Emmett Kelly, a pantomine clown whose "Weary Willie" character has a permanent niche in the lore of entertainment and the hearts of millions, died Wednesday in the circus town of Sarasota, Fla. He was 80.
Mr Kelly was stricken with an apparent heart attack while walking across his lawn to pick up a morning newspaper. Efforts to revive him were unavailing and he was pronounced deat at Sarasota Hospital.
His career in show business spanned more than 60 years. He began as a youth giving "chalk talks"-drawing comic pictures that might look like a clump of trees when turned one way and like the bearded and venerable Charles Evans Hughes when turned the other. He was a cartoonist in Kansas City and then a Trapeze artist in a number of circuses.
Since 1931, he has been a full-time clown and his character always has been "Weary Willie." Unlike other clowns, Willie was a woe begone little fellow, a down-and-outer a figure of pathos as much as a figure of fun. He wore a battered hat and tattered clothes. His nose was red, he needed a shave, and his broad mouth was turned down at the corners. He never spoke and he never laughed. Audiences found him as irresistible as Charlie Chaplin's "Little Tramp" to whom he bore a melancholy resemblance.
Willie would appear in the circus ring a dozen or 15 times during a performance. Sometimes he would just stare at the audience while nibbling a cabbage leaf. Sometimes he would use a sledgehammer to break a peanut-and turn it to dust in the process. Much of the time he carried an old broom and chased around the moving spotlight beams, trying to sweep them up.
For Willie's antics, Mr. Kelly became known as "one of the world's leading creators of laughter."
Mr. Kelly began doing Willie with the old Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus. In 1932, he moved to the Bertram Mills Circus in London, England. Five years later he came back to the United States to star in the Clyde Beatty Cole Bros. Circus. In 1942, he joined the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus, known in the trade as "The Big One," and remained with it until 1956, when he left because of a labor dispute.
He appeared on Broadway with Jimmy Durante and he made movies. "In the Greatest Show on Earth," he played Willie. In "The Fat Man," he played a clown who also was murderer. But Mr. Kelly was careful to make himself up as an ordinary clown in that role, for Willie was not the kind to commit such foul deeds.
He spent a year with the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team shortly before they became the Los Angeles Dodgers, entertaining the fans before game time and between double-headers. Willie fit right in with the "Brooklyn Bums." In recent years, Mr. Kelly made nightclub and television appearances that continued almost until his death. He never really retired.
Willie was Mr. Kelly's own creation. He developed the character while working as a cartoon artist for an advertising company in Kansas City in 1920. Although he did some ordinary clowning during his days as a trapeze performer in the 1920s, he did not really bring Willie to life until 1931.
In an autobiography he wrote in 1954 with F. Beverly Kelley called "Clown," Mr. Kelly described the evolution of Willie on his drawing board.
He came gradually," he said, a "hobo who always got the short end of the stick and never had any good luck at all, but who never lost hope and just kept on trying. That is the kind of clown I later became in the circus."
Of the full-blown Willie, who delighted such luminaries as Winston Churchill and members of the British royal family as well of millions of others, Mr. Kelly wrote:
"I am a sad and ragged little guy who is very serious about everything he attempts-no matter how futile or how foolish it appears to be. I am the hobo who found out the hard way that the deck is stacked, the dice 'frozen,' the race fixed and the wheel crooked, but there is always present that one tiny, forlorn spark of hope will glimmering in his soul which makes him keep on trying.
"All I can say beyond that is that there must be a lot of people in this world who feel that way and that, fortunately, they come to the circus. . . By laughing at me, they really laugh at themselves, and realizing that they have done this gives them a sort of spiritual second wind for going back into the battle."
The artist Loren MacIver painted Willie in 1947. The picture, which was published in Life magazine in July 21, 1947, has been called "one of the world's best known clown studies." Miss MacIver said Mr. Kelly's gift lay in the fact that "he combined the grand manner with complete humility."
Emmett Leo Kelly was born at Sedan, Kan., a railroad town where his father was a section foreman on the Missouri-Pacific Railroad. He was named after Robert Emmett, the Irish patriot. The family soon moved to a farm in the Ozarks near Houston, Mo. He attended local schools, but like many boys in that place at that time., quit after the eighth grade to help on the farm.
One day a small circus came by, and young Kelly went to it.
"Probably it would make a good story if I said that when I saw my first circus I immediately had a desire to be a clown," he wrote in his autobiography. "It wouldn't be true. Even when I finally took off after the red wagons, I never meant to be a clown. My ambition as a kid and as a young man and, even now, has been to be an artist."
He like to draw when he was a youth and his mother bought him a $25 correspondence course in drawing from the Landon School of Cartooning in Cleveland. When he left home in 1917 to seek his fortune in Kansas City, the future headliner hoped to make it as an illustrator.
He already had done some "chalk talks" at church pie sales back in Houston, and he began to drift into circus work. Between circus stints, in the course of which he learned to perform on the trapeze, he did odd jobs and kept on illustrating. In 1920, he got the job with the advertising agency where he first thought of Willie. He became a full-time circus performer the following year.
Mr. Kelly was married three times.
His first marriage, to Eva Moore, with whom he had two sons, Emmett Leo Jr. and Thomas Patrick, ended in divorce in 1935.His second wife was Mildred Ritchie, from whom he also was divorced. His third wife wad Elvira Gebhardt, a circus performer from Germany. They had two daughters, Stasia and Monika.
"As soon as the curtain comes down I'm not Willie any more," Mr. Kelly once said. In fact, at the time of his death, Willie's suit was hanging in Mr. Kelly's closet. It never had been put in mothballs.