By Michael Gray
Sometimes when two veteran actors who are long used to playing minor roles are given the opportunity to play the leads, they can give a lift to mediocre material and make it almost watchable. Such is the case with Kirk Jones’s new movie, "Waking Ned Devine," which stars Scots actor Ian Bannen, and Ireland’s hardy perennial of stage and screen David Kelly.
The pair, seen frequently on TV and in feature films as sidemen to the stars, positively revel in their moment in the spotlight in Jones’s tepid comedy. And if the film does as well as expected after a heated bidding auction at Cannes, they might just get to play the starring roles more often.
They’ve also been around long enough that they’re not overly sensitive to bad reviews, and when they were in New York recently for the U.S. launch of "Ned," they handled the Echo’s disgruntled response to the film with magnanimity.
The 69-year-old Kelly is best known in this country for his role as the wily Irish contractor O’Reilly in "Fawlty Towers." People with longer memories who watched too much telly in Ireland in the 1970s will remember him as the one-armed dishwasher in the restaurant sitcom "Robin’s Nest." But though TV has brought him a modicum of fame, his first love remains the theater, and he has performed on stage in Dublin at the Gate and the Abbey for more than 40 years. He claims, "I was born in the Rotunda Hospital, next door to the Gate Theatre, because I had to be near Micheál MacLiammóir and Hilton Edwards to get my first part."
In one of his earliest performances on stage, he appeared with theater legend MacLiammóir in "The Mad Woman of Chaillot."
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"I’d been looking at Michael for years and marveling at him," Kelly said. "He was the most impressive actor I had ever seen. But when he decided to be bad he was pretty awful. In ‘Mad Woman’ he played the rag picker, smelling of Chanel No. 5. I was playing the juvenile lead. It was set in Paris, obviously, and I was all dressed up in a striped shirt like a matelot.
"Michael said to me, ‘They’re very boring in Paris, they all wear suits!’ I watched him from the wings, and he was dreadful — he did laps of honor on speeches that he’d forgotten. I thought to myself, this great actor is going to come off stage and slit his own throat. But on his way past me, he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘Isn’t life hell, darling!’ "
Kelly also worked with another legend of the Dublin stage, Jimmy O’Dea, in an early foray into theatrical drama on TV. The pair collaborated with some of the great Irish writers of the time on a short-lived but memorable comedy series.
"I partnered Jimmy in the signal box, in ‘O’Dea’s Yer Man,’ as it was called," Kelly said. "It was a little two-hander with just Jimmy and myself, settling all the problems of the world. It was the best thing RTE ever did outside of ‘Strumpet City.’ They were written by Myles na gCopaleen, and directed by James Plunkett. They were gems. We never rehearsed them. We’d come in, sit down, and get our cue. We’d work with only two cameras, a table with a loaf of bread, and a small jug of whiskey to put a sting in it. The microphone was stuck in the loaf of bread. People used to say to us, ‘Why did you never cut the loaf of bread?’ "
Kelly has also pursued more serious roles, and has performed in any number of Samuel Beckett plays. For almost four decades now he’s been making "Krapp’s Last Tape" his own.
"I’ve been doing Beckett plays since 1959," he said. "I did ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ that year for its Irish premiere — I believe it was the second production of it ever, only a few months after Pat McGee first did it in London. Beckett had written it for Pat, and it was originally called ‘The McGee Monologue.’ But that was the first Irish production of ‘Krapp’s Last Tape’ and I have been doing it pretty much ever since. I played it for Expo ’92 in Sevilla, and in the Lincoln Center two years ago when we brought 19 Beckett plays over. I’m the right age for it now, finally."
Fan of Friel
Kelly remains actively involved in new Irish plays as well. A great admirer of Brian Friel’s "Dancing at Lughnasa," he recently performed in Friel’s latest work at the Abbey Theatre.
"Brian Friel is a great friend, and I played in his last one in the Abbey, ‘Give Me your Answer Do,’ " Kelly said. "It’s being produced now in London, and it’s going to be on in the West End again. I said no to it, the Dublin run was enough for me. My agent said it would be a very good career move, but at 69, you don’t want career moves. A year in London and a year on Broadway? If I was a little younger, maybe."
Kelly’s "Ned Devine" co-star, Ian Bannen, also began his acting career at the Gate, followed by a stint in Stratford-on-Avon, playing the classics of English theater. Since then he has distinguished himself in the award-winning TV drama "The Politician’s Wife," in "Lamb," with Liam Neeson, and in Mel Gibson’s "Braveheart." Bannen reminisced about how the haphazard production of "Braveheart" was pulled together by the sheer force of Gibson’s personality.
"He only ever had four hour sleep, and he was on 90 cigarettes a day, but he acted his part with a wonderful Scottish accent," Bannen said. "And he was also directing. He’d leave directing it, rush off and put on a costume, and try and finish off another scene. If he hadn’t got a scene the way he wanted it he’d rush off and do a scene with Sophie Marceau, then he’d rush back and say, ‘I must rewrite this scene,’ and he’d rewrite two pages of dialogue. We’d tell him, ‘Mel, we can’t learn lines that fast!’ And he’d say, ‘Give us a blackboard here!’ He wrote the whole thing out himself, and I’m looking at various blackboards and reading my lines off."
The script for "Waking Ned Devine" was subjected to no such mercurial forces, though it might well have benefited from on-the-fly rewrites. The most talked-about scene in the film occurs when the nervous Michael O’Sullivan character, played by Kelly, is skinny-dipping at the beach and the man from the lottery shows up unexpectedly, looking for the cottage of jackpot winner, Ned Devine. Michael has to get to Ned’s before the lottery man, and pass himself off as the dead Ned in order to collect the money. After several failed attempts at getting his trousers on, he hops on a motorbike without a stitch on him and heads for Ned’s at high speed. The svelte senior citizen admits to no shyness about getting his kit out in public, in a damp climate, at his age.
"I was scared stupid — I’d never been on a motorbike before," he said. "It was very cold, and I didn’t give a damn about who saw what. I just wanted to get it done quickly, because I knew that I was going to meet my maker at any moment. I just wanted to get it over with. Seven or eight people die in the Isle of Man in the TT motorbike races every year, and I thought that this year there was going to be one more. No, there was no modesty, it was just sheer terror, and thank God we got it done."
No shyness, just naked fear: an appropriate reaction in the circumstances. "Waking Ned Devine" opened last week in New York, and Kelly’s slender silhouette can currently be seen straddling 500 cc’s of Japanese engineering at the Angelika and Cinema on Third Avenue.