David Kelly: Irish actor who played the feckless O'Reilly in 'Fawlty Towers'

 

To British television viewers, David Kelly was the stereotypical Irishman, guaranteed perpetuity through his appearance as O'Reilly, the inept contractor hired by Basil in the Fawlty Towers episode "The Builders". After botching a job inside the hotel, he is seen taking issue with Basil's disgruntled wife. "I like a woman with spirit," he unwisely says, before Sybil batters him with an umbrella. "I've been 52 to 53 years on stage and yet Fawlty Towers, those full nine minutes, make me recognised anywhere in the world," he once said.

Kelly then became a permanent fixture in Robin's Nest (1977-81), the Man About the House sitcom spin-off set in a bistro, as the one-armed kitchen hand Albert Riddle, breaking more crockery than he washes up. Alongside the slapstick for his satellite character were some of the programme's better lines, although sometimes at the expense of exacerbating the Irish stereotype. Once, while preparing egg on toast, he asks Robin (Richard O'Sullivan): "How do you stop the egg dripping into the bottom of the toaster?"

In his native Ireland, Kelly was best remembered by many for his towering lead role as "Rashers" Tierney, the tragic tramp, in Strumpet City (1979), RTE's seven-part adaptation of the James Plunkett novel chronicling the struggle of Dublin's workers as they attempted to unionise against their employers before the First World War. More recently, Kelly was acclaimed for his performance as Grandpa Joe in Tim Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), a dark version of Roald Dahl's book.

Off screen, the actor was the antithesis of many of the characters he played; he was noted for being a dapper dresser, and often wore bow ties, which he said was an attempt to look like a bohemian artist. He also enjoyed painting landscapes in watercolour.

Kelly was born in Dublin in 1929 and educated at Synge Street Christian Brothers School. He was serious about acting from a young age, starting at the city's Gaiety Theatre when he was eight. He then trained at Dublin's Abbey Theatre School but, urged by his father to have a career to fall back on, studied at the National College of Art to be a draughtsman and calligrapher.

Acting won out and Kelly went on to get a solid stage grounding in the works of playwrights ranging from William Shakespeare to Samuel Beckett, many at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, where he always received a warm welcome. Having taken the title role in the 1959 Irish premiere of Krapp's Last Tape, a one-man, one-act play at the Abbey Theatre, he revived it for a performance that lit up the Gate's first Beckett Festival in 1991.

Indeed, it was in his later years that Kelly seemed most appreciated by audiences in his homeland. His portrayal of Al Lewis in Neil Simon's play The Sunshine Boys (Gate, 1996) – with Milo O'Shea as his fellow geriatric comedian – was another high point.

Kelly travelled across the Irish Sea to make his screen début in 1951, in an episode of the BBC musical history series The Passing Show. He continued to appear in British television plays and episodes of popular series such as Public Eye (1966) and Z Cars (1972).

He had a longer run as Cousin Enda in the second and third series (1970-71) of the BBC sitcom Me Mammy, alongside O'Shea as a flash Irish business executive in London controlled by his mother. As the "dead" narrator of Tales from the Lazy Acre (1972), with O'Shea playing various characters in stories set in Ireland, he was not seen on screen.

He was back in front of the camera as a supporting character, Walter, in the sitcom Oh Father! (1973), starring Derek Nimmo as an accident-prone curate.

Before Robin's Nest ended, Kelly had a regular role in another British sitcom, Cowboys (1980-81), as Wobbly Ron, one of the building labourers in a firm mismanaged by Joe Jones (Roy Kinnear). He was also the blindfolded Abdab, adviser to the deposed Shah of Iran, in Whoops Apocalypse (1982) and Fred, one of the supermarket staff, in Slinger's Day (1986-87), starring Bruce Forsyth.

There were further guest appearances, in The Irish R.M. (1985), Heartbeat (1997) and Ballykissangel (1998), but some of Kelly's best screen roles in his later years were in films. (His early cinema parts had included a vicar in the 1969 picture The Italian Job.) In Into the West (1992), he played the traveller grandfather who gives a horse he finds to his grandchildren, who keep it in their Dublin tower-block flat. Similarly surreal was Kelly's appearance in Waking Ned (1998), notable for his nude motorcycle scene, when he disappears in a cloud of dust on a Honda 50. His character is one of those trying to impersonate an Irish Lottery winner who dies before claiming his money. Kelly and his fellow star, Ian Bannen, won the International Press Academy's 1999 Golden Satellite Award as best actors in a comedy.

There followed appearances alongside Kevin Spacey in Ordinary Decent Criminal (2000), Helen Mirren and Clive Owen in Greenfingers (2000) and Robert De Niro and Michelle Pfeiffer in the fantasy Stardust (2007), his final film.

Kelly won an ESB Lifetime Achievement Award in 2002 for his contribution to Irish theatre and a similar honour from the Irish Film and Television Academy three years later.

Anthony Hayward

David Kelly, actor: born Dublin 11 July 1929; married 1961 Laurie Morton (one son, one daughter); died Dublin 12 February 2012.

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