Gráinne and John Duddy.
By Orla O’Sullivan
It was a great surprise—if not as great as the phone call from Robert De Niro—when John Duddy heard that he and his wife, Gráinne, are to be honored by the Irish Arts Center this month.
The professional boxer turned actor, who was on the Echo’s 40 Under 40 list in 2008, will be among those honored at “Show Your Love” an IAC fundraiser on Feb. 22.
The St. Valentine’s linked event, now in its seventh year, recognizes “huge supporters” of Irish arts who represent the next generation, IAC says. Honorees are all under age 45.
The other honorees this year are Kevin J. Murphy, who helps the IAC throw events in Washington DC, where he lives, and a couple of attorneys whose romance began in Dublin, Ruth O’Farrell and her wife Olena Ripnick-O’Farrell.
But back to De Niro. Asked how a working-class lad from Derry wound up being first De Niro’s boxing consultant, then his fellow actor, Duddy is characteristically casual. “That’s a while ago now that I worked with Bob,” he said.
Duddy was happier to sing the praises of the IAC as the place that ignited his acting ambitions 12 years ago; the place where, “they’ve always got your back;” and where he has encountered “Bono, Sting, Liam Neeson, people you’ve looked up to on TV.
“With the IAC, you can be working on a construction site one day and the next night meeting a star,” Duddy added.
For example, Steve Martin spoke and played banjo at the IAC’s last gala in October. “’The Jerk’ was at the IAC!” Duddy said, incredulously, referring to one of Martin’s best-known roles and one of Duddy’s favorite films.
Much as he may admire stars, Duddy is as grounded as any good boxer should be. One cannot imagine him being daunted by any encounter, between his easy charm and his own claims to fame. These include nine wins in Madison Square Gardens during his largely victorious boxing career (2003-2010) before switching to acting.
There, his successes include roles in “For Love,” which toured Ireland after its 2013 staging at The Irish Repertory Theatre, and a small role in the 2016 De Niro film, “Hands of Stone.”
The transition to acting was natural, noted a 2014 New York Times profile, considering that female fans flocked to Duddy’s fights.
Gráinne – the other half of the attractive couple, married since 2009, but together since their days in Derry – also acts.
The pair first acted together in a 2013 production of “Father Who” at Manhattan’s Theatre 80.
They were in the car, rehearsing their lines for that Colin Broderick play, when the call came from De Niro. John was driving, a distant mention by his manager that De Niro’s lawyer might call far from his mind.
“I see a call from an unlisted number so I take it,” Duddy remembered.
“Hi, it’s Bob” comes over the speakerphone.
As Duddy wondered, “who’s Bob?” the answer comes: “Bobby DeNiro.” Duddy pulled over. They met next day “for a wee cup of tea and a chat.”
The former middleweight World Boxing Champion silver contender first helped De Niro play a boxer in “Grudge Match” in 2013, then acted with him in “Hands of Stone”.
In a strange coincidence, arising because an actor pulled out, Duddy wound up playing a boxer who had sparred with his own father 40 years before, Ken Buchanan.
Outside of the ring, Duddy gets a ribbing from friends for the “Bob” bit. “I’m not trying to be a slabber! [Derry-speak for boastful]” he says. “I used to say Mr. De Niro, and he’d always be, ‘Will you call me Bob?’”
Next, the Duddys hope to be in a new Broderick film to be shot in Ireland. They both were in “Emerald City” last year.
Gráinne said, “We’re very happy that the Irish Arts Center is honoring us as it has been our home away from home for many years now.”
Tickets for Show Your Love, Feb 22 at Mutual of America, Park Ave., start at $125 and are available on irishartscenter.org.