Born in Brooklyn, New York, the ninth of ten children, Kelly began his career as a child actor at age 7 and was appearing on the stage.
In 1911, Kelly began making silent films at age 12 with the Vitagraph Studios, which was based in Brooklyn, and where he was billed as Master Paul Kelly. Kelly was possibly the first male child actor to be given any starring roles in American films, predating better remembered child stars such asBobby Connelly and Jackie Coogan.
Kelly made his talking film debut in 1933's Broadway Through a Keyhole.
In the course of his long career, and relatively short life, it's estimated that Kelly worked on stage, screen, and television in over four hundred roles.
Later in his film career, as an adult, Kelly appeared in films mostly as a character actor playing tough guys—some sympathetic, some not—in the 1930s, 1940s and 1950s.
Paul Kelly (1937), in
Fit for a King
Kelly alternated between stage and screen as an actor. He was a handsome and popular male lead or costar in Broadway plays from the late 1910s and throughout the 1920s.
In 1948, Kelly won a Best Actor Tony Award for his role in Command Decision. (Clark Gable later played the same role in the film version of the play.) Kelly shared the award with Henry Fonda for Mister Roberts and Basil Rathbone for The Heiress.
His career underwent a two-year (1927–1929) forced hiatus when he served 25 months for manslaughter in California's San Quentin prison for the death of actor Ray Raymond, a few days after their fistfight. At his trial, Kelly contended that Raymond had started the fight and did not show signs of serious injury at the time.
Years later, Kelly played the part of San Quentin Warden Clinton Duffy in the film Duffy of San Quentin.
Raymond's widow, Dorothy Mackaye, eventually married Kelly. She denied claims in court that she had been romantically involved with Kelly before her first husband's death, but she was briefly imprisoned for being an accomplice in the killing. Her written account of her experiences, titled "Women in Prison," became a 1933 film, Ladies They Talk About, with Barbara Stanwyck. Mackaye died in a 1940 auto crash.
In 1941, Kelly married Claire Owen (née Zona Mardelle Zwicker), a bit player he had met on the set of Flight Command (1940). She retired from acting, and went on to survive him.
He died of a heart attack in November 1956, aged 57, after voting for Adlai Stevenson.