Dancer and actress

Born: October 21, 1942;

Died: February 8, 2020.

PAULA Kelly, who has died at the age of 77, was an African-American dancer, actress and singer who exploded onto the popular consciousness thanks to Bob Fosse’s stage and movie musical, Sweet Charity, in the late 1960s. She was a sensation performing the energetic There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This number alongside the film’s star Shirley MacLaine and Broadway great Chita Rivera, Kelly’s original dance inspiration.

Following its success, Kelly became a familiar face on TV through the 1970s and 1980s, popping up in everything from Hill Street Blues to The Golden Girls, via the entire run of the soap opera Santa Barbara in which she gleefully played a villainess.

She was nominated for Emmy Awards for her performances in two ground-breaking parts – as a public defender in the first season of the sitcom Night Court (1984) and as a lesbian in a committed relationship in The Women of Brewster Place (1989), a mini-series produced by Oprah Winfrey’s company Harpo. In 2019, the culture website Vulture said the show “cracked open the door to sympathetic portrayals of black gay women”.

On the big screen, she worked in both mainstream movies such as the sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain (1971) and the dystopian drama Soylent Green (1973) and in Blaxploitation films, including the hit comedy Uptown Saturday Night (1974) which featured one of her most famous characters, Leggy Peggy, who wouldn’t play along with her social-climbing congressman husband’s willingness to forget where he came from when he found himself in the company of white people.

The youngest of three girls, Paula Alma Kelly was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1942, but only lived there for six months before her parents moved the family to New York City. Kelly, whose father worked in a local drugstore before becoming the superintendent of their apartment building, grew up in the Sugar Hill neighbourhood, which was populated by jazz musicians when she was a child but, by the 1960s, was regarded as little short of a war-zone, part of run-down, crime-riddled Harlem.

Originally, Kelly planned to become a singer but seeing Broadway star Chita Rivera in West Side Story on Broadway in her teens inspired her to change her focus. She was in her final year at New York’s High School of Music and Art when she decided to switch to dance. She was awarded a scholarship for the dance programme at Juilliard, the prestigious school for the performing arts.

After Juilliard, which she quit just ahead of graduation, she worked with such big names as Harry Belafonte, Sammy Davis Jr, Tom Jones and Gene Kelly;she soloed with Martha Graham’s classical modern dance company, and made her debut on Broadway in the musical Something More (1964).

She was dancing at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas in 1967 when she landed a part in the cabaret version of Sweet Charity. Six months into its Las Vegas run, its leading lady Juliet Prowse left to star in the London stage production, and Kelly, who played one of her fellow dance hostesses, went with her. She was summoned back from London by director/choreographer Bob Fosse – who later described her as “the best dancer I have ever seen” – to reprise her role in his 1969 movie version.

She immediately caught the eye as the only black dancer in the now-iconic Big Spender number, and she delivered plenty of deadpan dialogue as Charity’s cynical sidekick.

The filmmaker Lee Daniels, who directed Precious (2009) and The Butler (2013), wrote about the impression Kelly’s Sweet Charity performance made on him in a 2016 magazine article: “Never in my life had I seen such elegance, raw talent and breath-taking honesty onscreen. She is an unsung hero and the reason that I am here.”

The year 1969 saw not only the theatrical release of Sweet Charity but it also the lithe and long-legged Kelly being invited to be a featured dancer at the Academy Awards. Sporting a tangerine-coloured mini-dress with matching knee-length boots, she performed a tongue-in-cheek dance to the accompaniment of a marching band playing the Oscar-nominated theme song from Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. That same year saw her being photographed nude for Playboy; the first model to show pubic hair in that magazine.

After romances with sports star-turned actor Bernie Casey and actor-playwright Paul Benjamin, Kelly married for the first and only time in 1985, to the older, British director Don Chaffey, whose most recent credits at that point were the Disney film Pete’s Dragon and such primetime TV series as Fantasy Island and TJ Hooker. They had met on the set of the short-lived TV series Finders of Lost Loves. The marriage lasted just five years: Chaffey died in 1990 at the age of 73.

Kelly, who had always had an affinity for jazz, and who had sung and danced in the Broadway hit Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies in the early 1980s, moved on to singing in jazz clubs in the 1990s, garnering five-star reviews and working with such luminaries as the revered jazz pianist Jimmy Rowles. She had been retired for more than a decade by the time of her death.

Kelly is survived by George Parkington, her partner of 17 years.