Kelly, a veteran Broadway performer, and professional dancer, who’s career successfully expanded into film and TV, was born on October 21, 1943, in Jacksonville, Florida, but was raised in New York City. She studied at Fiorello H. LaGuardia High School of Music and Art, the school which later became known as the “Fame” school, and studied music at Julliard.
After graduation, she was a member in both Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey’s dance companies. As a stage actress on Broadway, she appeared in 1964’s “Something More,” 1969’s “The Dozens,” 1971’s “Ovid’s Metamorphosis,” and Duke Ellington’s “Sophisticated Ladies,” in 1981, among many others.
Here’s what you need to know about Paula Kelly:
1. Kelly Danced On Stage & In The Film Adaptation Of ‘Sweet Charity’
Kelly, who won three NAACP Image Awards, is perhaps most famous for dancing in the film Sweet Charity in 1969. She played the role of Helene onstage before starring in the film adaptation alongside Shirley MacLaine, Chita Rivera, and Sammy Davis Jr.
She also starred alongside Richard Pryor in the movie, Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling, 1993’s Bank Robber with co-stars Patrick Dempsey and Lisa Bonet, and 1995’s Once Upon A Time… When We Were Colored, with Phylicia Rashad. Kelly also appeared in the sci-fi films, The Andromeda Stain and Soylent Green.
2. Kelly Earned An Emmy Award Nomination For Her Role in ‘Night Court’
In addition to appearing on numerous TV series such as The Carol Burnett Show, Sanford and Son, Police Woman, Hill Street Blues, Golden Girls, and Kojak, she worked as a series regular on numerous programs. She was public defender Liz Williams on Night Court, which won her an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series, and Ginger Jones in on Santa Barbara.
Kelly earned her second Emmy Award nomination, this time for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Miniseries or Special in 1989 for her role of Theresa in The Women of Brewster Place.
3. Director Lee Daniels Chose A Photo Of Paula Kelly As The Most Influential Picture For Time Magazine
Academy Award-winning filmmaker Lee Daniels was a huge fan of Paula Kelly. He chose the dancer’s picture as “The Photo That Influenced Me Most’ for TIME Magazine in 2016.
Daniels wrote, “When I was a kid, this photo of the divine Paula Kelly inspired me to go to the movies to see Sweet Charity. Never in my life had I seen such elegance, raw talent and breathtaking honesty on screen. She is an unsung hero and the reason that I am here.”
4. Kelly Was Featured In ‘Playboy’
In 1969, a year after performing “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at the Academy Awards ceremony, Kelly was featured in an issue of Playboy magazine. The pictorial, shot by photographer Lawrence Schiller, was groundbreaking for it was the first time magazine included pubic hair in a photo.
Kelly continued to dance, act, sing and perform until she retired from the industry in 1999. Her last TV credit, according to her IMDB page, was a guest-starring role on Any Day Now in an episode entitled “Family is Family,” which starred Annie Potts and Lorraine Toussaint.
5. Tributes To The Inspiring Performer Filled Twitter On Oscar Sunday
Those who looked up to Kelly growing up and admired her work throughout her career shared heartfelt tributes to the actress online. Fans shared their favorite roles of hers and videos of her memorable dancing performances.
Christian McBride tweeted, “Farewell to a talented genius, Paula Kelly. She was everything – broadway star, movie star, tv star, dancer, model, there was nothing she couldn’t do. She was also a hardcore jazz fan! She was always hanging out listening to the music. RIP Paula.”