Desmond Kelly has brought his distinctive voice and understated acting style to a long run of character roles. Along the way he has played many a straight-talking Kiwi: fathers, mechanics, and swagmen among them.
Kelly worked initially as a geologist, then a teacher, a job which took him to Fiji. While lecturing at Wellington Teachers College in the mid 70s, he made his stage debut (he argued later that theatre is "the place where an actor learns his craft". He was 48. Soon after Kelly won the first of many professional roles at Downstage Theatre. In 1979 he made his screen debut in movie Sons for the Return Home, directed by Paul Maunder — the only man Kelly knows "who can recite the whole script of Hamlet from memory". Kelly played a man at a dump, and his first few hours on a film set were spent helping the crew empty a sea of blue plastic garbage bags.
In 1980 he co-starred in Jocko. Jocko (Bruce Allpress) and China (Kelly) were two swagmen travelling the country, making a barebones living as shearers and labourers. Scripted by Julian Dickon (creator of pioneering timber town series Pukemanu), the show evoked the bushman myth common to both sides of the Tasman. Kelly got the role thanks largely to director Mark Defriest, after a couple of auditions in far from opportune conditions. After rambling by horse in their first season, cost-savings in the second saw the duo trapped in the fictional town of Middleborough. Kelly was nominated for a Feltex award for the role (a gong ultimately won by Allpress).
Around the same time, Kelly won another front and centre role in Free Enterprise, one of Greg McGee's first television scripts, produced as part of the Loose Enz series. The tele-play saw Kelly's character, a tramp, facing off against the cantankerous proprietor of a greasy spoon cafe (Kate Harcourt).
Kelly also did strong work in two of his favourite films, both released in the early 80s: Smash Palace (playing fellow mechanic to Bruno Lawrence's character) and Ronald Hugh Morrison coming-of-age tale The Scarecrow (as working class Dad to the film's teen protagonist). Kelly went on to appear in films Bad Blood and Illustrious Energy, and put his arm up the back end of a cow during an on-off role on TV series Country GP.
After working with Pat Robins on short film O'Reilly's Luck, Kelly co-starred in Robins' 1992 tele-movie Matrons of Honour. The film sees his character marrying a former school colleague (Dorothy McKegg) in her 60s — much to the horror of the woman's family. Kelly also played cantankerous old Dad in award-winning Fiona Samuel short Song of the Siren; father to a runaway bride in movie Absent without Leave; and he did two seasons as a grumpy storeman on Market Forces, the sequel to hit comedy Gliding On.
His work on US anthology series The Ray Bradbury Theatre included a key part in episode 'The Tombstone'. Acting alongside Shelley Duvall (The Shining), Kelly played landlord of an unusual boarding house. By now he was also making sporadic acting appearances in Australia, including appearances on Water Rats and the Asian-set Embassy.
Back home, he acted in Brit-Kiwi co-production Dark Knight (not to be confused with Christian Bale's caped crusader). Acting alongside a rat that played his constant companion, Kelly's role was Fingal: the tetchy but kind-hearted druid protector to the show's hero, Ivanhoe.
Kelly has acted extensively on stage, most often at Wellington's Downstage. In 1996 he was nominated for Chapman Tripp male actor of the year, for his work in acclaimed play Tzigane. The tragi-comedy revolves around a Greek-Romanian family living down under.
Kelly, who is now based in Australia, has also written eloquently on photography for magazine Art New Zealand. In 1983 he wrote and presented a series on landscape photography, for arts show Kaleidoscope.
Note: Kelly's extensive screenography is often swelled further with credits that aren't his own, thanks to him sharing the name of an Australian-based musician/actor, and a Brit-based dancer.
'Desmond Kelly' Gail Cowan Management website. Accessed 15 August 2012
'Down the Tubes with Dark Knight'. downthetubes.net website. Accessed 15 August 2012
'Art New Zealand. Contents Issues 1 - 20' Art New Zealand website. Accessed 15 August 2012