Purcell, Noel (1900–85), actor, was born Patrick Joseph Noel Purcell on 23 December 1900 at 11a Lower Mercer Street, Dublin, the elder of the two children of Pierce Purcell, auctioneer, and his second wife, Catherine Purcell (née Hoban), antique dealer. Educated at the Synge Street CBS, he worked after school backstage at the Gaiety Theatre and at Madame Rocke's Theatre, O'Connell Street, where he became acquainted with John and Thomas MacDonagh (qv) and Countess Markievicz (qv). He had periodic walk-on parts at the Gaiety and in 1915 he had a small role with the Irish Players, led by Edward Martyn (qv). He left school at sixteen, and was apprenticed as a joiner to A. H. Bex, shop fitters, but he continued to build a reputation among the city's amateur dramatic companies, performing regularly at St Theresa's Temperance Hall, Clarendon Street, Father Mathew Hall and the CYMS, Harrington Street.
A seasoned pantomime performer, Purcell joined Tom Powell and Harry Byrne's company in 1928. During one performance in 1929 he was noticed by Jimmy O'Dea (qv) and Harry O'Donovan (qv), who recruited him for their O'D production company. They toured Britain and Ireland throughout the 1930s, and he was a popular pantomime dame when the company made its annual return to the Olympia theatre. With the company he also made his first film appearances, in Jimmy Boy (1935) and Blarney (1938). Following a dispute over wages, he left the O'D Company in 1939. Inspired by a tour of Broadway, he returned to Ireland in late 1939 and after a spell as Max Wall's stooge he brought the idea of a black and white minstrel show to Dublin and revolutionised the fortunes of the Theatre Royal. As the war curtailed the number of foreign acts, he was in constant demand throughout the early 1940s. With Eddie Byrne (d. 1981) he was popular in their ‘Nedser and Nuala’ sketches, and he also appeared as Joxer Daly in a 1941 production of Sean O'Casey's (qv) ‘Juno and the paycock’ at the Gaiety. He returned to O'Casey in the late 1940s, playing Brennan o’ the Moor in ‘Red roses for me’ and Sylvester Heegan in O'Casey's ‘The silver tassie’, to great critical acclaim.
As film began to threaten the popularity of the variety revue, he adapted to the trend, and a small part in Carol Reed's Odd man out in 1946 began a long film career. A character actor, he became, with his famed white beard, film's archetypal sailor, in The blue lagoon (1949), The crimson pirate (1952), Moby Dick (1956), and Mutiny on the Bounty (1962). After his performance in Merry Andrew in 1958 he was offered a seven-year contract by MGM. He turned it down, refusing to leave Ireland for such a lengthy period. Cast to play Balthazar in Ben Hur, he arranged a screen test for Tony O'Reilly, but O'Reilly preferred rugby to the prospect of acting, and Purcell lost the role of Balthazar owing to delays in production. In constant demand for his comic cameo performances, his part in Captain Boycott in 1947 made him a natural choice for many films with an Irish theme, including John Ford's The rising of the moon (1957), Rooney (1958) and Shake hands with the devil (1959).
In 1957 he narrated Bord Fáilte's promotional film Seven wonders of Ireland. Throughout his film career he supplemented his periodic stage appearances with television and radio work in Ireland, Britain and America. His most popular radio performance was in ‘The great Gilhooly’, made for the BBC Home Service in 1950. He claimed that he refused the role of Fagin in the 1960 musical Oliver, and was later disappointed that he was not offered a role in RTÉ's 1980 production of Strumpet city. Retiring from film in 1973 after making The mackintosh man, his fifth film for John Huston, he became the quintessential Dublin raconteur and was soon identified with ‘The Dublin saunter’, a song composed for him by Leo Maguire (d. 1985). He still made occasional stage appearances: in 1976 in Noel Pearson's production of ‘You ain't heard nuttin’ yet’ and more unexpectedly after his recovery from throat cancer and pneumonia as the Cardinal in a 1982 production of ‘Tosca’.
He was honoured on many occasions throughout his career: he was made an honorary member of the American Loyal League of Yiddish Sons of Erin in 1963 and an honorary life member of the Order of the Knights of Columbanus in 1971. He had been received into the order in 1933. In 1971 he was also made a life member of the Irish Actors’ Equity, an organisation that he had been instrumental in founding in 1947. He had also contributed to the foundation of the Catholic Stage Guild in the late 1940s. The British Actors’ Equity awarded him life membership in 1984, the same year as he was made a freeman of Dublin city. In 1958 he was the subject of an episode of television's This is your life, and in 1973 an RTÉ Late late show special marked his birthday. The Variety Club of Ireland honoured him in 1968 and 1984 and he received the Variety Artists’ Trust Society award in 1974. He married on 7 July 1941 Eileen Marmion, a one-time child actress with the O'D Company. They had four sons. He died 3 March 1985 after a short illness and was buried in Deansgrange cemetery.