An underrated actor, perhaps on account of his modesty, Joe Melia was part of the original casts of two of Peter Nichols’ wittiest plays, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1967) and Privates on Parade (1977). In spite of a series of successes, he once said: “I’m only doing my job. I’d like to see a situation where celebrities get no more credit for doing their job than a chef would for cooking a fine meal.”
The son of Italian parents, Melia was born above a barber’s shop in Camden Town. After being called up for national service in the Intelligence Corps, he won a place at Cambridge University. This led to appearances in the Footlights revue, Springs to Mind (1958) and a professional revue, One to Another (1959), at the Lyric Hammersmith, with Beryl Reid and Sheila Hancock.
In the same year, he made his cinema debut in Too Many Crooks as a member of a gang who kidnap the wrong woman. In 1960, he appeared in the West End for the first time, playing the narrator in Irma La Douce, the musical about a tart with a heart of gold.
Five years later, he joined the cast of a very different musical at the Royal Court, Happy End, written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. Also in 1965, he appeared in The Intelligence Men, the first of three disappointing movies made by Morecambe and Wise.
Four years later, Melia took part in Richard Attenborough’s cinema production of the First World War satire, Oh! What a Lovely War. In A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, first seen at the Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, and then at the Comedy in the West End, Melia played the father of a ten-year-old girl suffering from cerebral palsy.
At the Mermaid, he took the title role in the Bernard Kops comedy Enter Solly Gold (1970), and was seen in Michael Frayn’s Sandboy at the Greenwich Theatre the following year. He was cast in another Brecht/Weill musical, The Threepenny Opera at the Prince of Wales in 1972.
There followed a long but spasmodic association with the Royal Shakespeare Company from 1974 to 1987, in which he played a member of the largely gay military concert party stationed in Singapore and Malaysia in the late 1940s, Privates on Parade; CP Taylor’s Good (1981), for which he was named best supporting actor in the Laurence Olivier Awards; As You Like It, Troilus and Cressida and Richard III (also 1981); and Jean Genet’s The Balcony (1987).
In the midst of these appearances, he played Flash Harry in the fifth St Trinian’s film, The Wildcats of St Trinian’s (1980). Two years later, he was part of the cast of the movie of Privates on Parade with John Cleese and Denis Quilley.
It was clear that Melia could move easily between comedies, straight plays and musicals. Towards the end of his career, he appeared in Shaw’s Heartbreak House (1992) at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, with Vanessa Redgrave and Paul Scofield.
Joe Melia, who was born Giovanni Melia on January 23, 1935, died on October 20, aged 77.