Vicious killers, bumbling lawmen, saddle tramps, bank robbers, scowling bullies — anybody you’d be foolish to mess with or trust in an emergency — Mr. Kennedy portrayed them all in more than 200 films and television productions in an acting career that spanned nearly five decades.
No critic ever spoke of a George Kennedy oeuvre. Many of his films were hokey, with absurd plots and over-the-top acting. And, with the exception of his Academy Award performance and his work in about a dozen other films, he was most often a peripheral player, a sidekick of the star or the straight man with setup lines for the comedian.
But from the early 1960s on, hardly a year went by without a Kennedy picture — often there were four or five a year — and he was memorable as the heavy in “Charade” (1963), with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant; as Maj. Max Armbruster on a World War II mission in “The Dirty Dozen” (1967); as a regular in the “Airport” pictures, and later as Leslie Nielsen’s dumbstruck captain in the “Naked Gun” comedies.
He was perhaps best known for his role in “Cool Hand Luke”: Dragline, a chain-gang prisoner whose brutality and compassion as the gang leader not only revealed Mr. Kennedy’s rarely seen range as an actor, but also deftly illuminated the character of his tormented fellow convict, played by Mr. Newman.
Besides winning the Academy Award, Mr. Kennedy’s performance won wide critical acclaim. “George Kennedy is powerfully obsessive as the top dog who handles things his way as effectively and finally as destructively as does the warden or the guards,” Bosley Crowther wrote in The New York Times.
Mr. Kennedy typically helped to make other stars look good, and he worked with a pantheon of them: Bette Davis, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and many more.Occasionally Mr. Kennedy headlined the cast of a B-movie, like “The Human Factor,” a 1975 vigilante-justice film, in which he wiped out terrorists who killed his family. He also starred in two television series: He was a cop turned priest in “Sarge,” seen on NBC in the early 1970s, and a patrolman in “The Blue Knight,” on CBS in 1975-76.
But his stock in trade was the supporting role, and his rugged but bland looks were right for almost any part. He was tall and burly, with a bull neck, eyes that widened with shock or narrowed to menacing slits, a disingenuous smile and big ham hands to grip the gun or slap the girl. In the mold of Lee Marvin or Lee Van Cleef, he was a first-rate thug, and his deadpan look was perfect for disaster pictures or comedies.
In 1970 he played the improbable rescuer, Joe Patroni, in “Airport,” a soapy melodrama with an all-star cast about a bomber on a plane, an airport socked in by a blizzard and desperation aloft and on the ground. He reprised his role in the sequels, “Airport ’75,” “Airport ’77” and “The Concorde … Airport ‘79.” He was the only cast member to appear in all four.
In the cult favorite “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” (1988) and its sequels, “Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear” (1991) and “Naked Gun 331/3: The Final Insult” (1994), Mr. Kennedy played Capt. Ed Hocken, wincing and grimacing at the wreckage wrought by Mr. Nielsen’s bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin.
In 1991, Mr. Kennedy was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. “Ever since I was a little boy,” he said, “my primary heroes were movie stars.”
George Harris Kennedy Jr. was born in New York City on Feb. 18, 1925, the son of George and Helen Kennedy. His father, a musician and bandleader, died when he was 4, and he was raised by his mother, a ballet dancer. His parents put him on the stage at 2, and he later worked in radio. But his entertainment career got off to a late start.
A military career seemed more likely. After graduating from W. C. Mepham High School in Bellmore, N.Y., he joined the Army, fought in the infantry in Europe in World War II and spent 16 years in the service.
He opened the Army’s first office of technical assistance for films and television, and in the late 1950s retired and became an adviser to “The Phil Silvers Show.” Soon he was speaking lines on that program, and by the early 1960s he was playing roles on shows like “Maverick,” “Peter Gunn” and “Route 66.” From 1988 to 1991 he was on the prime-time CBS soap opera “Dallas,” playing Carter McKay, a rival of the Ewing brothers.
He made occasional appearances in films and television shows in recent years. In 2014 he was in the film “The Gambler,” starring Mark Wahlberg and Jessica Lange. He published a memoir, “Trust Me,” in 2011.
In addition to his grandson Mr. Schenkel, Mr. Kennedy, who lived in Eagle, Idaho, near Boise, is survived by a daughter, Shannon Sullivan; four other grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
Tough-guy journeyman actor George Kennedy dies at 91
LOS ANGELES – George Kennedy, the hulking, tough-guy character actor who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of a savage chain-gang convict i
n the 1960s classic “Cool Hand Luke,” has died.
His grandson Cory Schenkel says Kennedy died on Sunday morning of old age in Boise, Idaho. He was 91.
He had undergone emergency triple bypass surgery in 2002. That same year, he and his late wife moved to Idaho to be closer to their daughter and her family, though he still was involved in occasional film projects.
His biggest acting achievement came in “Cool Hand Luke,” a 1967 film about a rebellious war hero played by Paul Newman who is bent on bucking the system as a prisoner on a Southern chain gang. Its theme of rebelling against authority and the establishment helped make it one of the most important films of the tumultuous 1960s.
Kennedy played the role of Dragline, the chain-gang boss who goes from Luke’s No. 1 nemesis to his biggest disciple as Newman’s character takes on folk hero status among fellow inmates. The movie garnered four Academy Award nominations, and Kennedy was named best supporting actor.
Newman and Kennedy provided a spectacular one-two punch — Luke as the reticent anti-hero, Dragline as an illiterate brute. They shared several memorable scenes, including one in which Kennedy’s character wins a bet by getting Luke to eat 50 eggs in an hour.
After the critical and commercial success of “Cool Hand Luke,” Kennedy carved out a niche as one of Hollywood’s most recognizable supporting actors. He had parts in several action flicks in the 1970s, played Leslie Nielsen’s sidekick in the “Naked Gun” spoofs and was J.R. Ewing’s business rival in the final seasons of “Dallas.”
One of his strongest supporting roles was in the hit 1970 film “Airport,” which spurred the run of 1970s disaster pictures. Kennedy played Joe Patroni, a no-nonsense, cigar-chomping troubleshooter who stubbornly guides a jetliner stuck on a snow-clogged runway out of harm’s way.
The film spawned several sequels (Kennedy was in all of them) and landed Kennedy a Golden Globe nomination.
Kennedy said his acting ambitions were cemented when he was a young child.
“I remember listening to a radio program when I was young and it made me feel good and I remember telling my mom that I wanted to make people feel the way this radio program made me feel,” Kennedy said in 1995.
“I got some great breaks, and I wound up being an actor.”
His film career began to take flight in the early 1960s. He starred in 1963’s “Charade,” a whodunit that features Kennedy, Cary Grant, James Coburn and Walter Matthau seeking out the $250,000 they suspect was left behind by Audrey Hepburn’s dead husband. His other acting credits in the 1960s included “The Dirty Dozen” and “Guns of the Magnificent Seven.”
Kennedy once called “Charade” the favorite movie in which he appeared.
“It had Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, music by Henry Mancini; it was shot entirely in Paris,” he said in 1995. “I have nothing but wonderful memories.”
Kennedy became regular face in action movies in the 1970s after the success of “Airport,” including “Earthquake” and “Death on the Nile.” He made several film and television appearances in the early and mid-1980s, but few were successful.
He turned to comedic roles in the 1980s and 1990s, the most memorable being the three “Naked Gun” films.
Among his later credits was a small role in Wim Wenders’ 2005 film, “Don’t Come Knocking.” Kennedy’s last on-screen role was in the 2014 remake of “The Gambler,” which starred Mark Wahlberg.
Kennedy was born in New York in 1925. He started acting at the age of 2 when he joined a touring company production of “Bringing up Father.” Five years later, he became a disc jockey with a kids radio show.
He enlisted in the Army at 17 and served in World War II, opening the first Army Information Office that provided technical assistance to films and TV shows. Kennedy spent 16 years in the Army and left as a captain.
After his Army stint, Kennedy made his television debut in “The Phil Silvers Show” in 1955 and had a variety of guest appearances in the Westerns “Have Gun, Will Travel,” ”Cheyenne” and “Gunsmoke.”
The burly actor played bad guys in such films as ‘Charade’ and ‘Thunderbolt & Lightfoot’ before memorably playing against type in the ‘Naked Gun’ movies.
George Kennedy, a bear of a man who won an Oscar for his performance as the sadistic chain gang prisoner Dragline in Cool Hand Luke and delighted audiences as a dimwitted police captain in the zany Naked Gun comedies, has died.
Until his recognition in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Kennedy was usually cast as a tough guy. Following his Oscar win for best supporting actor, he went on to star in The Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) and received second billing in such films as The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969) with Robert Mitchum; Dirty Dingus Magee (1970) with Frank Sinatra; Fools’ Parade (1971) with James Stewart; and The Eiger Sanction (1975) with Clint Eastwood, a frequent co-star.
A former Army career soldier, Kennedy played a series of heavies in the movies. He attacked Cary Grant with a steel claw in Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), pursued Joan Crawford with an ax in Strait-Jacket (1964), attempted to assassinate Gregory Peck in Mirage (1965) and kicked Jeff Bridges to death in Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974).
The 6-foot-4, barrel-chested New Yorker also appeared as airplane mechanic Joe Patroni in the star-studded disaster thriller Airport (1970) and its three sequels.
Along with Leslie Nielsen, another actor with a straight-arrow reputation, Kennedy played comically against type as Captain Ed Hocken (replacing Alan North from the TV show) in the antic Jim Abrahams/Zucker brothers spoofs The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994).
On television, the sandy-haired Irish-American starred in two short-lived series in the 1970s — as a homicide detective turned priest in NBC’s Sarge and as L.A. beat cop Bumper Morgan on CBS’ The Blue Knight, based on the Joseph Wambaugh best-seller. He also played Ewing family nemesis Carter McKay from 1988-91 on the CBS primetime soap Dallas.
Recently, Big George appeared in the films Another Happy Day (2011) and Mark Wahlberg’s The Gambler (2014).
George Kennedy Jr. was born Feb. 18, 1925, in New York City. His father was a pianist and a composer/conductor at the Proctor’s Theater in Manhattan, and his mother danced with vaudeville’s Le Ballet Classique. He made his acting debut at age 2 in a touring company of Bringing Up Father, traveling with the show for two years, and later voiced children’s radio shows.
Following high school graduation, Kennedy enlisted in the Army in 1943 with the hope of becoming a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He wound up in the infantry, served under Gen. George Patton and distinguished himself with his valor: He won two Bronze Stars and four rows of combat and service ribbons. After World War II, a bizarre medical condition — his left leg was shorter than his right by 3 inches — left him in traction for two years.
(Kennedy would later play Patton, the target of an assassination plot, in 1978’s Brass Target opposite Sophia Loren, John Cassavetes and Robert Vaughn.)
In the mid-1950s after re-enlisting, Kennedy worked in Armed Forces Radio and Television, and that got him a job in New York as technical adviser (and a few uncredited appearances) on the army-camp comedy Sgt. Bilko. Watching Phil Silvers and show creator Ned Hiken work whetted his appetite for acting. Additional good fortune arrived when the production company’s secretary referred him to a chiropractor who alleviated his leg and back problems.
With 30 percent disability after 15 years of service, Kennedy moved to Hollywood in 1959 and played an array of toughs who could go up against such stars of TV Westerns as 6-foot-7 James Arness in Gunsmoke, 6-foot-6 Clint Walker in Cheyenne and 6-foot-6 Chuck Connors in The Rifleman.
“The big guys were on TV and they needed big lumps to eat up,” Kennedy said in a 1971 interview. “All I had to do was show up on the set, and I got beaten up.”
Of course, he fought Paul Newman early on in Stuart Rosenberg’s drama Cool Hand Luke as Dragline, the leader of the prisoners who gives Newman’s character his nickname.
“The marvelous thing about that movie,” Kennedy recalled in a 1978 interview, “was that as my part progresses, I changed from a bad guy to a good guy. The moguls in Hollywood must have said, ‘Hey, this fellow can do something besides be a bad guy.’ ”
Kennedy’s vast body of work also includes Spartacus (1960); Lonely Are the Brave (1962); the John Wayne classic The Sons of Katie Elder (1965); The Dirty Dozen (1967); The Boston Strangler (1968); Earthquake (1974); Death on the Nile (1978), Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981), in which he played himself as the star of an atroc
ious sci-fi film; Bolero (1984) opposite Bo Derek; Small Soldiers (1997), in which he voiced Brick Bazooka; and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking (2005).
He appeared in NBC’s See How They Run (1964), which is considered the first movie made for TV. He also played President Warren G. Harding in the 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House and had a long-standing role on the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless.
proc. BY MOVIES