| 1.9°C Dublin

'We've lost something very special'

The actor Donal Donnelly, who died on Monday in Chicago, aged 78, was best known to the public for his cinematic roles in The Godfather: Part III and The Dead, but is remembered by his friends primarily as man of the theatre.

"He was the real thing, a fabulous stage actor," said Noel Pearson.

Born in Bradford, Yorkshire, in 1931, to Irish parents, James, a doctor from Tyrone, and Nora (nee O'Connor), a teacher from Kerry, the family soon moved to Dublin, and Donnelly attended Synge St CBS, where he acted in school plays alongside Milo O'Shea and Eamonn Andrews.

After an apprenticeship at Callaghan's outfitters on Dame Street, he left the trade to join the Gate Theatre, and subsequently joined Godfrey Quigley's Globe Theatre in Dun Laoghaire. He later moved to London, where he met his wife, Patsy, a dancer, on the stage.

His break came in 1964, when he was cast as Gar Private in the premiere of Brian Friel's Philadelphia, Here I Come!, directed by Hilton Edwards at the Gaiety Theatre. The production transferred to Broadway, and he was jointly nominated for a Tony Award for best actor alongside his co-star Patrick Bedford (as Gar Public).

Donnelly returned to Broadway many times, starring in Sleuth, by Anthony Shaffer, for three years, and playing opposite David Bowie in The Elephant Man, amongst others.

A production of Sleuth in Dublin, starring Donnelly and his life-long friend TP McKenna, reportedly set an audience record for the Olympia Theatre, playing to more than 100,000. Donnelly eventually moved with his family to the US, living in Connecticut and commuting to work on the New York stage.

He had a particularly strong relationship with Brian Friel's plays, playing Teddy in the world premiere of Faith Healer, in New York, in 1979, and playing the brother, Jack, in the Broadway premiere of Dancing at Lughnasa, produced by Noel Pearson, in 1991.

The legendary critic of the New York Times Frank Rich described his "aging, distracted, shuffling Uncle Jack" as providing some of "the more indelible images" in a production that did "exactly what theatre was born to do".

Despite that success, Donnelly had no truck with the star system or celebrity egos. Noel Pearson recalled him as "the most unassuming actor I ever met", whose heart was in the theatre, and who quipped that he "did the pictures for the money".

One of those pictures was the 1970s Napoleonic epic, Waterloo, for which Donnelly spent an arduous three months on location in rural Ukraine.

At one point, his interpreter took him to a local nightclub, actually little more than a shebeen, but Donnelly was refused entry because of his long hair, which he had grown for his part in the film. He told the interpreter to ask the doorman if he had ever seen a photo of Karl Marx.

The interpreter, however, preferred to hurry him back to camp.

While in Ukraine, one of Donnelly's brothers sent him a daily copy of the Irish Press. Just one issue a week made it through the Soviet postal system, and ended up providing much needed reading material for his interpreter.

He suffered a tragedy in the mid-1980s, when his 20-year-old daughter, Maryanne, was killed in a freak horse riding accident at university in Massachusetts. Maryanne, who had previously been a member of the college equestrian team, was showing a new student how to mount, in the paddock. The girdle snapped, Maryanne fell, and she was stepped on by the horse, rupturing her liver.

Her father never quite recovered. Though it devastated him as a person, that vulnerability illuminated some of his greatest work.

Shortly after the tragedy, Donnelly was cast by John Huston in his film of The Dead, as Freddy Malins, an affable drunk with an underlying melancholy. He gave a memorable performance that, as his co-actor Ingrid Craigie recalled, was "suffused with sadness".

Yet there were good times on set also. The Irish general election of February 1987 took place while The Dead was being filmed, in Los Angeles. Donnelly's brother, Michael, a city councillor for many years, was a candidate for Fianna Fail in Dublin South East.

Craigie recalled that, as the famous dinner party scene was being filmed, Donal was constantly jumping up, between takes, to get the latest news from the count. In the event, Michael was not elected to the Dail, but later became Lord Mayor of Dublin.

In 1990, Donal took his highest profile film role, playing the corrupt Archbishop Gilday in The Godfather: Part III, to good reviews.

He had a lifelong interest in George Bernard Shaw, and for years toured a one-man show, My Astonishing Self, based on Shaw's private writings. A glowing 1997 review in the New York Times described him as "the splendid Irish actor, Donal Donnelly".

Fittingly, perhaps, his last appearance on stage was in Shaw's Don Juan in Hell, on Broadway in 2006.

Also fittingly, he died in the week of Little Christmas, the occasion for the gathering celebrated in The Dead, and in a week that, as Joyce wrote, snow was general all over Ireland.

He died of cancer, and had been ill for some time. He is survived by his wife of 45 years, Patsy, and two sons, Jonathan (proprietor of a well-known Chicago pub the Black Horse opposite Wrigley's Field) and Damian.

"He was one of our finest," said Michael Colgan, director of the Gate Theatre. "We've lost something very special there."

Colin Murphy

Irish Independent