Ophel was descended from an Australian grazing family; she was the daughter of Charles Hartnett. Her aunt, Hilda Abbott, was a prominent broadcaster, Australian Red Cross official and writer. Ophel studied sculpture at East Sydney Technical College under Raynor Hoff and became part of the Kings Cross bohemia. The legendary Bee Miles was a good friend. Ophel developed an interest in acting and writing and, after moving to Perth around 1930, joined a group of left-wing artists who formed the Perth Workers' Theatre (later the Workers' Art Guild) in 1935. Her performances in Clifford Odets's Till the Day I Die were praised by critic Paul Hasluck (later a federal minister and Governor-General). Ophel wrote a play, 'I Am Angry', in 1936. She became the Guild's producer and titular head in 1939 as well as managing the Radical Bookshop in Perth.
Ophel joined the Communist Party of Australia and numbered among her close friends Katharine Susannah Prichard and her husband Hugo Throssell along with Bert McLintock, also known as Max Ebert, the Australian surrealist painter. Her time in Perth was one of intense political activity with soldiers and European refugees; she endured the political and legal persecution of the Communist Party from the outbreak of the Second World War.
Ophel had married Clem Kennedy soon after moving to Perth and had her first son, Gerard, with him. In 1943 she moved to Adelaide where her second son Julian was born out of a relationship with George Pick, a Hungarian refugee. Active in the Adelaide Theatre Group, she met her second husband Ken Ophel and moved with him to Melbourne where her third son, Kenneth, was born. In Melbourne Ophel became an advocate for the homeless and with communist lawyer, Ralph Gibson, filed a writ against the Victorian Housing Commission alleging lack of duty of care in the context of the postwar housing shortage. Her writ accelerated the closure of the temporary shelter, Camp Pell, in Royal Park. The Ophels gave evidence before the Royal Commission into the Communist Party, acknowledging their own communism.
Ophel continued her writing, theatre and political activism while also acting in film and television with parts in Sunday Too Far Away (1975) and episodes of the television series Bellbird and Homicide. Ophel wrote for Carrionflower Writ, Triad,Realist, Luna, Patterns, Redoubtand Fine Line.
(Source: Who's Who of Australian Writers (1995): 410; Pam Johnstondylan Hyde 'Phyllis Ophel' Sydney Morning Herald 10 July 2000: 39; Patrick Cornish 'Giving Hope to the Homeless' West Australian 1 August 2000: 45.)