Today we’ll talk a little about a show business family named the Kellys. It’s not the family vaudeville act which gave us Gene Kelly, however, nor is it the Philadelphia bunch that gave us Walter C., George, and Grace Kelly. Nor is it that that third vaudeville Kelly family that started with father Peter and produced daughters Judy King and Mona Ray. My, but there were a lot of Kellys in show business back in the day, for there were also Gregory Kelly, the clown Emmett Kelly, John T. Kelly, baseball star Mike “King” Kelly, J.W. Kelly “The Rolling Mill Man, Patsy Kelly, and James T. Kelley, none of whom were related apparently. The only lesson to be drawn from all of this is that Kelly is a very common Irish surname, and for a time in the early 20th century the Irish dominated American show business. (There were also several non-Irish who changed their name TO Kelly).
So here’s yet a fourth Kelly show biz family. The dynasty begins with John Augustus Kelly, Sr, a theatrical ticket broker, and his wife, Ann Mary Walsh, an actress and Powers model who went under the name Nan Kelly.
Their daughter, Nancy Kelly (1921-1995) became a silent film actress from around age five, with Nan acting as manager. Early films Nancy appeared in as a child included The Untamed Lady (1926) with Gloria Swanson, the original version of The Great Gatsby (1926) and Glorifying the American Girl (1929). Her first Broadway play was Give Me Yesterday (1931). This was followed by the 1935 film Convention Girl with Rose Hobart and Shemp Howard. Continuing a career long pattern, she then returned to the stage for Susan and God (1937-38) with Gertrude Lawrence.
Readers of this blog may be gratified to note her presence in classic comedies and movies with theatrical themes. These include One Night in the Tropics (1940) with Allan Jones and Abbott and Costello; Show Business (1944) with Eddie Cantor and George Murphy; He Married His Wife with Joel McCrea, Sailor’s Lady with Jon Hall; and Private Affairs with Hugh Herbert (all 1940); A Very Young Lady (1941) with Jane Withers; and Murder in the Music Hall (1946) with Vera Ralston.
She co-starred in two major westerns in 1939: Jesse James with Tyrone Power, Henry Fonda, and Randolph Scott; and Frontier Marshall, also with Scott. Other notable stuff includes Stanley and Livingstone (1939) with Spencer Tracy; and Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (1943) with Johnny Weissmuller. Kelly was briefly married to movie star Edmond O’Brien from 1941 to 1942.
Then came major Broadway stuff, including the original production of Clifford Odets’ The Big Knife (1949-50), the long-running Season in the Sun (1950-51) staged by Burgess Meredith, and her Tony winning performance in the original production of Maxwell Anderson’s The Bad Seed (1954-55), also starring in the (1956) film version, for which she earned an Oscar nomination. A half dozen theatrical productions and lots of TV appearances followed. Her last Broadway appearance was in the original production of Edward Albee’s Box/ Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (1968). Her last screen credit was the 1977 all-star tv movie Murder at the World Series.
Nancy’s younger brother, Jack Kelly (John Augustus Kelly, Jr., 1927-1992) was also an actor. His career was less critically acclaimed than his sister’s, but more eclectic. He started out as a child performer with parts in the films The Story of Alexander Graham Bell and Young Mr. Lincoln, both in 1939. A decade later he returned as a bit player gradually working his way to prominence by the mid ’50s. You can see him in films like To Hell and Back (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956). He co-starred in a short lived 1955 series based on the movie King’s Row.
Kelly enjoyed his greatest recognition in the role of Bart Maverick in the series Maverick (1957-62), alternating with James Garner. While he appeared in some movies like Love and Kisses (1965) with Rick Nelson, and Commandos (1968) with Lee Van Cleef most of the next two decades were taken up by work in television. He played a supervillain named Jack O’Shea on Batman, and was a regular on Get Christie Love. You can see him in guest starring roles on shows like Wagon Train, The High Chaparral, Ironside, Banacek, McCloud, Hawaii Five-O, Quincy, The Rockford Files, etc.
From 1956 to 1964, Kelly was married to actress May Wynn (Donna Lee Hickey, b. 1928) who also came from an interesting show business background. Both her father Ray Hickey, and her grandfather Bertie Black were in vaudeville.
In later years, Jack Kelly went into politics, serving as the mayor of Huntington Beach, California from 1983 to 1986.
To learn more about vaudeville history, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on silent film please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.