Date of Birth: 19 December 1943, Manchester, UK
Birth Name: Roger Michael Kelly
Nicknames: Sam Kelly
Equally at home in panto and Pinter, sitcom and Shakespeare, Sam Kelly, was a quirky, instantly recognisable character actor, often playing beyond his natural age, and often peering through rimless spectacles like a mole pushing through to the surface. And once there, he quipped and cavorted with the best of them: Dave Allen, Dick Emery and Paul Merton on television, and the Two Ronnies, with whom he toured onstage to Australia, having partnered Ronnie Barker in the sitcom Porridge as the illiterate conman Bunny Warren, who couldn't decipher the words "burglar alarm" when it most mattered.
He enjoyed a long-time collaboration with the director Mike Leigh, dating from a "wiped" BBC television film, Knock for Knock, in 1976, right through to Leigh's latest, Mr Turner, starring Timothy Spall as the great painter. Like so many Leigh actors, he was a natural Dickensian, having played on television both Mould the undertaker in the 1994 Martin Chuzzlewit ("a face in which a queer attempt at melancholy was at odds with a smirk of satisfaction") and Snagsby the timid little law stationer in Bleak House (1985).
Porridge (1974-77) made his name on television and he built on that reputation with quality work in David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd's 'Allo 'Allo (1982-91), as the crooked-saluting German officer Hans Geering who, when asked what he felt about the Russian Front, replied, "She's a good cook", and as Dennis Waterman's chauffeur in Bob Larbey's On the Up (1990-92), co-starring Dora Bryan, Joan Sims and Jenna Russell.
He popped up in almost every TV series of note Casualty, Haggard (starring Keith Barron as a lascivious Georgian squire; Kelly played a sidekick called Nathaniel Grunge), the Poirot series and EastEnders he even spurned a long-term contract with Coronation Street, having made a cameo impression in 1983 as Bob Challis, the man who repainted the Rovers Return before it burned down.
Kelly was abandoned at birth in Manchester and adopted by a couple who moved to Liverpool, where he attended Liverpool Collegiate school and sang in the choir of the Anglican cathedral. After working as a clerk for three years with the civil service in Liverpool, he trained at the London Academy of Music and Drama (Lamda), graduating in 1967.
He played in rep for five years, working with the director Philip Hedley in Lincoln and the actor Nigel Hawthorne on a Macbeth in Sheffield which he felt had approached perfection. He spent a year in Beckett and Shakespeare at the Young Vic in London with the director Frank Dunlop. And in 1977 he co-founded the Croydon Warehouse, a buzzing fringe venue, with the actor Richard Ireson and the director Adrian Shergold.
In Leigh's TV film Grown-Ups (1980) he played "old Butcher", a grunting, eccentric schoolteacher (married to Lindsay Duncan's fellow teacher) who finds two former pupils (Philip Davis and Lesley Manville) moving in next door as sniggering newlyweds. His theatre work now ranged from pantomime, both in the commercial sector and with Ian McKellen at the Old Vic, Neil Simon's The Odd Couple at the Royal Exchange in Manchester and Terry Johnson's mordant comedy about comedian-fixated neighbours, Dead Funny, at the Savoy.
He featured in two greatly contrasted Leigh films, the colourful, tumultuous Gilbert and Sullivan saga Topsy-Turvy (1999) and the moody, atmospheric All or Nothing (2002), returning to G&S, and the Savoy, as Sir Joseph Porter in Martin Duncan's 2002 revival of HMS Pinafore, and followed in an early Richard Bean play, Under the Whaleback, cackling reminiscently as a garrulous old sea dog, directed at the Royal Court by Richard Wilson.
Having played wheezy old men all his life, he was obvious casting as Senex in Edward Hall's NT production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum in 2004, and he was a delightful, walrus-moustached Herbert Soppitt in a West End revival of JB Priestley's When We are Married (with Maureen Lipman and Roy Hudd) at the Garrick in 2010.
After playing a stint as the Wizard in the musical Wicked at the Apollo Victoria, he returned to the role in November 2013 but retired as a result of ill health just before Christmas. It was his last stage appearance. But his valedictory performance was in Leigh's Grief (2011) at the National, as a Pooterish bachelor singing parlour songs in descant with his widowed sister (Lesley Manville) and facing a desolate retirement with no plans, no leisure pursuits and no new trousers.
Other recent film performances included playing Maggie Smith's husband in Susanna White's Nanny McPhee Returns (2010). which starred Emma Thompson, Maggie Gyllenhaal and Ralph Fiennes; and a mild old softie pensioner in Stewart Alexander's Common People (2013).