Venerable Irish actor David Kelly—perhaps best known to American audiences for his late-career roles in Waking Ned Devine and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory—has died following a brief illness. He was 82.
Kelly's stage career dates back to the 1950s, and includes an indelible performance of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, as well as a production of Eugene O'Neill's A Moon For The Misbegotten that won him a Helen Hayes Award. His TV work made him one of the most familiar faces in his native country, where he was especially well known for his role in the seven-part 1980 miniseries Strumpet City.
But it was two other roles that most defined his image outside most of Ireland: In 1975, he played the affably useless builder O'Reilly on the second episode of Fawlty Towers. In the pre-DVR era, the endless repeats of that series during PBS pledge drives across our great land guaranteed that his performance would come to be well-known among comedy geeks. Kelly later said of O'Reilly that "those full nine minutes make me recognized anywhere in the world."
And in Waking Ned Devine—released some 23 years later—Kelly’s movie career got a late-in-life kick-start. Kelly was almost 70 at the time, though with his bony, frail-looking build and bald head, he easily could have passed for older. He practically steals the picture via his buck-naked, high-speed motorcycle ride.
When the dust had settled, Kelly became one of the industry's go-to actors for very-old-guy roles, especially those that got laughs by revealing him to be unexpectedly spry. Some of those later credits include Greenfingers, Mean Machine, Laws Of Attraction, the Neil Gaiman adaptation Stardust, and Tim Burton's Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, in which he played the hero's Grandpa Joe. In eulogizing Kelly—who regularly admitted that he’d always looked much more elderly than he actually was—the Irish Times deems him “the grand old man of Irish acting.”