Tall, graceful, supremely accomplished American actress, singer, dancer and choreographer Paula Kelly was born in Jacksonville, Florida, one of three daughters, to Ruth and Lehman Kelly. The family moved to Harlem in New York when she was six years old. Unlike her siblings, she had strong musical inclinations which were recognised early on by her father (himself a jazz musician) who enrolled her in the Fiorello LaGuardia High School of Music & Art. Paula excelled as a star pupil. This opened doors to an audition at the prestigious Juilliard School and led to a four year scholarship. Having trained under the academy’s first director of dance, Martha Hill , she graduated in 1964 and that same year made her debut on Broadway. During much of the 60s, specialising in modern dance, she performed with such luminaries as Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey and went on tour as a dancer with Harry Belafonte .
The inevitable breakthrough to popular success came in 1967 when she was cast as Helene (taxi dancer at the Fandango Ballroom) in London’s West End production of Sweet Charity, directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse. Paula ended up winning the London Variety Award for Best Supporting Actress. The play itself enjoyed a healthy run but was ultimately eclipsed by the motion picture Sweet Charity (1969) for which Paula was able to recreate her stage role. Now firmly established on the screen, she went on to sing and dance in a number of musical TV specials and/or variety shows headlining Gene Kelly (with whom she performed a duet), Dean Martin, Quincy Jones, Richard Pryor and former Sweet Charity co-star Sammy Davis Jr.. She also appeared as Tiger Lily, teaming up with Danny Kaye and Mia Farrow for the BBC production of Peter Pan (1976), as well as taking on the dual role of co-choreographer. In 1971, she starred in a Los Angeles stage production of the all-singing, all-dancing musical revue Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope for which she won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award.
Since the popularity of musicals had waned by the early 70s, Paula had little choice but to take on straight dramatic acting roles. On several occasions she provided the female interest in a series of fashionable, sassy, tough blaxploitation films, playing cool, happening chicks opposite action men like Robert Hooks, Paul Winfield and Thalmus Rasulala (and often rising above the routine dramatic material afforded her). She was ‘Leggy Peggy’ in the cult comedy Uptown Saturday Night (1974) with Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby and Richard Pryor and had featured roles in the science fiction classics The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Soylent Green (1973). She also appeared in many television guest spots with notable recurring roles in The Streets of San Francisco (1972), Police Woman (1974) and the sitcom Night Court (1984) for which she received the first of two Emmy nominations. She retired from acting in 1999. Her husband was the British film and television director Don Chaffey who predeceased her in 1990.
Paula Kelly died on February 9 2020 at the age of 76.
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