Donnelly, Donal (1931–2010), actor, was born on 6 July 1931 in Bradford, Yorkshire, the third son among seven children of James Donnelly (d. 1964), a general practitioner, and his wife Nora (née O'Connor). Dr Donnelly was originally from Tyrone and Nora from Kerry, and the family moved to Ireland when Donal was five. They lived in Victoria Road, Rathgar, Dublin, and Donal was sent to Synge Street CBS, where an inspiring teacher, Frank MacManus (qv), encouraged the boys to appreciate drama and put on their own plays. The school's alumni included figures such as Jack MacGowran (qv), Eamonn Andrews (qv) and Milo O'Shea (qv). Donal appeared in some school plays with O'Shea, and they became friends.
Donnelly worked for a short time in a saddlery and outfitters' business, but devoted most of his spare time to amateur drama after joining the Bernadette Players from Rathmines, first appearing with them in a satirical review in 1950. Edward Pakenham (qv), Lord Longford, gave him a job as an assistant stage manager in the Gate Theatre, and he first acted at the Gate in 1952. After that, he opted for an acting career, spent some time touring in Ireland with the actor-manager Anew McMaster (qv), and joined the Dublin Globe Theatre Company, with which he appeared in a number of avant-garde productions in a room above the gas company showroom in Dún Laoghaire.
In 1957 he appeared with Jack MacGowran in 'The shadow of a gunman' at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, London, and then in other plays in London. He achieved considerable success in several productions of 'The playboy of the western world' (by John Millington Synge (qv)), as Christy Mahon; one critic later remembered him as the best Christy he had ever seen, in a 1960 West End performance opposite Siobhán McKenna (qv) as Pegeen Mike. Donnelly followed this with the lead role in 'Red roses for me', by Sean O'Casey (qv), playing opposite Leonard Rossiter at the Mermaid Theatre in London.
Donnelly was lightly built, with great energy and vitality, and a notable ability to inhabit characters fully. A natural mischievousness enabled him to play comedy with ease, but he was immensely versatile and could give a vulnerable or sinister edge to his roles as required. From the mid 1950s onwards, he was omnipresent on the stage, both in Dublin and London. A major triumph was his role as Gar Private in the premiere production of 'Philadelphia, here I come!', by Brian Friel (1929–2015), in 1964 at the Gaiety, Dublin. He got equally good reviews in New York when the play was produced on Broadway in 1966. He was nominated for a Tony award jointly with Patrick Bedford, who played Gar Public. Donnelly appeared to acclaim in other Friel plays, notably in 'Faith healer' (1979; world premiere in New York), and in the Broadway premieres of 'Dancing at Lughnasa' (1991), defining for American audiences the role of the old missionary priest, and 'Translations' (1995). In 1969 at Dublin's Olympia Theatre, Donnelly directed his first play, another by Friel, 'The Mundy scheme'.
He became something of an expert on George Bernard Shaw (qv), collecting Shaw memorabilia and appearing during the 1970s in a number of productions in Dublin, Boston and Hong Kong of a one-man show, 'My astonishing self', that he wrote based on the dramatist's life and writings, and appearing in the play as Shaw in youth and also in fully-bearded old age.
Though Donnelly was most familiar in plays by Irish authors, especially Friel, O'Casey and Samuel Beckett (qv), his versatility enabled him to appear in a wide variety of roles. From 1973, he appeared 860 times in Anthony Shaffer's 'Sleuth' in Dublin, London and New York, including a record-breaking run in the Olympia, playing opposite his close friend T. P. McKenna (qv). Another notable role was as the surgeon Sir Frederick Treves as a replacement actor during the two-year Broadway run of Bernard Pomerance's 'The Elephant Man', opposite David Bowie's John Merrick (1980–81). In the Broadway production of Peter Nichols's 'A day in the death of Joe Egg', Donnelly replaced Albert Finney in April 1968; his characterisation of a father struggling with a handicapped child was described as a 'compassionate vaudeville of despair' (New York magazine, 6 May 1968).
Donnelly had a small part in The rising of the moon (1957; dir. John Ford (qv)), and another in the first film made in Ardmore Studios, Bray, Michael Anderson's Shake hands with the devil (1959), which starred James Cagney. Donnelly claimed that Ford had considered him for the lead role in Young Cassidy (1965), a biographical drama based on the life of Sean O'Casey, but eventually he had to make do with a supporting role as a hearseman. He was successful with Rita Tushingham and Michael Crawford in the risqué British comedy, The knack … and how to get it (1965), directed by Richard Lester, which won the Palme d'or at the Cannes film festival. Modest and unassuming, Donnelly saw himself primarily as a stage actor and had little interest in being a film star, but had several other film roles, including a notable part in The godfather: part 3 (1990) as the shifty, chain-smoking Archbishop Gilday in charge of the Vatican bank. He disliked the long periods of waiting about involved in film-making, and spent three trying months in the Ukraine for a small part as an Irish soldier in a the Soviet–Italian epic Waterloo (1970). Perhaps his most successful film role was as the drunken, sentimental Freddie Malins in The dead (1987), an acclaimed version of the story by James Joyce (qv) and the last film made by John Huston (qv). Donnelly's charm and conviction redeems his character from the annoying mediocrity suggested in the story.
Donnelly kept busy in between theatrical appearances. He appeared in widely varying television programmes in Britain and America, including Z cars, the British sitcom Yes, honestly (1976–7), and the American crime series Law and order, but turned down the lucrative option of a regular part in Z cars to pursue more varied roles. Always prepared to try something new, in 1968 he collaborated with Tony Meehan (1943–2005), former drummer with the Shadows and, like Donnelly, born in England to Irish parents, on the music album Take the name of Donnelly, in which they explored traditional Irish songs. The following year Donnelly released the single 'Dream things that never were', which he wrote after the assassination of Robert Kennedy, and performed at a St Patrick's Day festival show in the Royal Albert Hall, London. His protean and expressive voice made him an ideal reader for audiobooks, and he made at least thirteen such recordings, which ranged from Carlo Collodi's Pinocchio (1991) to a forty-two-hour unabridged version of Joyce's Ulysses (1995).
On 6 June 1964 he married Patricia ('Patsy') Porter, a dancer from Yorkshire whom he met on a production of 'Finian's rainbow' in London. As Donnelly's career on Broadway took off, he and his family moved to America and lived in Westport, Connecticut, from 1979 to 2008. They experienced a tragic loss when their only daughter, Maryanne, aged 21, was killed in a riding accident. Donal Donnelly, who had been a heavy smoker all his life, died of lung cancer on 4 January 2010 in hospital in Chicago, where he had spent his last years, close to his two sons, Jonathan and Damian; he was survived by them and his wife (d. 2013). A brother, Michael Donnelly, was a Fianna Fáil senator and councillor, and lord mayor of Dublin (1990–91).