Obituary: David Kelly, prolific actor best known for playing the incompetent builder in Fawlty Towers
Born: 11 July, 1929, in Dublin. Died: 12 February, 2012, aged 82
David Kelly shared the big screen with Johnny Depp, Noel Coward and Michael Caine, but it was a brief guest appearance on a British sitcom in the 1970s that brought him lasting international fame, or at least international recognition.
Many might struggle to put a name to actor behind O’Reilly, the genially incompetent Irish builder in one of the most celebrated episodes of Fawlty Towers, but Kelly’s face and performance have cemented themselves in the consciousness and affections of several generations of viewers.
It is not simply that his men have blocked off the entrance to the dining room that infuriates Basil Fawlty, but his laid-back approach to rectifying the situation before Mrs Fawlty gets home.
As O’Reilly, David Kelly transformed unselfconscious stupidity into a philosophy, refusing to share Basil’s sense of urgency. “The trouble with you, Mr Fawlty, is that you worry too much,” he explains.
“You keep it up like this and you’ll have a stroke before you’re 50… The good Lord made the world so that we could all enjoy ourselves… If the good Lord meant us to worry, he would have given us things to worry about.”
Kelly took two stereotypes at once – Irishmen and builders – and managed to turn them into something so hilarious that only the prickliest viewer could take offence.
After Fawlty Towers, Kelly took absurdity to greater heights as Albert Riddle, the genially incompetent, one-armed, Irish dishwasher in the sitcom Robin’s Nest and as an elderly Irish villager haring round the countryside on a motorbike, stark naked, looking like an emaciated, featherless chicken, in the comedy film Waking Ned.
He and Scots actor Ian Bannen played a couple of old schemers with their eyes on the lottery winnings of a dead pal. There were no major stars, but Waking Ned was warm-hearted, funny and a surprise hit. Kelly said the nude scenes made him a sex symbol.
Although Fawlty Towers has won new fans over the years, younger viewers may know Kelly better for Tim Burton’s film of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, with Johnny Depp. There was even talk of an Oscar nomination for Kelly’s performance as Grandpa Joe, who spends all his time in bed until Charlie wins the golden ticket and Grandpa accompanies him on a visit to the famous factory. In the theatre Kelly played Shakespeare, Chekov and Miller, though he probably enjoyed his greatest success in the absurdist, tragicomic works of his countryman Samuel Beckett.
Kelly was obvious casting in Waiting for Godot. And he was Krapp in the original Irish production of Krapp’s Last Tape, a one-man tour-de-force, a character study of a man reflecting on life on his 69th birthday.
Kelly was only 30 when he first played Krapp, though he reprised the role many times and performed the play in New York and at other international venues.
He once said: “I remember… on my 70th birthday, some journalist writing, ‘David Kelly is 70 today, but what I want to know is how come he’s been 70 for the past 40 years.’ And it’s perfectly true. It’s a very strange thing.”
A master of physical comedy, timing and deadpan delivery, he could make the most banal or ridiculous comment seem weighty and insightful.
Born in Dublin in 1929, Kelly was educated at a local Roman Catholic school and began acting as a boy. He trained as a calligrapher and as an actor at the Abbey Theatre’s drama school. He had a long association with the Gate Theatre, where he met his wife, the actress Laurie Morton.
During the 1950s and 1960s he began turning up fairly regularly on British television, both in comedy and drama, with guest appearances on The Ronnie Barker Playhouse and Z Cars.
He played Garrett Deasy, the headmaster, in the 1967 film of James Joyce’s Ulysses, with his close friend Milo O’Shea as Leopold Bloom. He was a vicar in the original version of The Italian Job.
And in the early 1970s he had recurring roles in the ecclesiastical sitcom Oh Father! and in Emmerdale Farm.
Easy-going and widely liked, Kelly was a famously snazzy dresser, with a penchant for bow ties, which he thought made him look sophisticated and which became almost a trademark for him.
In later years, however, he frequently played characters who were working class, unemployed or from the fringes of society. He played a tramp called Dead Man who served as host and commentator in the BBC series Tales from the Lazy Acre, with Milo O’Shea again.
In Ireland he enjoyed considerable success as Rashers Tierney, a colourful character, living pretty much on his wits, in the RTE period drama Strumpet City, and he was an old Gypsy story-teller in the 1992 film Into the West.
Other film credits include Roman Polanski’s Pirates, A Man of No Importance, Ordinary Decent Criminal, Mean Machine, Agent Cody Banks 2: Destination London and Stardust, the ambitious fantasy film that also featured Michelle Pfeiffer and Robert De Niro and shot partly in Scotland. He is survived by his wife and two children.
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