Wednesday, March 2, 2016

The Late Great George Kennedy

George Kennedy, who appeared in films from Charade (1963) to The Gambler (2014), died on February 28 2016 at the age of 91.

George Harris Kennedy Jr. was born on February 18 1925 in New York City. His father, George Kennedy Sr., was a bandleader and musician. He died when young George was only 4 years old. His mother, Helen (née Kieselbach), was a ballerina. George Kennedy made his stage debut when he was extremely young, appearing at age 2 in a touring company of Bringing Up Father. He was only 7 years old when he worked in radio. Despite working in show business as a child, it would be some time before he would become an actor as an adult. Upon graduating Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York, he joined the United States Army during World War II. He remained in the Army for 16 years and earned the rank of captain. He opened the first United States Army office for technical assistance for movies and TV shows.

After a back injury forced him to leave the Army he became a technical advisor on The Phil Silvers Show. It was on that show that he made his television acting debut, appearing in the recurring role of Military Police Sgt. Kennedy. In the late Fifties he went on to appear on such shows as Colt. 45, The Deputy, Lawman, Laramie, Sugarfoot, Peter Gunn, and Route 66. He made his film debut in a bit part in Spartacus (1960).

The Sixties saw George Kennedy's career shift increasingly towards film. He won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke (1967). He also appeared in such films as Lonely Are the Brave (1962),  Charade (1963),  McHale's Navy (1964), Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), In Harm's Way (1965), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), Cool Hand Luke (1967), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Bandolero! (1968), and Airport (1970). Mr. Kennedy still appeared frequently on television, and made guest appearances on such shows as The Asphalt Jungle, The Red Skelton Show, The Untouchables, Death Valley Days, Thriller, 77 Sunset Strip, Have Gun--Will Travel, Perry Mason, The Andy Griffith Show, McHale's Navy, Bonanza, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Daniel Boone, Gunsmoke, Dr. Kildare, and The Virginian.

In the Seventies George Kennedy was a regular on the television shows Sarge and The Blue Knight. He guest starred on  Ironside. He appeared in all three sequels to the film Airport, making him the only actor to appear in every single film in the franchise. He also appeared in such films as Fools' Parade (1971), Lost Horizon (1973), Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), Earthquake (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975), Mean Dog Blues (1978), Death on the Nile (1978), Brass Target (1978), and Death Ship (1980).

The Eighties saw George Kennedy's career slow, although he still did nearly one film a year. During the decade he appeared in such films as Just Before Dawn (1981), Wacko (1982), Chattanooga Choo Choo (1984),  Bolero (1984), Radioactive Dreams (1985), Savage Dawn (1985), The Delta Force (1986), Rigged (1986), Creepshow 2 (1987), The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), Death Street USA (1988), The Terror Within (1989), and Brain Dead (1990). On television he guest starred on Fantasy Island and The Love Boat. He appeared in such TV movies as The Jesse Owens Story, and The Gunfighters. From the late Eighties into the Nineties he had a recurring role on the prime time soap opera Dallas.

In the Nineties Mr. Kennedy appeared in such films as Hangfire (1991), Driving Me Crazy (1991), Distant Justice (1992), River of Stone (1994), Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994), and Bayou Ghost (1997). He provided voices for the films Cats Don't Dance (1997) and Small Soldiers (1998). On television he guest starred on the TV shows Lonesome Dove: The Series and The Commish. He provided guest voices for The Real Adventures of Jonny Quest, Aaahh!!! Real Monsters.

From the Naughts into the Teens George Kennedy appeared in the films View from the Top (2003), Three Bad Men (2005), Truce (2005), Don't Come Knocking (2005), The Man Who Came Back (2008), Six Days in Paradise (2010), Another Happy Day (2011), and The Gambler (2014). He appeared in a few episode of the soap opera The Young and the Restless. 

George Kennedy wrote two novels, Murder on Location and Murder on High, as well as his autobiography Trust Me.

There can be no doubt that George Kennedy was prolific. For much of his career he appeared in multiple films per year as well as making several guest appearances on TV shows. From 1956 when he first appeared on The Phil Silvers Show to 2014 when he made his last screen appearance in The Gambler, a year rarely went by without at least one film or TV show in which Mr. Kennedy appeared. Given how prolific he was, it should come as no surprise that he appeared in multiple genres. He appeared in war movies, Westerns, comedies, horror movies, sci-film movies, and very nearly any other genre of film one could name. He appeared in classics such as Cool Hand Luke and The Dirty Dozen as well as B movies such as Ministry of Vengeance and Demonwarp.

Of course, the reason that George Kennedy was able to make so many movies and appear in so many TV shows is that he was very talented. He was best known for playing tough guys in action movies and Westerns, but he was capable of playing other roles as well. Given his stint in the Army he could easily play military personnel, but he could also play gunslingers, millionaires, airline troubleshooters, preachers, grandfathers, and even presidents. Unlike many actors he could easily play a good guy or a bad guy. He was as adept at comedy as he was drama. While George Kennedy may be best known for his tough guy roles, he was a versatile actor who could play nearly anything he chose. What is more, even when the movies in which he appeared might not be that good, he always was.

1 comment:

Raquel Stecher said...

Thanks for such a thorough look at George Kennedy's career. He was a personal fave of mine.