Frank Kelly, who has died aged 77, was a wonderfully versatile comic talent who became best known for his portrait of the alcoholic Father Jack Hackett in the 1990s Linehan/Matthews TV comedy Father Ted.
The series, with Ardal O'Hanlon as Father Dougal, Dermot Morgan as Ted and Pauline McLynn as the priests' housekeeper, Mrs Doyle, may have been inspired by John B Keane's Moll, also, coincidentally, Kelly's last stage performance, in which he featured as the bishop in a comedy about clerics and a housekeeper.
Both dramas, however, and Kelly’s memorable creations Gobnait O’Lunasa, the archetypal culchie, on RTÉ Radio in the 1970s, Cllr Parnell Mooney of
Hall’s Pictorial Weekly
, and various roles in RTÉ’s
children’s series from 1968-1982, may have caused Irish audiences to overlook Kelly’s very considerable achievements as a straight actor in a host of plays and broadcast dramas from 1961 onwards.
These included roles in Brecht's St Joan of the Stockyards, Jean Anouilh's Time Remembered, Matt Crowley's The Boys in the Band, Hugh Leonard's The Patrick Pearse Motel and Da, during a six-year period with the Gate Theatre, and work with other production companies including, especially, Phyllis Ryan's Gemini Productions; and then later, in the 1980s, at the Abbey Theatre.
He played major roles on television, especially as British Labour leader John Smith in Stephen Frears's The Deal and in an adaptation of Brian Friel's Aristocrats. Other TV work included a short stint in Yorkshire Television's Emmerdale in 2010, from which he was to extricate himself, in loneliness and yearning for his home life in Dublin with his wife, fellow actor Bairbre (née MacCann), their seven children, and grandchildren.
Family was his abiding love: his former agent Deborah Pearce remarked this week that Kelly “adored his family, and would talk about his children adoringly”.
Kelly and his wife met when both played in St Joan of the Stockyards in 1961. Bairbre MacCann had earlier been married earlier to the playwright Maurice Meldon, who died in a road accident in 1958, leaving her with two small daughters.
Although he was eventually to be successful, Kelly had a tough early career. Educated at Blackrock College and UCD, he initially qualified as a barrister, and, to supplement his early theatrical career, worked as a sub-editor in the Irish Press, the Irish Independent and the RTÉ Guide, for which he also sold advertising.
At RTÉ, he also worked on the satirical Newsbeat programme in the late 1960s, which provided the launch pad for his long career with The Glen Abbey Show, and his creation of Gobnait O'Lunasa, and, from 1971, his work with Frank Hall on Hall's Pictorial Weekly. The radio show even led him to an unlikely Top of the Pops appearance on BBC TV in 1984 with the hit song from the series Christmas Calendar, a spoof version of The Twelve Days of Christmas.
It was in Wanderly Wagon that he first came to be so admired by his Father Ted colleague Pauline McLynn, who said this week that "I had never seen a show as relentlessly funny", and that getting to know him later through voiceover work she came to realise that his talent was "down to the wicked fun of the man – he had stories coming out of his ears. It was always incredibly entertaining to be with him."
McLynn ascribed this in part to his versatility: Kelly could play the violin, sing, and had played in every kind of stage work in the earlier part of his career, including pantomime and variety comedy with famous figures including Jack Cruise, Jimmy O’Dea and Cecil Sheridan.
Made it look easy
“They say if you can play comedy, you can play tragedy. Not everyone can. You would give your left leg to be able to do it. He made it look so easy, but the reason he was doing it was because no one else could.”
McLynn suggests that it would be difficult for a young actor today to replicate Kelly’s achievement, because “no actor these days will ever have the chance to do so many kinds of entertainment as he did”.
His work in satire, she adds, was “clear-visioned”, showing that people in power, be it politics or the church, could have feet of clay. In that way “he was involved in some of the most important entertainment” of the last half-century.
Recently Kelly published an autobiography, The Next Gig (Currach Press, 2015).
Frank Kelly was the son of the legendary Charles E Kelly, who, although a full-time civil servant, was also the editor and cartoonist of the satirical magazine Dublin Opinion, and Kathleen Hayden. He grew up the youngest of six children in Blackrock, Co Dublin. He is survived by Bairbre, and by their children Aideen, Fiona, Jayne, Ruth, Emmet, Stephen and Rachel, his sons-in-law Alan, Simon, John, Rory and Andy, his daughters-in-law Ellen and Tanya, 17 grandchildren, and by his brothers Aidan and David and his sister Pauline.