The craggy Dubliner is being tipped for an Academy award for his part in 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory'. Myles McWeeney talks to the former Synge Street boy about his life in films and his role as Rashers Tierney
Synge Street CBS has produced some truly notable achievers in many different walks of life, including television presenters Eamonn Andrews and Gay Byrne, Formula 1 team owner Eddie Jordan, leading businessman Don Godson and Strumpet City author James Plunkett Kelly - but not, until now, a potential Oscar winner.
The man in question is veteran actor and former 'Synger' David Kelly, who plays Grandpa Joe Bucket in the new box-office hit Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The 77-year-old's bravura performance in the Tim Burton film has led to some leading American film critics marking him down as a strong contender for a golden statuette come next March.
Kelly himself is not holding his breath but admits that he's hugely flattered by the swell of industry opinion about his performance. "But it's all a long way from having a little yellow statuette on the mantelpiece," he laughs. "I have some other trophies there - I won the International Press Golden Satellite Award for Waking Ned - beating Michael Caine into the bargain - and my nomination for the Screen Actor's Guild Award.
"I was there in the Shrine Auditorium in Hollywood, up against Robert Duval, Ed Harris and Billy Bob Thornton. To be nominated in that company was a reward in itself. Duval, I'm glad to say, won it as he deserved to."
But is talk of an Oscar really that unrealistic? Most of us probably don't realise that thanks to Waking Ned, an unashamed excursion into feel-good Irish paddywhackery starring Kelly and Ian Bannen made in 1998, David is a big star in the United States.
The movie is set in the little village of Tullymore, population 52. Ned Devine is discovered stone dead, a winning Lotto ticket worth ?10m clutched in his hand. David Kelly plays the part of Michael O'Sullivan, who becomes involved in the plot to impersonate Ned and claim the prize from Lotto headquarters. In one memorable shot, David, then past his 70th birthday, is seen disappearing in a cloud of dust, naked as a jay, on a Honda 50.
Made for a shoestring in the Isle of Man by American first-time director Kirk Jones, Waking Ned was a smash at film festivals around the world and was sold to dozens of countries. It was picked up by Fox in America, who had had big hits with Il Postino and The Full Monty in the previous two years. It too became a substantial success and gave Kelly a huge profile. The Dublin actor had also made an impact in the States with the charming Mike Newell-directed Out of the West, released in 1993 and starring Gabriel Byrne.
For many Irish people, however, David Kelly will always be remembered for his role as the work-shy and ultimately tragic tramp, Rashers Tierney, in the RTE Television series Strumpet City. The seven-part programme was adapted by Hugh Leonard from the book of the same name written by another former Synge Street pupil, James Plunkett. The series, set in the grim days of the Dublin lockout, was a huge success and was sold to more than 50 countries around the world. David still recalls being spotted by schoolchildren on the bus who shouted, "there goes Rashers Tierney!"
David Kelly was born on July 11, 1928. He caught the acting bug at an early age, and was only eight when he made his first stage appearance. He trained with the Abbey School of Acting, but his father, a cautious Dubliner, suggested it might be wise to have a back-up career and he also trained as a draughtsman and calligrapher.
He made his screen debut in a small part in a virtually forgotten but surprisingly stylish 1958 film noir thriller called Dublin Nightmare, directed by John Pomeroy, and has had dozens of credits since.
For a couple of years he double-jobbed, working in an advertising agency by day and treading the boards at night, but basically, he says, he hasn't been out of work as an actor for more than 50 years. "Okay, some of them might have been split weeks in the Eblana, but it was always a question of champagne or ashes! We worked a lot because there were only a half-dozen or so of us stupid enough to be in the business back then, so we were in great demand. We were in it because we were mad and we loved it."
He clearly remembers his audition for the part of Uncle Joe. "I had a feeling something was in the air, and then I got a call from producer Richard Zanuck who asked me if I could meet him in Pinewood Studios in London," he recalled. "I said that I was actually going to meet someone in Pinewood the next say. 'Oh, this is made in heaven', Zanuck said. When I got there he introduced me to Tim Burton and 30 seconds later I had the part. All Burton said, taking a look at this doddery old fellow who seemed to be about to expire on the spot, was 'this project is going to take at least six months, is that a problem?'
"He later kindly went on record as saying that there was never a question of anybody but me playing Uncle Joe. I have to say that made me feel good, and the film was a terrific experience because I was literally surrounded by genius from the word go."
David Kelly is just back from Spain where he has completed a thriller with Timothy Hutton called The Kovak Box. He plays an evil genius, a former CIA operative who could programme people to commit suicide. But he's let go and, when he develops terminal cancer, he goes on a killing spree. "It's a pleasant little thing - and the character I play isn't at all like Uncle Joe!"
"So," I ask David, "What else is on the horizon?"
"Oh, God!" he sighs. "Bed."