Broadway star loses battle with cancer
Among the brightest of Westport's stars of the stage, actor Donal Donnelly, 78, died Jan. 4, after a long battle cancer.
The Tony-nominated actor made appearances on stages from the West End to Westport, most notably his performances in all of fellow Irishman Brian Friel's plays, including Philadelphia, Here I Come!, Faith Healer, Dancing at Lughnasa and Translations.
In Philadelphia, Donnelly played an Irishman who immigrated to America. Donnelly himself was an Irishman who came to America in the 1960s, and moved to Westport in 1979 where he lived with his wife Patricia ("Patsy") on Orchard Lane until a few years ago when they moved to Chicago to be closer to their sons.
Donnelly was born in Bradford, England, on July 6, 1931, to Irish parents Nora and James. The family moved to Dublin, where Donnelly grew up. He attended the Synge Street Christian Brothers School, which was known for producing actors.
Long-time friend and fellow Westporter Wally Meyer once asked Donnelly how he was able to memorize lines so well.
"He told me, `I learned that young, because I went to Christian Brothers schools and it was mandatory for us to memorize verses. I can see differences now with younger actors -- they have not had all those years and years and years of memorization and they have difficulty," Meyer reported.
Donnelly's early career in Ireland was spent at Dublin's Gate Theater. He also spent time in England, appearing in a number of stage productions, including Playboy of the Western World and Shadow of a Gunman, and later in television plays of Juno and the Paycock, The Plough and the Stars and Playboy.
Having already established himself on the Dublin and London stages and television, he next tackled Broadway. His first role, in Philadelphia, Here I Come!, earned him a Tony nomination in 1966. American audiences also saw him in many other roles, including A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, replacing Albert Finney; Sleuth; Faith Healer; The Elephant Man, this time replacing Kevin Conway; and Dancing at Lughnasa. In the latter, he was able to keep a role in the play when it moved from Dublin to the U.S. because of Actors' Equity rules. When foreign casts come to Broadway, Equity requires that a certain percentage of the roles be played by Americans. Donnelly, at this point, technically was an American.
"He was most proud that he had been a U.S. citizen," Meyer said.
Donnelly stayed close to his Irish roots, and in the 1970s, he took on the role of the ever-irascible Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw in the one-man play, My Astonishing Self, which required Donnelly to portray Shaw at different times in his life. He reprised this role for a Project Return fund-raiser in Westport at the Community Theatre.
It was during preparations for the Westport performance that Meyer, the event's master of ceremonies, met Donnelly -- the two got to know each other doing some commercial spots leading up to the event. Meyer said he saw Donnelly's performance as Shaw many times.
"You could see him age as the play progressed," Meyer described.
Another time Playhouse-goers remember Donnelly was when he was in attendance at its production of Dancing at Lughnasa. After the production, the original cast member went backstage to congratulate the new cast.
In his acting career, Donnelly didn't just spend time on the stage. In fact, his best-known film, The Dead -- John Huston's 1987 adaptation of a James Joyce short story -- had its world premiere in Norwalk at the SoNo Cinema.
Tickets to the event, a fund-raiser for Project Return, sold for $25 a piece, which included a get-together with cast members after the show.
"They sold out on a flash," Meyer said.
Donnelly also had a notable role in Godfather III -- his character, Archbishop Gilday, was memorably killed by a gunshot to the forehead.
Donnelly, describing his Godfather III costume with its multitude of buttons, reportedly joked to Meyer, "You know, every few years they have a convocation of all the cardinals when they get together to vote on a new pope. It's so difficult to unbutton that cassock, that I think if the cardinals ever got Velcro on their cassocks, and they all went to the men's room at the same time, the sound would have been deafening."
He also appeared in Twister and had roles on TV in Law & Order ("The Troubles," 1991) and Spenser: For Hire ("One If By Land, Two If By Sea," 1986).
Meyer said Donnelly was also very political, and had many friends in Washington, D.C.
"He was vehement about his politics and he was very knowledgeable about the world," Meyer said.
Donnelly was commuting to New York City for a play at the time of one of Ross Perot's bids for U.S. president. He told Meyer that he didn't necessarily want Perot to win, but during Donnelly's train ride, he came up with a song for Perot's campaign. The two contacted a campaign worker, and got his OK to submit the song, which was sung to the tune of "Que Sera." Donnelly, Meyer and some other local pals recorded the song at a Norwalk studio, and sent the song in. Unfortunately, that particular campaign worker left the campaign "while the package was in the mail," Meyer said.
A career in acting isn't always reliable, and Donnelly was always looking for other venues in which to practice his art.
"He always said, `If you're an actor, you're out of work 90 percent of the time. I think it's important to realize that actors have to develop other ways that they can support themselves,'" Meyer recalled.
One of Donnelly's other jobs was to record books on tape/CD. Most notably, he narrated the only James Joyce estate-approved audio recording of Ulysses -- except for the last sentence, which was 40 pages long and was recorded by Miriam Healy-Louie. It was a multi-language project that took him close to two years to finish.
"He really enjoyed doing that," Meyer said.
Donnelly is survived by his wife of 45 years, Patricia -- a former dancer whom he met during a London production of Finian's Rainbow -- and two sons, Jonathan and Damian. He was predeceased by a daughter.
A memorial service will take place in New York City in March.