“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.”
—Paula Kelly

Paula Kelly has died in a Whittier, Ca. assisted living facility of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at 77.

A native of Jacksonville, Florida she was raised in the landmark neighborhood of “Sugar Hill” in New York City’s Harlem. Her talent recognized early on, she maturated at the High School of Music & Art (depicted in the 1980 musical “Fame”) before moving on to Julliard School of Music, where she studied under modern dance icon Martha Graham. She soon became associated with dance titans Donald McKayle and Alvin Ailey.

No less an authority than legend Bob Fosse called her “the best dancer I’ve ever seen,” as she stole scenes in his 1969 movie “Sweet Charity,” along with Shirley MacLaine and Chita Rivera.

In 1969 she became the first woman to appear completely nude in Playboy, for a Lawrence Schiller photographed series of time-delay images, which tested the mail censorship of the U.S. Postal Service.

By the 1970s, musicals had fallen out of favor and she segued into the new idiom of “Blaxploitation” film. (“Uptown Saturday Night” and “The Spook Who Sat by the Door”).

She earned Emmy nominations for portraying a public defender Liz Williams in NBC’s “Night Court (1984)” and one of the first portrayals (along with Lonette McKee) of a lesbian couple “The Women of Brewster Place” (ABC, 1989).

Paula Kelly had one child from her brief marriage to British-born director Don Chaffey, and is survived by her companion George Parkington, an aunt Pearl Mackey, nephew Lehman Brockett, and niece Dina McCarthy. A celebration of her life will be held at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center.