Robert L. Farrelly, 82; physician had ‘palpable’ faith in family

Dr. Farrelly made cameos in the comedy movies made by his sons Peter and Bobby.
Dr. Farrelly made cameos in the comedy movies made by his sons Peter and Bobby.

Docky Farrelly did not exactly go looking for his calling. When he was a boy, his father offered only two choices: become an engineer or a physician.

“Well, I could never even hammer a nail, and I couldn’t now,” he told his grandson John Jordan in 2006, “so I decided I was going to be a physician, which was something I knew almost nothing about. In fact, I had barely even seen physicians.”

It turned out his father was onto something, because once Robert Leo Farrelly made it to medical school, “I found out that I was absolutely made for medicine, which was just sheer accident.”


Plying his profession in Cumberland, R.I., he became the kind of family physician that has largely vanished from the medical landscape. “Many of his patients were poor, and he treated them knowing that only about 60 percent of them could pay,” his son Peter of Los Angeles said in a eulogy earlier this month. “He made house calls, took out tonsils, acted as his patient’s shrink, and, most importantly, brought over 3,000 babies into the world.”

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Dr. Farrelly — who in retirement made cameos in the comedy movies made by his sons Peter and Bobby, memorably as Uncle Willy in the 1996 comedy “Kingpin” — died of complications of lung disease Oct. 6 in Falmouth Hospital. He was 82 and lived in Mashpee.

“He was brilliant; he was loving; he was funny,” said his daughter Beth Jordan of Duxbury, “and he was very often infuriating.”

At home with his five children, “he was very much a Vince Lombardi type, in that he’d bark out the orders and you had to follow them or repercussions would follow,” said his son Bobby of Duxbury.

Dr. Farrelly set expectations high. “The rule of the family is that the minimum is a master’s degree,” he told the Globe in 2000. Yet few fathers were more supportive of anything their children and grandchildren wanted to pursue.


“I remember him saying to me: ‘You can be anything. You can do anything you want to do,’ ” his daughter Beth said. “That wasn’t what all my friends were hearing from their dads.”

“He never doubted me,” his grandson John said. “He always thought if I had a dream, I could make it happen. The faith he had in me and those in my family was palpable.”

Recalling the lean years before he and his brother found success writing and directing comedy films, Bobby said he would “never forget the fact that he really loved it just the same when we were struggling out in Hollywood. He gave us his full support, which was really cool.”

As decades passed, Dr. Farrelly also changed into something his children did not see coming. “He sort of came around and became our best friend,” Bobby said. “So we had two great relationships with him. We had so many laughs with him in the second part of his life.”

“Unlike many men, my father got sweeter as he got older,” Peter said in his eulogy.


Born in Providence, Dr. Farrelly was the oldest of four children and grew up in the city’s Federal Hill neighborhood. His parents had little money, only enough to educate the oldest child. He went to LaSalle Academy, where he was the catcher on his school’s championship baseball team, and then to Providence College and what is now the Tufts University School of Medicine.

At church he met Mariann Neary, a nursing student who was friends with his sister. They married in 1955. “My father wouldn’t have lasted 10 minutes without her,” Peter said in his eulogy. “She adored him. And he felt adored. And he adored her for it.” When Mariann was away at school while they were dating, Dr. Farrelly wrote letters that “were hysterical,” Beth said. “He was always funny, the things he would write in these letters. So I guess he always had it.”

Dr. Farrelly’s sons, Peter and Bobby, began making comedy movies in 1994 with “Dumb & Dumber.” Asked by the Globe in 2000 who makes them laugh the most, they named their parents. “The older they get, the funnier they get,” Peter said. Dr. Farrelly’s favorite role in his sons’ films was Uncle Willy, for which he was credited only by his nickname, Docky.

“He taught me you have to laugh at everything you possibly can,” said Dr. Farrelly’s granddaughter Kelsey Jordan of Brighton. Indeed, she had to tell boyfriends and some acquaintances that “if he makes fun of you, that means he kind of likes you.”

“There was always a lot of laughing, but I felt such a strong emotional connection, and we could talk about anything.

“I mean anything,” she added. “He was just a very special person.’’

For a college paper in 2006, John Jordan interviewed Dr. Farrelly and wrote: “I’ve been told that a true vocation is where your deep gladness meets the world’s deep hunger. My grandfather’s vocation fulfills that definition.”

“I would go so far as saying it was a love affair,” Dr. Farrelly told his grandson. “A love affair between me and all my patients.”

Speaking of the times when physicians can do no more for patients, he reminded his grandson that “most deaths are expected deaths.”

Dr. Farrelly’s death was expected, too, three times. More than 35 years ago, skin lesions were misdiagnosed, and he was given six months to live. In the 1990s, he had colon cancer, and a priest offered last rites after Dr. Farrelly slipped into a coma. He was given hours to live and instead lasted 14 more years. He played golf, welcomed more of the Farrelly clan into the world, and raised money for charities, including Cuz of Jesse, which donates to organizations that help vulnerable children. It is named for his grandson Jesse, who died last year.

When Peter left Dr. Farrelly’s hospital room this month for the last time, “I kissed him and told him he was the greatest father ever,” he said in his eulogy. “At the door, I said, ‘I’ll check in with you tomorrow, Pop.’ And he said, ‘Not if I check out first.’ Then he smiled, and that’s how I last saw him.”

Dr. Farrelly, Peter added, died “at age 82, in the arms of my mother, the love of his life. It doesn’t get better than that.”

A service has been held for Dr. Farrelly, who in addition to his wife, daughter, two sons, and two grandchildren leaves two other daughters, Kathy of Duxbury and Cindy Gesner of Los Angeles; a sister, Marilyn D’Andrea of Raynham; 10 other grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

“My grandfather and I often talk about how the role of a doctor is a truly spiritual one,” John Jordan wrote in his college paper. “Doctors are present for birth, death, good times and bad. . . . Even after they retire, they remain eternally doctors, always prepared to help if need be. ‘It’s the closest thing to priesthood,’ he often says.”

Although Dr. Farrelly eased his share of patients through their final days, he remembered best and liked most the beginning of life, the moment that opens endless possibilities.

“When he talks about all the babies he delivered, his eyes beam,” his grandson wrote. “He smiles like someone who truly understands his purpose and says, ‘It was the most fun I have ever had doing anything in my life. It was the greatest thrill to bring a baby into the world. It was an indescribable experience. Pure joy.’ ”

Bryan Marquard
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