In a long and varied career, the late David Kelly played some memorable roles, from the roguish O’Reilly in Fawlty Towers to the indomitable Rashers in Strumpet City. Donal O'Donoghue interviewed him in July, 2005

I’m a neurotic wreck,” says David Kelly. “I always was.” This admission, in the midst of recalling his own father’s serenity, comes as something of a surprise from one of Ireland’s best known and best-loved actors. On stage and screen, Kelly’s forte has been the lovable rogue: a twinkle in his eye, a spring in his step and a hangdog expression that allows him to get away with murder.

This was Mister O’Reilly, the cowboy builder from Fawlty Towers (“I was on screen for only nine minutes and everybody remembers him”) as well as the naked motorcyclist in Waking Ned and coming soon to a cinema near you, the avuncular Grandpa Joe in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But Kelly also does serious; the tragic, tattered character of Rashers Tierney in the TV series, Strumpet City or the tortured title character in Krapp’s Last Tape.

In person it’s more difficult to spot the joins: to separate the actor from the man. “They talk about actors being luvvies and insincere,” Kelly says. “But I can say with my hand on my heart that I’ve never met more sincere people. I think there’s a lot of insincerity and ‘yes dahling’ and ‘let’s do lunch’ in the business; in fact in every other trade people act all day. I think actors are marvellous people and I’m so glad that I’m one.”

On July 11th Kelly celebrated his 76th birthday after attending the world premiere of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in Hollywood the previous night. “It was the best birthday present I ever had,” he says, with the delight of a kid. He walked the red carpet with co-star Johnny Depp, was nabbed for about 35 impromptu interviews, sat through the movie for the first time (“it’s smashing”) and afterwards attended a party at Jim Henson’s studios. That night the statue of Kermit was covered up and the location was transformed into the sugary innards of Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory with fountains of chocolate and endless selections of candy. “I’m not mad for parties,” says Kelly, “but that one was easy.”

Grandpa Joe hails from the same corner of the planet – a kindly old man with oversized spectacles and tweedy clothes who dances a little jig of celebration (“it might not have been that difficult for anybody else but I had to go into training”). Kelly wears the role like a favourite cardigan. He read Roald Dahl’s original book many times and always loved the character. “He’s everybody’s idea of a grandpa and I never had one,” he says. “All my grandparents were dead when I arrived.”

So he modelled Grandpa Joe on his father, Ned. “There’s a lot of my dad in that part, I’d like to think,” he says. “He was a lovely man, probably the best man I ever knew. I’m a neurotic wreck, I always was. But he took things very easily and he had serenity: a thing that I would like to achieve some time before I go.”

But there’s a calm to Kelly especially in his Dickensian recollections of a past in which the hard times are blithely swept away. He was educated at the Christian Brothers on Synge Street, a school of hard knocks that was also the alma mater of Milo O’Shea, Eamonn Andrews and Gay Byrne. There he learned two things that helped keep him out of trouble: how to run fast and how to act. “Yes, they were the two essential things,” he affirms. “You ran like the hammers of hell and you learned to act convincingly. I’m sure it has changed. I’d like to think that it has changed. But I don’t want to go and find out.”

One of his teachers, a member of the Rathmines and Rathgar Musical Society, encouraged his performing instincts. “I had a very singing voice when I was a kid of about 12,” he says. “They were doing a season at the Gaiety Theatre and Michael (McGreal) brought me and two other kids to two shows, The Sorcerer and Utopia Limited. So in 1942 I did a season at the Gaiety and I got off doing lessons.”

While the R & R offered a temporary escape from the drudgery of homework, it was fellow student, the poet John Jordan, who opened Kelly’s eyes to the alchemy of the stage. “I wanted to go to the Corinthian to see Gene Autry but he dragged me off to one Saturday to see Michael and Hilton in one of the Chekhovs at the Gaiety. It’s something I can picture, even now, sitting up in the Gods, the curtain going up and realising that this thing is in Technicolor.”

Since then theatre, apart from a brief tenure in an advertising agency as a commercial artist and a calligrapher, has been his life. “The first thing I did when I went in [to the printing business] was start a dramatic society,” he says. “I was only in my teens but I had everyone in the firm, including the managing director, doing Ten Little Niggers as the play was known then. So there was no hope that I was going to do anything else.”

He met his future wife, the actress Laurie Morton, at the old Pike Theatre. The year was 1956, the play was New Year Follies and Kelly came in as a late replacement for Donal Donnelly. “Really I suppose Laurie should be married to Donal,” he -says.

For their honeymoon they went to Joan Littlewood’s theatre in East Stratford, London with the musical, Glory. When the unpredictable Littlewood fired Morton, the couple had to survive on £12.50 a week. “It was champagne and ashes,” Kelly says of an -up--and--down life. But the world was very different then: and punctuated with ad hoc parties. “One time,” he says, “we had a party just because we bought a new couch.”

In those years Kelly worked with a who’s who of Irish theatre, including Jimmy O’Dea, Milo O’Shea, Ray McAnally, Tomas Mac Anna, Hilton Edwards, Mícheál MacLiammóir and Phyllis Ryan. He played in the first ever production of The Quare Fella in 1954 and the second ever production of Krapp’s Last Tape in 1959. “Krapp’s Last Tape is my favourite piece,” he says. “It moves me terribly. It’s so real, and so real for Beckett, who usually held his cards very close to his chest. Krapp’s Last Tape told us a lot about Beckett and about ourselves.”

In a way Kelly hails from another era: a more sophisticated time, as he might put it himself. He speaks rather precisely, dresses impeccably and is extremely well mannered. The Hollywood Reporter called him “ageless” and he wears his years well. “That was kind of them,” he says. “Some years ago I celebrated my 70th birthday. One of the critics wrote afterwards: ‘what I want to know is how is it that David Kelly has been 70 for the last 40 years.’ That’s probably nearer the mark.”

He still lives in the same house in Roebuck, near Goatstown on Dublin’s Southside. His two children have grown up: David works in advertising and Miriam is an actress (she recently contributed the voiceover to the Haughey TV series). David keeps busy with work and his own hobbies especially painting – watercolours – which he has done since the mid 1940s. One time his wife joked that they had “the biggest private collection of David Kellys in the world”. But they staged an exhibition, sold all the paintings and went on holiday to South Africa on the -proceeds.

Through the ’60s and ’70s, Kelly was a small screen regular: most frequently on Robin’s Nest, most famously on Fawlty Towers and most memorably as Rashers in Strumpet City. “I was totally in love with Rashers Tierney,” he says. “I’m a Dub and for me Rashers was the spirit of this town in that time.”

A few years back, stardom beckoned once more for the veteran actor in the shape of the sleeper hit Waking Ned. It was a whimsical tale whose most memorable moment was that of Kelly riding a motorcycle in his birthday suit. “Being stark naked on a motorbike at -seventy--one was fairly dramatic, “ he says. “I suppose I became a sex symbol for ten minutes. That must have given some elderly viewers a heart attack.

David Kelly is as ageless as his art: the ghost in the machine of countless TV repeats and still going strong. He is O’Reilly, Rashers Tierney and Grandpa Joe. He rides motorcycles naked. He dances merry jigs. He haunts the streets of Edwardian Dublin. Away from the stage, the actor attends Hollywood premieres, still paints fine watercolours and mistily remembers the good old days. Right now Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is Kelly’s favourite film but there’s plenty more gas in the tank.

“The nice thing about this business is that you don’t retire,” he says. “The idea of retirement is appalling. It sounds good for a while. People work their ass off in a job they don’t like, retire early, go on a world cruise, have a heart attack and die. I think they’ll have to take me out and shoot me. Not a bad way to go. Something dramatic.”