never arose.”
Over the next two decades, Kelly established a formidable reputation as a stage actor. He appeared alongside O’Shea in Hugh Leonard’s well-remembered 1968 TV series Me Mammy. You can spot him as a vicar in The Italian Job. But this business they call “show” is a strange affair. For all his distinguished work, he is still, to many people, best known for one relatively brief guest appearance in one episode of an ancient situation comedy.
Kelly’s performance as O’Reilly the builder in Fawlty Towersnow looks a little, well, problematic. He was essentially playing a heightened caricature of the useless Irishman. But no amount of politically correct revisionism can dim the brilliant idiocy of that performance. When I last met him, he confirmed that, while in England, fans still – remembering Manuel’s inability to pronounce the character’s name – thought of him as “Orelly”.
“We thought we were going to die,” Kelly said, when recalling the recording. “On this evening, John Cleese came in and said: ‘You won’t believe it, but there are three coach loads of tourists from Iceland out there smelling of fish, thawing out and wanting to be anywhere else but the BBC.’ We really thought we were going to die. But we didn’t.” Throughout the succeeding decades, whenever British sitcom producers required a charming, prematurely aged Irish layabout, they made their first call to Kelly’s agent. He turned up in Oh, Father!, On the Busesand Never Mind the Quality, Feel the Width. He performed in a staggering 50 episodes of the Richard O’Sullivan vehicle Robin’s Nest.
Yet he was never tempted to move away from Dublin. Indeed, happily married to actor Laurie Morton for 50 years, he refused to stray far from the same stretch of the city. “I couldn’t ever leave Dublin,” he said. “I would be away in the States or in London for six months, but I have never moved far away from Goatstown Road, where I grew up.”
Kelly’s career offered cheering proof that there are some classes of vintage talent that never entirely go out of vogue. In 1998, he won over international audiences with his turn as a characteristically twinkly rogue in the light comedy Waking Ned.
He never again seemed short of work. Kelly faced down the fearsome Vinnie Jones in The Mean Machine. He exercised his impeccable comic timing alongside Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in Stardust. But his last great hurrah was, perhaps, as Grandpa Joe in Tim Burton’s extravagant take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. During production, Johnny Depp and he bonded over a shared passion for the Irish stained-glass artist Harry Clarke.
One of those actors who seems to have played older men throughout his career, Kelly leaves behind a wealth of delightful filmed performances: Rashers, O’Reilly, Grandpa Joe. But friends and associates will regret the absence of one of the profession’s greatest raconteurs. When asked if he might ever retire, he adopted the tone of Charlton Heston at the National Rifle Association.
“Oh God no. Ah no. Absolutely not,” he spluttered. “I will continue hanging on to the script until they pry it from my cold, dead hands. From my cold, dead hands! If I get an Oscar that’s what I’ll say.” The Academy never gave him one. The bloody fools.
Kelly remembered ‘The gentleman of our profession’
Pat Laffan, actor
“I remember him when I joined the Abbey Theatre in 1961 – that’s 50 years ago. I suppose I’ve known him since then, but I got to know him better in later years, like when we did Strumpet City. He and a few others were involved in a production company called Longford Productions and they produced Three Sistersby Chekhov and I directed that.
“He was a marvellous comic actor and had a serious side as well. For example, he was a terrific Stephen Dedalus years ago and it ran for a long time. He was in the Gate Theatre in some serious plays too so he really could do anything. He could learn stuff very quickly as well. In Waking Ned, when he appeared naked on a motorbike, he said his beautiful body got him parts afterwards. But he was never really out of work. He had a great face as well, which was very droll, and he could look very eccentric when he wanted to.
“He was top to toe an artist. He was a beautiful calligrapher and he did very nice watercolours. He knew a lot about painting as he had studied it. The other thing about David was that he dressed really well. Charlie Haughey would have been in the ha’penny place alongside him with his suits, shirts and ties. Whenever anyone mentioned David they would smile and he always had a fitting phrase to describe something slightly outrageous.”
Michael Colgan, Gate Theatre director
“Old-fashioned manners and with impeccable taste, David was a privilege to know and to work with. He worked in the Gate with MacLiammóir and he always said his two favourite parts were Rashers on the television and Krapp in Krapp’s Last Tape. He was very close to Milo O’Shea and they were great mates.
“He was the gentleman of our profession. He bought all his shirts in Turnbull Asser and at Christmas he would give me a present of a beautiful tie or something that was far too tasteful for me. He gave me a watercolour he painted of the Gate Theatre, which I cherish.
“He was also one of the wittiest men I ever come across. In rehearsal he had a biting wit. He wouldn’t do a part unless he knew he could bring something to it no one else could. That for me was a great contributor to his success as an actor. He would only do something that suited him. He was an alcoholic for years, of course. I remember him telling me it was only in 1978 he realised Kennedy had been shot.”
Mary McEvoy, actor
“He made it look easy but he worked very hard. He was one of the best I ever worked with – a wonderful man, full of fun and with great wit. I was completely star struck when he first joined Glenroeas Sylvie Dolan. We became friends and he gave me tips especially around holiday destinations. I had this snobby attitude towards Majorca but he had found this very lovely village called Deià.
“He used to make me laugh so much. He was so good at comedy and Rashers Tierney was tragicomedy really. He was so particular in his comedy and so precise and funny.
“If he was playing an Irish builder there was an elegance to it. His character in Glenroewas a con man and I remember one hilarious scene where he installed a burglar alarm for Dinny. It kept going off all hours of the day and night and David’s character would go ‘ah well’. It was exactly like the builder in Fawlty Towersbut more Machiavellian.
“I remember standing watching him with Joe Lynch and it was like seeing two masters at work. All the years in drama school wouldn’t teach you what I learned from the two of them.”
David Kelly receives an IFTA Lifetime Achievement award iti.ms/zixgT9
As O’Reilly the builder in Fawlty Towers iti.ms/wDOeWq
Pretending to be a lottery winner in Waking Ned iti.ms/x9KqEV
In Samuel Beckett’s Rough for Theatre I iti.ms/xokxlS
Teeing up Noel Coward in The Italian Jobiti.ms/zwkCrW