Paula Kelly, 'Sweet Charity' Actress and Dancer, Dies at 77

Universal/Photofest
From left: Paula Kelly, Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera in the 1969 film 'Sweet Charity'

She also received Emmy nominations for her work on 'Night Court' and 'The Women of Brewster Place.'

Paula Kelly, the actress, singer and dancer who starred in the film version of Sweet Charity and earned an Emmy nomination for her turn on Night Court, has died. She was 77.

Kelly died Sunday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in Whittier, California, a publicist for her family and Los Angeles' Ebony Repertory Theatre announced.

Kelly also appeared in such movies as The Andromeda Strain (1971), Cool Breeze (1972), Top of the Heap (1972), The Spook Who Sat by the Door (1973), Soylent Green (1973), Uptown Saturday Night (1974) — as Leggy Peggy — and Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling (1986).

After playing the dancer Helene on the London stage, Kelly reprised the role alongside Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera for the 1969 film adaptation of Sweet Charity, directed by Bob Fosse in his feature debut (he also had guided it on Broadway). She sparkled in the numbers "Hey, Big Spender" and "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This."

"The only time I feel complete expression is when I'm dancing," Kelly said in a 1968 interview before she embarked on the movie. "Then, I have no problems, no worries, no hang-ups. I feel I could do anything in the world."

Kelly earned an Emmy nomination in 1984 for portraying public defender Liz Williams on the first season of the NBC sitcom Night Court and received another in 1989 for playing Theresa, one-half of a lesbian couple, on the ABC miniseries The Women of Brewster Place.

One of three daughters of a jazz musician, Paula Alma Kelly was born on Oct. 21, 1942, in Jacksonville, Florida. She was raised in the Sugar Hill neighborhood of Harlem, attended the High School of Music & Art and Juilliard and danced with companies headed by Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey.

Kelly made her Broadway debut in the 1964 musical Something More! (1964), directed by Jule Styne and starring Barbara Cook.

She later performed at the 1968 Oscars, appeared in Playboy in 1969 and danced and/or choreographed for TV specials hosted by the likes of Harry Belafonte, Gene Kelly and Sammy Davis Jr.

Kelly portrayed the fierce madam Ginger Jones on the NBC soap Santa Barbara in 1984-85, and on a 1987 episode of NBC's The Golden Girls, she guest-starred as a housekeeper who may have cast a voodoo spell on the ladies after she was fired.

Her TV résumé also included Sanford and Son, Medical Center, The Streets of San Francisco, Police Woman, Kojak, Hill Street Blues, Room for Two and St. Elsewhere.

"I'm not interested in being a really big star," she told Ebony magazine in 1975. "I want to be in control of my life. I don't want to worry about the rent."

Kelly also appeared on stages in Los Angeles in Don't Bother Me, I Can't Cope at the Mark Taper Forum and Sophisticated Ladies (with Gregory Hines) at the Shubert Theatre.

She came out of retirement in 2009 to join the cast of Ebony Repertory Theatre's production of Crowns by Regina Taylor, which played at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center and later at the Pasadena Playhouse.

"When the staggeringly brilliant Paula Kelly became our first hire for our production of the Los Angeles premiere of Crowns, we immediately knew that we were in store for something extremely special," Ebony Repertory Theatre producing artistic director Wren T. Brown said in a statement. 

"During rehearsals and in production, she brought her immense triple threat talent, her keen intellect, her great ability to listen and her abundant generosity to bear on the company every single day. Her unassuming leadership was marked by compassion, elegance and grace. She was a rare and gifted artist whom we will cherish forever."

Kelly was married to British director Donald Chaffey (One Million Years B.C.) from 1985 until his death in 1990. Survivors include an aunt, Pearl; her longtime companion, George; a niece, Dina; and a nephew, Lehman.

A celebration of her life will be held at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, with details to be announced.

Feb. 11 A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Kelly's age and where she died. According to new information supplied by a publicist, she was 77 and passed in Whittier, California.