Guest Actor Biography
Page 31 of 127

Donal Donnelly

Vincent O'Brien, Dead On Course

by Pete Stampede

Dark-haired, sharp-featured and with a (shall we say) generous-sized nose, Donal Donnelly is primarily a man of the theatre, coming into the business during a rich period in Irish drama, and later extending into Britain, America and other media. For reasons too complicated to go into, he was actually born in Bradford, in Yorkshire in the North of England (in 1931); it hardly makes him alone among Irish actors though, it's amazing how many were actually born in Britain (and for years, the whisper has been that Peter O'Toole was born in Yorkshire too, not Connemara as is usually claimed). Donnelly was raised in County Tyrone, and by the 1950's had gained experience at both of Dublin's premier theatres, the Abbey, which W.B. Yeats had been involved with the founding of and which made a policy of presenting plays set in and reflecting Ireland, and the Gate, founded later by actor-directors Micheal MacLiammoir and Hilton Edwards (both actually English, but let's not go into that), whose brief was more internationalist, although they would later promote an outstanding native playwright in Brian Friel.

Breaking into films around this time, Donnelly got to work for the legendary John Ford in The Rising Of The Moon (1957), a trilogy of tales largely cast from the Abbey ensemble, also including Jack MacGowran. However, interviewed for a recent biography, Print The Legend; The Life And Times Of John Ford by Scott Eyman, Donnelly recalled that the director was by now more than slightly irascible and reliant on alcohol, and insisting on taunting the British crew on the film; on noticing Donnelly had a gap in his teeth, Ford instructed him to display it to the crew and tell them they were directly responsible, as a result of the Potato Famine! "Amazing bull——", the actor remembered. He went on to state that Ford had considered him for the lead in a long-planned biopic of Sean O'Casey; however, he only had a supporting role in the resulting Young Cassidy (1965), which was in any case fictionalised as the title suggests, completed by leading cinematographer Jack Cardiff after Ford was taken ill, and starred Australia's own Rod Taylor, possibly the least convincing playwright on celluloid. Similarly perhaps, Shake Hands With The Devil (1959), an IRA-themed drama set in the 1930's, had James Cagney heading a curious mix of American and British actors in the leads, with the likes of Donnelly, Richard Harris, Cyril Cusack, Ray McAnally and Noel Purcell—from "A Surfeit of H2O" reduced to supporting roles.

Coming to Britain (where he shared a flat with Jack MacGowran for a while), Donnelly can be spotted in the biased if entertaining I'm All Right Jack (1959) as one of shop steward Peter Sellers' sheep-like acolytes, along with Victor Maddern—seen in "The Thirteenth Hole"—Cardew Robinson and bit-part king Sam Kydd, unwillingly welcoming upper-class twit Ian Carmichael to the workforce. His best film role was probably in Dick Lester's The Knack... And How To Get It (1965), as a mate of irritating weed Michael Crawford and cockney Casanova Ray Brooks (seen in "Noon Doomsday"); this was well-praised at the time, although Lester's self-consciously wacky comic devices and the rather sexist attitudes throughout have definitely dated it, the best thing was John Barry's music (the CD is playing as I write this)—would any 60's diehards want to kill me if I say Help! is probably Lester's best film, better than A Hard Day's Night? Donnelly also supported in The Mind Of Mr. Soames (1970), a little-seen fantasy with Terence Stamp as a savant and Robert Vaughn as a doctor, and in Sergei Bondarchuk's commercially disastrous but at least unarguably epic-scale Waterloo (1970), with Rod Steiger as Napoleon, and Donnelly as a private with a fondness for pigs.

On the London stage, he did Sean O'Casey's Red Roses For Me at Bernard Miles' Mermaid Theatre in 1962, alongside Leonard Rossiter; there's a picture from this, showing both of them, at the Rossiter personal site. "Dead On Course" was one of Donnelly's first sightings on British TV. It was followed by THE Sentimental Agent, "May The Saints Preserve Us" (ATV/ITC, 1963), one of the earliest and least-known ITC series, here with Carol Cleveland also guesting, as a Texan heiress who's taken a fancy to an Irish castle; Thirty-Minute Theatre, "Application Form" (BBC, 1965), with Denholm Elliott, one of the then-constant anthology series; Department S, "Les Fleurs de Mal" (ATV/ITC, 1969), as a gangster's intended target, when Peter Wyngarde and chums are baffled by a shoot-out over the flowers of the title—and despite that title, it was partly set in Italy; and the well-rated fantasy anthology Out Of The Unknown, "Get Off My Cloud" (BBC, 1969), starring Peter Jeffrey, for once not as a diabolical mastermind, as an SF writer who suffers a major breakdown and whose thoughts become telepathically linked to Donnelly, playing "the most level-headed person he knows", a sports journalist. This was made in colour, but has since been wiped (judging by publicity photos of the time, both actors were required to wear some pretty silly costumes).

In the middle of all this, Donnelly returned to Dublin for Brian Friel's first stage play Philadelphia, Here I Come!, first staged at the Gaiety Theatre in 1964, with Hilton Edwards directing. The character of a young Irishman on the eve of his emigration to the US was split into two; Patrick Bedford, an actor who was groomed by MacLiammoir and Edwards to follow in their footsteps, but didn't quite, played the man's public face, all optimistic about starting a new life, while Donnelly was the "Private Gar", the side of him that sentimentally and conservatively is terrified to break away, a role he reputedly gave a slyly malicious charm to. Friel's examination of national character and contradiction was enthusiastically received by critics and audiences; still with Donnelly and Bedford in the leads, it ran for 326 performances on Broadway in 1966, gaining Donnelly a Tony nomination for Best Actor in a Play, with a West End production following in 1967. Later, Friel's Faith Healer, which had its premiere on Broadway in 1979 and starred James Mason, in a rare stage excursion in the title role, featured Donnelly as the unworldly sage's sharp-witted, exploitative agent. Interestingly, Friel's stage directions specify that this role must be played "in the Cockney dialect." More recently, a Boston revival of Friel's Translations, in 1995 (which Ray McAnally, again, had starred in the original production of), saw Donnelly as a lovable, incorrigible old drunk called Jimmy Jack.

Donnelly's most visible mainstream role was in a British sitcom, Yes, Honestly (LWT, 1976-77) a follow-on from No, Honestly which had starred real-life husband and wife John Alderton and Pauline Collins. This had Donnelly as a largely unsuccessful songwriter called Matt Browne (where would British sitcoms be without puns!), partnered by perky blonde sitcom regular Liza Goddard; co-writer Terence Brady had, in a former life, appeared in "Fog". After years on stage, increasingly in the US, Donnelly made a sardonic contribution to John Huston's last film The Dead (1987), as one of the party guests in this finely measured adaptation of the last story in James Joyce's Dubliners; this had a largely Irish cast, but the interiors were actually shot in California, with Karel Reisz on standby to direct in case Huston became too ill. Surprisingly perhaps, Donnelly, by now grey-haired and looking somewhat professorial, turned up in Francis Ford Coppola's delayed sequel, The Godfather Part III (1990), playing a less than saintly Archbishop; however, Coppola in his early years was a big fan of Dick Lester's, and so had probably seen Donnelly in The Knack.

Occasional guest roles on American TV have included Spenser; For Hire, "One if by Land, Two if by Sea" (ABC/Warner Bros., 1986), and Law And Order, "The Troubles" (NBC/Universal, 1991), unfortunately inevitably cast in an IRA-themed episode, in a scene where a fundraising party is being held for a villain the cops are holding. His more recent films, however, have generally been back in Ireland; Words Upon The Window Pane (1994), from a one-act play by W.B. Yeats; Korea (1995), in what sounds like a very strong role as an angry father, but which doesn't seem to have been shown outside of film festivals; This Is My Father (1998), as a bemused foster father in what was basically a straightforward Irish love story, but weakened by an unnecessary modern-day US framing with James Caan; and Love and Rage (1998), with that star of the 80's Greta Scacchi, which (like most of her post-80's films) has had trouble getting released. He has added recitals and performing Irish songs to his stage work, which has also included a one-man show as George Bernard Shaw, My Astonishing Self, and still for new Irish writers, the American premiere of Martin McDonagh's The Cripple Of Inishmaan, in 1998. He played Shaw again in Dear Liar, a revival of a 1960 two-hander drawn from Shaw's correspondence with Mrs Patrick Campbell, at the Irish Repertory Theater on Broadway in 1999. (Years earlier, there had been a BBC TV version of this in the mid-60's, with James Maxwell as GBS.) Donnelly has voiced more than a few talking books on audio tape, including full versions of Joyce's Ulysses and Dubliners, recently also participating in a multi-voice version of the latter, with a different reader for each chapter. On the whole, he's done very well for himself, considering that, in the 60's at least, he had to labour under the considerable drawback of looking rather like me.

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Page last modified: 5 May 2017.

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