R.I.P. Paula Kelly

We were just enjoying Uptown Saturday Night (1974), a comedy from our youth, only the other day, so we take particular note of the untimely death of Paula Kelly yesterday at age 76. In that film Kelly played Leggy Peggy, the fun-loving wife of two face Congressman Roscoe-Lee Browne. It’s a good movie to watch for capturing Kelly’s vivacious appeal.

Julliard-trained Kelly was a performer of both stage and screen. Early in her career she had danced with Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey, and appeared in the Broadway shows Something More (1964), The Dozens (1969), Paul Sills Story Theatre (1970), and Ovid’s Metamorphosis (1971), and Bob Fosse’s film version of Sweet Charity (1969). This led to work as a dramatic actress. She began to be a familiar face in the 1970s, with good supporting roles in such films as The Andromeda Strain (1971) and Soylent Green (1973), blaxploitation flicks like Cool Breeze, Top of the Heap, and Trouble Man (all 1972), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Tough Guys (1974), and Drum (1976), as well as TV guest shots (sometimes recurring) on such shows as Sanford and Son, Cannon, The Streets of San Francisco, Police Woman, The Richard Pryor Show, Kojak, and Good Times. All the while she was keeping a hand (and a leg) in musicals, including a 1974 film of Lost in the Stars, a 1976 tv version of Peter Pan (which she helped choreograph) and a 1981 tour of Sophisticated Ladies. 

In the ’80s Kelly enjoyed even greater prominence, with regular roles on Night Court and Santa Barbara, appearances on Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere, Amen, and The Golden Girls, and in Richard Pryor’s semi-autobiographical film JoJo Dancer, Your Life is Calling (1986). Later work included The Women of Brewster Place (1989), for which she was nominated for an Emmy, and a role in Once Upon a Time…When We Were Colored (1995), directed by Tim Reid. 

Kelly appears to have retired pretty abruptly in 1999. At this stage in her life she was widowed and a single-parent; her husband, director Don Chaffey, had died in 1990. She has been off screens for the entire 21st Century, but we’ll miss her all the same.