WASHINGTON — Paula Kelly, an Emmy-nominated actress, dancer, and singer who became a leading Black performer on Broadway in the 1960s and later turned to supporting roles on film and television, playing one of TV’s first Black lesbian characters in ‘‘The Women of Brewster Place,’’ died Feb. 8 at a care facility in Whittier, Calif. She was 77.
Her death was confirmed by her partner of 17 years and sole immediate survivor, George Parkington, who did not give a precise cause. She had been ailing and was recently released from the hospital, he said.
Tall and graceful, Ms. Kelly was once praised by director and choreographer Bob Fosse as ‘‘the best dancer I’ve ever seen,’’ according to Rose Eichenbaum’s book ‘‘The Dancer Within,’’ and began her career in the 1960s performing with the Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Donald McKayle dance companies.
She also toured with Harry Belafonte and Miriam Makeba, twirled alongside Sammy Davis Jr. and Gene Kelly on dance specials and variety shows, acted in Broadway productions directed by improv guru Paul Sills, and accompanied the UCLA marching band at the Academy Awards in 1969, performing a playful solo routine to ‘‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’’ that introduced her to millions of viewers nationwide.
‘‘I suspect you are going to notice her — cool and angular and with legs as elegantly articulated as an aristocratic crane’s — wherever she turns up, this year or next,’’ New York Times theater critic Walter Kerr wrote in 1971, after Ms. Kelly starred in Sills’s adaptation of Ovid’s ‘‘Metamorphoses.’’ ‘‘Some performers are performers; a few are presences.’’
Ms. Kelly made her Broadway debut in 1964 with the musical ‘‘Something More!’’ and, after being spotted at a Caesars Palace dance show in Las Vegas, was cast in the musical ‘‘Sweet Charity’’ on London’s West End, winning a British theater award for her supporting role as a ballroom dancer-for-hire.
Loosely inspired by Federico Fellini’s film ‘‘Nights of Cabiria,’’ ‘‘Sweet Charity’’ was adapted into a 1969 movie by Fosse, with Ms. Kelly appearing alongside Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera, dancing on a rooftop for ‘‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’’ and pursuing a client in the sultry number ‘‘Big Spender.’’
‘‘Sweet Charity’’ launched Ms. Kelly’s film career, leading to roles as a nurse in the science-fiction thriller ‘‘The Andromeda Strain’’ (1971) and a love interest in ‘‘Soylent Green’’ (1973).
At a time when relatively few movie parts existed for Blacks, Ms. Kelly also starred in Black-oriented films such as ‘‘Cool Breeze’’ (1972), a remake of ‘‘The Asphalt Jungle’’ starring Thalmus Rasulala, and ‘‘Trouble Man’’ (1972), featuring Robert Hooks and a soundtrack by Marvin Gaye.
Her other film roles included Dahomey Queen, a prostitute who becomes involved with a Black revolutionary in the CIA movie ‘‘The Spook Who Sat by the Door’’ (1973); Leggy Peggy, the wife of a congressman in ‘‘Uptown Saturday Night’’ (1974), an action comedy starring Sidney Poitier, Bill Cosby, and Belafonte; and Satin Doll, a stripper in ‘‘Jo Jo Dancer, Your Life Is Calling’’ (1986), Richard Pryor’s sole feature film as a director.
She also became a frequent TV guest star, appearing in programs such as ‘‘The Carol Burnett Show,’’ ‘‘Sanford and Son,’’ ‘‘Police Woman,’’ ‘‘Hill Street Blues,’’ ‘‘Kojak,’’ and ‘‘Golden Girls.’’ In 1984, she played a public defender on the NBC sitcom ‘‘Night Court,’’ earning her first Emmy nomination but leaving the show after only one season.
She received another Emmy nomination for ‘‘The Women of Brewster Place,’’ a 1989 ABC miniseries that Oprah Winfrey’s production company adapted from a novel by Gloria Naylor. The show was unusual in spotlighting the daily lives of Black women on network television and featured Winfrey, as well as Cicely Tyson, Jackée Harry, Lynn Whitfield, and Robin Givens.
Ms. Kelly played Theresa, who lived at Brewster Place with her partner Lorraine (Lonette McKee). The actors delivered ‘‘perhaps the most compelling and compassionate portrayals of lesbians on television,’’ wrote Boston Globe arts critic Ed Siegel.
Paula Alma Kelly was born in Jacksonville, Fla., on Oct. 21, 1942, and raised in Harlem.
‘‘My mother said that I danced before I walked,’’ Ms. Kelly told Eichenbaum, recalling a childhood in which jazz music blared from open windows. She later told the New Pittsburgh Courier, ‘‘The only time I feel complete expression is when I’m dancing. Then I feel I have no problems, no worries, no hang-ups. I feel I could do anything in the world.’’
Ms. Kelly studied at the High School of Music & Art in Manhattan before enrolling at Juilliard. She took time off from school after her second year to make her professional debut on tour with Belafonte; according to school records, she left permanently in the spring of 1964 without receiving a degree.
Her theater career took off with Broadway productions including ‘‘The Dozens,’’ a 1969 comedy in which she starred alongside Al Freeman Jr. and Morgan Freeman. That same year, amid the boundary-breaking upheaval of the sexual revolution, she made headlines when she danced nude for full-frontal photos in Playboy magazine. (Rolling Stone called them ‘‘notably ‘artistic,’ suggestive of Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.”)
Ms. Kelly later appeared in the Los Angeles production of ‘‘Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope,’’ a Black musical revue by Micki Grant; helped choreograph a musical adaptation of ‘‘Peter Pan’’ for NBC in 1976 (she played Tiger Lily); and danced in the 1982 touring production of ‘‘Sophisticated Ladies,’’ a Duke Ellington revue.
In 1985, she married British film and television director Don Chaffey, who died in 1990. Nearly two decades later, she performed for the last time, in a Pasadena Playhouse production of Regina Taylor’s ‘‘Crowns.’’ Fittingly, she was Mother Shaw, a grandmother character that one critic called ‘‘a living link to the generations that have passed.’’