Donal Donnelly, Lifelong Interpreter of Friel Roles, Dies at 78

Obituaries   Donal Donnelly, Lifelong Interpreter of Friel Roles, Dies at 78
Donal Donnelly, who created roles in several plays by his fellow Irishman, Brian Friel, died Jan. 4 in Chicago, where he had lived recently. The cause was cancer. He was 78.
Donal Donnelly
Donal Donnelly

The actor first bowed on Broadway in Friel's early success Philadelphia, Here I Come!, playing the private half of the play's protagonist, a young Irishman set to emigrate to America. It was a role he created at the Gate Theatre in Dublin in 1964. He won his only Tony Award nomination for his performance, and his connection to Friel would become a thread that ran the length of his stage career.

He returned to Broadway in the original production of Friel's Faith Healer, playing the colorful and garrulous talent agent Teddy opposite James Mason's traveling con artist, Frank. In 1991, he was the the wayward, missionary brother Jack to the five Irish sisters in Friel's Dancing at Lughnasa, a hit that won him a Drama Desk Award for Best Ensemble. His final Broadway appearance was in a revival of yet another Friel work, Translations, in 1995 at the Plymouth.

Frank Rich, writing of Lughnasa in the New York Times, said that Mr. Donnelly's "aging, distracted, shuffling Uncle Jack adds a poignant perspective to a career that has been linked with Mr. Friel's since he starred as the sassy young protagonist in the playwright's first Broadway success, Philadelphia, Here I Come!, 25 years ago."

Mr. Donnelly's stage presence was an amiable, slightly distracted one, often communicating a sort of dotty wisdom. He spoke in a cracked, hesitant voice full of Irish lift, and used his dark eyes, expressive eyebrows and prow-like nose to commanding effect. His was a face and voice the viewer easily latched onto.

Though perceived by the public as a quintessentially Irish actor, he was actually born in Bradford, England, near Leeds, and spent most of his professional life in America. His father James and mother Nora were Irish, and moved Donal to Dublin when he was quite young. He had seven brothers and sisters, all of whom remained in Ireland and one of whom was elected mayor of Dublin. He attended the Synge Street Christian Brothers School in Dublin, where his fellow classmates included future actor Milo O'Shea. As a young man, he was heavily influenced by Shaw, and went on to play the writer in a one-man show called My Astonishing Self and again at Irish Rep in 1999's Dear Liar. Early acting roles were found at the Gate Theater in Dublin and as a member of a theatre company founded by Cyril Cusack, as well as in Playboy of the Western World in London. He moved to to the United States in the 1960s.

Other Broadway theatre credits included A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, Sleuth, The Elephant Man, Ghetto and Execution of Justice.

He had an early, significant film role in the 1965 British comedy "The Knack...and How to Get It." But his most famous screen part as that of Freddy Malins, a drunk, but thoughtful and feeling dinner guest in John Huston's critically praised 1987 film adaptation of Joyce's "The Dead."

He is survived by his wife of 45 years, the former Patricia Porter, whom he met, appropriately enough, on a production of Finian's Rainbow in London; and two sons, Jonathan and Damian, both of Chicago.

Richard Clarke (left) with Donal Donnelly in <i>The Elephant Man</i>.
Richard Clarke (left) with Donal Donnelly in The Elephant Man. Photo by Zo
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