Paula Kelly died from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease on Sunday, February 9th, at a care facility in Whittier, in Los Angeles County. She was 77.
Kelly’s portrayal of public defender Liz Williams on the first season of NBC’s Night Court earned her a best supporting actress Emmy nomination in 1984. She would receive the honor again in 1989 for playing what is believed to be one of TV’s first Black lesbian characters in the ABC miniseries The Women of Brewster Place.
She was born Paula Alma Kelly on Oct. 21, 1942 in Jacksonville, Fla., and raised in Harlem’s Sugar Hill. She attended The High School of Music and Art, which is now Fiorella H. LaGuardia High School, and graduated from The Juilliard School. She danced in productions choreographed and/or directed by Alvin Ailey, Martha Graham, Donald MacKalye, and others.
Kelly made her Broadway debut in 1964 in the Jule Styne-directed musical Something More! She later worked with Morgan Freeman on Broadway in The Dozens. She appeared in Ovid’s Metamorphoses and starred in Sophisticated Ladies, a national touring production of the Duke Ellington-inspired revue, in 1982.
Kelly co-starred with Chita Rivera and Shirley MacLaine in Bob Fosse’s feature film Sweet Charity as Helene, having played the role onstage in London, New York, and Los Angeles. She also delivered important performances in Uptown Saturday Night with Sidney Poitier; Bill Cosby; and Harry Belafonte, and Richard Pryor’s 1985 biographical comedy Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life is Calling.
She also appeared in the films The Andromeda Strain, Top of the Heap, and Soylent Green. Her other TV credits include Santa Barbara, Mission: Impossible, Kojak, The Golden Girls, and The Richard Pryor Show.
Kelly won a Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best supporting actress for her role in Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope.
Lee Daniels confirmed the death of his close friend on Instagram Sunday night. The Academy Award-nominated director called Kelly his hero and mentor, and the “most profound and gifted actor” he’s ever known.
Kelly is survived by her longtime companion George Parkington.