As the son of a ballet dancer mother and orchestra leader father, it seems obvious that George Kennedy had show business in his blood. But after making his stage debut as a toddler and performing on the radio as a child, the tough-as-nails Academy Award-winning actor, who passed away this past Sunday at the age of 91, first had to undergo a 16-year-detour of military service that ultimately led him back for the career he was meant for.
Born in New York City in 1925 with German, Irish and English ancestry, George Harris Kennedy, Jr. was all of two years old when he appeared in a touring production of “Life with Father,” and in the early ’30s he was featured in a children’s radio show. At 17 he enlisted in the Army and served in World War II in the infantry and with Armed Forces Radio. Once the war ended, the military would be Kennedy’s career for the next decade-plus, during which time he worked in the Army Information Office and provided technical help to movies and TV shows. It was on one such detail, working on the popular mid-’50s sitcom The Phil Silvers Show, that Sgt. Bilko himself, Phil Silvers, talked him into appearing in front of the cameras as an MP officer. Kennedy became a recurring character on the show, and once again felt the lure of acting.
By the start of the 1960s George had racked up credits on such programs as Cheyenne, Shotgun Slade, Sugarfoot, Peter Gunn and Route 66, putting his burly 6’4″ frame to use by usually appearing as a villain (“The big guys were on TV and they needed big lumps to beat up,” he once said in an interview). His big-screen debut was an uncredited turn as one of the rebel soldiers yelling out “I am Spartacus!” (see if you can spot him) in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 costume drama Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas. The two actors were re-teamed in the 1962 western Lonely Are the Brave, with Douglas as a fugitive outlaw and Kennedy as a deputy sheriff. In 1963 George was seen as a one-handed heavy threatening Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in the stylish suspense/comedy Charade, while the following year saw him cast as a hired hand alongside Joan Crawford in William Castle’s shocker Strait-Jacket and as a French South Pacific businessman in the movie version of McHale’s Navy (he also appeared in two episodes of the series).
Kennedy was very busy in 1965, appearing in two films with both John Wayne (In Harm’s Way and The Sons of Katie Elder) and James Stewart (Shenandoah and The Flight of the Phoenix), but was still dividing his time between films and TV guest shots. His big break came in 1967. First he was cast in the gritty WWII action gem The Dirty Dozen as Major Max Armbruster, who assists in assembling the title squad for a suicide mission. Then, George co-starred as Dragline, the hardened prison chain gang leader who first attacks, then befriends, troublemaking new arrival Luke Jackson (Paul Newman), in Cool Hand Luke.
It was for his performance as Dragline, who comes to serve as Luke’s voice of reason, that Kennedy won the Academy Award for best Supporting Actor and became one of Hollywood’s go-to “tough guy” actors, equally adept at playing characters on either side of the law. He was a police detective on the trial of serial killer Albert DeSalvo (Tony Curtis) in 1968’s The Boston Strangler; saddled up for the Doris Day frontier comedy The Ballad of Josie (1967) and the sagebrush sequel Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1967); and in 1970 was a white ex-sheriff who becomes successor Jim Brown’s deputy in a racially divided Southern town in the provocative drama Tick…Tick…Tick.
1970 also saw Kennedy first play one of his most popular roles: Joe Patroni, the gruff, fiercely dedicated chief mechanic in the trend-setting “disaster movie” Airport. Never without a cigar or a one-in-a-thousand plan to avert an aerial catastrophe, Kennedy’s wise-cracking Patroni was the only character to all four Airport films in the 1970s, and even made his way into the pilot’s seat of an SST in the series’s final entry, The Concorde…Airport ’79 (where, when stewardess Sylvia Kristel comments “You pilots are such…men.” George utters the classic reply “They don’t call it the cockpit for nothing, honey.”).
In between his ’70s Airport stints, George could be seen on movie screens as, among other roles: one of the plane crash survivors in the 1973 musical remake of Lost Horizon; part of Clint Eastwood’s criminal gang in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974); a police sergeant in a temblor-ravaged L.A. in the “Sensurround” spectacle Earthquake (also ’74); Eastwood’s mountain-climbing colleague in the high-altitude actioner The Eiger Sanction (1975); one of the passengers on a fatal cruise in the Agatha Christie whodunit Death on the Nile (1978); and as General George S. Patton (whom Kennedy once served under in WWII) in the assassination thriller Brass Target. He could also be found on TV as the lead in two short-lived dramas: 1971-72’s Sarge, in which he played a policeman-turned-Catholic priest; and 1975-76’s The Blue Knight, based on a novel by Joseph Wambaugh, where he was veteran LAPD officer William “Bumper” Morgan.
Over the course of the ’80s and ’90s Kennedy found himself relegated to turns in stereotypical action films (1980’s Virus, 1986’s The Delta Force), horror fare (Just Before Dawn in 1981, Creepshow 2 in 1987), and the just plain bizarre (1984’s Bolero with Bo Derek). He got a chance to flex his comedic muscles when he was cast as Capt. Ed Hocken, partner of Leslie Nielsen’s bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin, in 1988’s The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad. Based on a short-lived sitcom from the creators of Airplane! (which, ironically, was in part a parody of the Airport films), the zany comedy was so popular that Kennedy and Nielsen reprised their roles in 1991 and 1994 sequels. He even did voice work for such animated features as Cats Don’t Dance (1997) and Small Soldiers (1998), and also had a recurring role on the hit nighttime soap opera Dallas as Carter McKay, a rival of the oil-rich Ewing family.
George continued to work well into his 80s and beyond in films and TV, with his final screen appearance coming in 2014’s The Gambler. Between acting gigs he tried his hand at being an author, penning two mystery novels as well as a 2011 autobiography, Trust Me. And, as one would expect from Joe Patroni himself, George also had a pilot’s license.
Kennedy once pointed out that his Cool Hand Luke performance was what finally made filmmakers take notice of him. “The moguls in Hollywood must have said, ‘Hey, this fellow can do something besides be a bad guy!'” Anyone who saw George Kennedy during his half-century-plus before the camera would certainly agree.