Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Paul Kelly, Killer Actor

Child Actor

Kelly, born Aug. 9, 1899, got into the acting racket as a result of geography. His Irish-immigrant parents, Michael and Nellie, ran a saloon, Kelly's Kafe, in the shadow of Vitagraph Studios, on East 14th Street in Midwood, Brooklyn. Studio hands often drank their lunch at Kelly's, and some would grumble about the incompetence of child actors hired through studio patronage.

Paul Kelly, Young
Paul Kelly, Young

Nellie nettled casting assistants into taking a look at her son Paulie, a cute little redhead with a face so Celtic that it that looked like a map of County Cork. In no time he went from a $5-a-day extra to a featured juvenile in roles in silent short comedies.

He appeared in scores of shorts from 1906 to 1916 — titles like Jimmie's Job, Billy's Pipe Dream and Cutie Tries Reporting. He had a recurring role as son Willie in Vitagraph's Jarr Family comedies, shot during World War I.

Kelly also worked on stage. He made his debut in 1907, at age 8, as a drummer boy in David Belascov's production of "The Grand Army Man." His first major stage role came at age 17 in a production of Booth Tarkington's "Seventeen," and he appeared opposite Helen Hayes in a production of "Penrod," another Tarkington novel.

Kelly matured into a tall, athletic, handsome young man with a thick auburn mop.

In 1922, he won top billing in "Up the Ladder" by Owen Davis, which ran for a respectable 117 performances. He followed that with featured roles in "Whispering Wire," which had 352 performances, and "Chains," with 125 showings at the Playhouse Theater. He seemed poised for leading-man stardom.

But his luck ran out. He followed "Chains" with a streak of five flops, none of which ran for more than a few weeks.

In March 1926, when "Find Daddy" closed after just 16 performances, Kelly headed to Hollywood to find a place in the new home of American cinema.

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