Tuesday 28 February 2017

Obituary: Johnny Murphy

'Commitments' star who was acclaimed for his role touring the world in Beckett's 'Waiting For Godot', writes Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Liam Collins

Super tramp: Johnny Murphy as Estragon in Waiting For Godot at the Gate Theatre
Super tramp: Johnny Murphy as Estragon in Waiting For Godot at the Gate Theatre

John 'Johnny' Murphy who died last week aged 72 was a well-known actor who had a long and varied career in Irish theatre and film.

Yet he always stayed close to his Dublin roots, living in Benmadigan Road, Drimnagh in the house where he grew up. This kept his feet firmly on the ground and informed his particular Dublin wit and humour. Meetings with such great thespians as Ben Kingsley or Dustin Hoffman were simply turned into fodder for another 'Johnny Murphy story'.

Off stage, what was described as his "Hollywood lifestyle", revolved around the Inchicore United Working Men's Club, where he liked to drink a pint, play snooker, do crosswords and engage in "spoofing competitions" with a diverse group of friends from the locality and others who sought his company.

It was this down-to-earth approach to life which also influenced the decision to cast him as trumpeter Joey 'The Lips' Fagan in the film version of Roddy Doyle's novel The Commitments, which was his most famous role, despite travelling the world as an interpreter of Samuel Beckett's Waiting For Godot.

Although he was the only member of the Dublin 'soul' band who couldn't play an instrument, he was chosen by Alan Parker for the part because the director felt he was perfect for the role of the down-at-heel Romeo, who despite his worn-out appearance, manages to seduce all three female backing singers in the group.

Johnny Murphy started acting as a teenager in the local John Bosco Youth Club in Drimnagh where an Abbey Theatre actor called Finbarr Howard gave him his first acting classes. His professional career began at the Focus Theatre with the late Deirdre O'Connell (first wife of the Dubliners ballad singer Luke Kelly) where he was a fixture along with Tom Hickey and Gabriel Byrne.

This led to regular work in Dublin's theatres and, according to his nephew Peter, he was never out of work during a long career which spanned more than 50 years.

The Commitments in 1991 led to further film work with Into the West (1993); War of the Buttons (1995) and Angela's Ashes (1999) in which he was re-united with Parker who adapted the Frank McCourt novel of misery in Limerick for the big screen. He also appeared in an episode of the detective caper series Remington Steele with Pierce Brosnan.

His doleful appearance made him perfect for Beckett's monosyllabic dialogue and he played Estragon opposite Barry McGovern's Vladimir in a celebrated version of Waiting For Godot at The Gate in 1988. This acclaimed production went on tour with Alan Stanford and Stephen Brennan playing to packed houses in London, New York, Sydney and Beijing.

At his funeral on Friday, the actor Garrett Keogh regaled the packed Victorian Chapel in Mount Jerome with anecdotes about his friend. Murphy, he said, was "challenged when it came to travelling".

While on a stopover in London on his way to Australia, passengers were told to "go the lounge" which he took as an invitation to repair to the bar, and of course he missed the flight.

Michael Colgan of the Gate Theatre recalled that when they were in China, he invited Johnny to go and visit the Great Wall, only to be told: "Michael, I have a wall in my back garden in Drimnagh, I'm not travelling two hours to see another wall."

"The two-and-a-half hours spent in the lively comic company of Barry McGovern and Johnny Murphy, the splendid Irish actors reprising their lauded turns as Beckett's eternally under-occupied tramps, may be among the more jovial you could spend in a theatre this fall," said Charles Isherwood of the New York Times in a review of the 2006 production of Godot, in which he commented on Murphy's "seedy shuffle" across the stage.

Despite his film successes, Johnny Murphy was predominantly a theatre actor appearing in many and varied productions over half a century.

He was diagnosed with cancer in 2011 and declined to attend any further theatre productions, said Garrett Keogh, on the basis that, "I couldn't bear to look at all the mistakes".

He died in St James's Hospital in Dublin late last Tuesday and is survived by his daughter Niamh, granddaughter Caoimhe and his brother Archie and extended family. Among those who attended his funeral were President Michael D Higgins and his wife Sabina, and from the theatre world, Tom Hickey, Bryan Murray, David Duffy, Bronagh Gallagher, Mannix Flynn, Peter and Jim Sheridan, Phelim Drew, and many friends and neighbours from Drimnagh including Eamon Gaynor.

Sunday Independent

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