Frank Kelly was an Irish actor of comedy and drama who enjoyed an extensive career at home and further afield. He worked on stage and screen, in children’s shows and political satire, and in serious drama and soap opera, even playing the late Scottish Labour leader John Smith in Peter Morgan and Stephen Frears’ 2003 political drama The Deal. Yet to international audiences he will be remembered for one role – that of Father Jack Hackett in Father Ted, one of the most brilliantly and simply effective sitcom creations of recent times.
As much as Jack made Kelly’s name far and wide as a comic star, he was also a grotesque character who was far away from the actor’s own cultured personality. One-eyed, jaundiced, alcoholic and borderline feral, Fr Jack communicated only through a series of single barked words – “Feck! Drink! Girls!” – and an air of befuddled but sinister menace which permeated every scene of which he was a focus. Although he spoke far fewer words than any of the cast, Kelly’s Jack was as essential to Father Ted’s success as Dermot Morgan’s eternally beset title character, Ardal O’Hanlon’s slow-witted Father Dougal and Pauline McLynn’s obsessively hospitable housekeeper Mrs Doyle.
Created by writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan and first broadcast on Channel Four in the UK, Father Ted told of the above gang’s exile on the barren Craggy Island, poking gently subversive fun at both Catholicism and Ireland in a manner which was smart and inclusive. Stretching to 25 episodes and a Christmas special between 1995 and 1998, the show’s batch of awards at the time included two Baftas, and it’s repeated around the world to this day.
The decision had already been made by Father Ted’s creators to end the show when Morgan died unexpectedly the day after filming finished at the age of 45. Eighteen years later, Kelly also died on the same day, 28 February.
Born Francis O’Kelly three days after Christmas 1938, Kelly was the youngest of six children – his mother was Cathleen and his father was Charles E Kelly (also known as CEK), a well-known Irish political cartoonist, editor and civil servant. Among the elder Kelly’s many achievements were the founding of the satire magazine Dublin Opinion, which he helped run between its inception in 1922 and its dissolution in 1968, and promotion to the posts of national Director of Broadcasting and Director of National Savings for the Irish government.
Although he greatly admired his father, the young Frank never had the chance to feel close to him, given how busy his father’s professional life was. His own early career lent him a renaissance man’s background of his own, although this may have easily been put down to youthful lack of direction. He learned violin as a youth, but gave it up just as his studies were becoming serious in his mid-teens, to an extent as a show of defiance to his father’s musical ambition for him.
Instead he studied law at University College Dublin, graduated, and was called to the bar, never practising in court. He had developed a strong interest in performing, particularly through the university’s drama society, and when he left his studies he made his living working on the stage where he could. Through the early years of his career he also worked as a journalist, initially on the Irish Times and then for other publications, although it was never a vocation for him in the same way acting was.
Kelly’s early roles were varied and eclectic. He performed as warm-up man for Irish music hall stars of a now-bygone era such as Jack Cruise, appeared in pantomime and acted in serious theatrical roles. He told the Irish Times that his favourite stage role was playing a gay man in a version of Mart Crowley’s landmark gay rights play The Boys in the Band, at the Dublin Olympia. “We had people sobbing, it was packed solid for a month,” he said. “I remember [broadcaster] Gay Byrne saying, ‘I don’t think Dublin audiences will want to see this kind of thing’. How times have changed.”
His earliest film roles included a small part as a prison warder opposite Michael Caine in The Italian Job (1969) and a brief, uncredited role in David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970). Yet he found his greatest early fame as he began to get work on Irish television from the 1960s onwards. He started out in various writing and performing roles on the RTE network children’s show Wanderly Wagon, and became a household name in his homeland through many years on Hall’s Pictorial Weekly, a satirical sketch show which was at its height in the 1970s.
It was on this show that Kelly’s talent for creating and developing comic characters was given a wider stage, and where a young Linehan and Mathews first noticed the level of furious mania of which he was capable in pursuit of a well-deserved laugh. At the turn of the 1980s the show finished, but his presence on the Irish performing scene continued, on both the RTE radio programme The Glen Abbey Show and on Kelly’s own half-dozen comedy records. His single, Christmas Countdown, a humorous seasonal re-reading of The Twelve Days of Christmas, reached No 8 in the Irish charts in 1982, the UK Top 30 in 1984, and earned him a telegram on behalf of the Queen expressing her enjoyment of the song.
Although Kelly’s career had waned by the time Linehan and Mathews invited him to be a part of Father Ted, the show gave him a boost in his later years. He appeared in Irish drama Glenroe between 1997 and 1999, Canadian sci-fi series Lexx in 2001, The Deal in 2003, UK soap Emmerdale between 2010 and 2011, and Mrs Brown’s Boys D’Movie in 2014.
A practising Catholic, Kelly had suffered numerous bouts of ill-health in his final years, but continued working; he was given the all-clear from bowel cancer in 2011, was later treated for skin cancer, and was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease last year. He is survived by his wife of 51 years Baibre, an actor and later drama teacher he met on a play, their five daughters, two sons and 17 grandchildren.