Paula Kelly, Emmy-nominated actress, dancer and singer, dies at 77


Actress, singer and dancer Paula Kelly, who earned an Emmy Award nomination on the sitcom “Night Court” and co-starred with Chita Rivera and Shirley MacLaine in the film “Sweet Charity,” has died at a care facility in Whittier.

Kelly died Sunday of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, according to the Ebony Repertory Theatre in Los Angeles. She was 77.

Kelly earned a best supporting actress Emmy nomination in 1984 for portraying public defender Liz Williams on the first season of NBC’s “Night Court” and received another in 1989 for the ABC miniseries “The Women of Brewster Place,” in which she played what’s believed to be one of television’s first black lesbian characters.

Paula Alma Kelly was born Oct. 21, 1942, in Jacksonville, Fla., and raised in New York City’s Harlem, where the family moved when she was young. She graduated from the Juilliard School and later performed as a dancer for directors and choreographers including Martha Graham, Donald McKayle and Alvin Ailey.

Kelly made her Broadway debut in the 1964 musical “Something More!” directed by Jule Styne and starring Barbara Cook. She later shared the stage with Morgan Freeman on Broadway in “The Dozens.”


One of her most important roles was Helene in “Sweet Charity,” which she played onstage in London, New York and Los Angeles, then reprised in Bob Fosse’s feature film debut.

Her other film credits include “The Andromeda Strain,” “Top of the Heap” and “Soylent Green.”

Her vast TV credits also include “Santa Barbara,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Kojak,” “The Golden Girls” and “The Richard Pryor Show.”

Kelly won the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Award for best supporting actress for her role in “Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope” at the Mark Taper Forum. She also performed at the Shubert Theatre and the Pasadena Playhouse.

“She was a rare and gifted artist, whom we will cherish forever,” said Wren T. Brown, artistic director at the Ebony Repertory Theatre.

Kelly is survived by longtime companion George Parkington.

A Times staff writer contributed to this report.