One of Ireland’s best-loved actors, David Kelly, will forever be part of ‘Christmas television’ due to his unforgettable role as Grandpa Joe in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His son, also David, shares cherished memories with Kay Doyle of a dad who specialised in bringing smiles to the faces of audiences all over the world.
There is a unique but small band of actors whose “screen star” appeal transcends generation gaps and one of Fairview’s finest, David Kelly, is a worthy member of such a club.
Whether you remember him as ‘Rasher’s Tierney’ in Strumpet City, ‘O’Reilly’, the cowboy builder in Fawlty Towers, ‘Michael O’Sullivan’, the naked motorcyclist from Waking Ned Devine, or his reimagining of ‘Grandpa Joe’ in the children’s classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, David will always have a special place in the hearts of the Irish television and cinema audience. His lasting legacy? He knew how to make us laugh.
“He had a childlike love of Christmas,” says his son, also David, as he shares special memories of his dad with Ireland’s Own. “He liked nothing better than decorating the house and the tree with various decorations that he brought out year after year, many having their own stories…the more, the better!
“A small, moth-eaten, table-sized tree that was bought by his parents in 1929, the year he was born, would be ‘gussied up’ and take pride of place in the hall. We’re fixed for Panto…” he would say, an old actors’ expression meaning that they had a booking for pantomime and while they were employed they could safely afford a Christmas.
“On Christmas morning, he would wake early and dress, always a crisp white shirt, jacket and bow-tie.
“He would light a fire in the front room and sit there in his chair, listening to Christmas carols until we all arrived down. But presents were never opened until he had his pot of tea and toast and was settled back into the said chair.
“He was incredibly generous, presents were always well thought out…there was always a couple for the dog too. He would even wrap tinsel around Max’s collar.
“The best bit was that he himself was delighted with any small pressie he got, holding up socks as if they were pure treasure!”
David Kelly was born in Dublin, the youngest of three boys and one girl. His early years were spent in Fairview, on the northside of Dublin, before the family moved southside to Goatstown, to the house that he lived in for the rest of his life.
His father ran the mail order department of Browne & Nolan, an educational printing company. His mother ran the house and made the “best apple tarts in the world”, baked on a large dinner plate, as they should be! David attended Synge St, the Christian Brothers, which he hated, referring to them as “brutal”.
During World War II, he and a group of schoolfriends used to write and perform their own plays to entertain friends and neighbours.
He always knew he wanted to be an actor but trained and worked as a lithographic artist before deciding to act full-time. To the day she died, his mother would say…“would you not think about going back to the good safe job, son?”