George Kennedy in a scene from Police Squad

Image courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Zucker-Abrahams Productions

Actor George Kennedy Dies at 91

| published March 1, 2016 |

By Keith H. Roberts, Thursday Review contributor


Legendary actor George Kennedy, famous for his Oscar-winning role alongside Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and for his frequent appearances as a supporting actor in big budget disaster films like Airport and Earthquake, died this week at the age of 91.

During the 1970s and early 80s, Kennedy may have been one of the most prolific supporting players in Hollywood, appearing in hundreds of movies and television shows, including notably strong performances in such classics as The Dirty Dozen and The Sons of Katie Elder. Kennedy’s acting career was at first deeply entrenched in the grunt work of Hollywood and the Los Angeles TV machines, and a staple of his early work was in the western. Later, he took on action roles which included portraying policemen, detectives and other street-wise, blue collar roles.

The early half of Kennedy’s career was marked by his typically gruff, tough, no-nonsense good guy roles, but—cast against type much in the same way that actor Leslie Neilson audaciously pivoted—Kennedy morphed into comedy in the 1980s with his first of many appearances in the Naked Gun and Police Squad satire franchise, a successful and prolific series of movie comedies based on the exploits of an often bungling and sometimes inept (but always effective in the end, even by accident), Lt. Frank Drebin, a cliché spouting cop prone to pratfalls and physical humor. Kennedy, acting in the role of police Capt. Ed Hocken, often played the straight man to Drebin’s frequent misadventures and malapropisms.

Kennedy’s long and successful run in comedies of the 1980s and 1990s sometimes overshadows his skill as a key supporting player or as a critical character in ensemble casting in films of the late 1960s and throughout the 1970s. He appeared in numerous notable roles, most memorably in Death on the Nile (based on the book by Agatha Christie), The Eiger Sanction (alongside Clint Eastwood), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (alongside Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood), and as a tough, gritty uniformed cop in the television series The Blue Knight, based on the best-selling novels of ex-cop-turned author Joseph Wambaugh.

Kennedy’s frequent early roles as a military man or as a cop were neither accidental nor part of a casting stunt: Kennedy was a 16 year veteran of the U.S. Army, serving first in World War II, where—because of his early experience as a radio announcer in New York City—he made his way into the ranks of the Armed Forces Radio unit. When a minor back injury nudged him to retire from the military earlier than he had originally planned, he found work as a consultant on military matters for production crews in Hollywood and in New York. Kennedy told interviewers that it was his work as a technical advisor on The Phil Silvers Show that convinced him that acting and film production would be his next career.

Kennedy, at 6 foot 3 inches and with a massive, brawny frame, was a formidable presence on stage or on the film set. After a brief appearance in the movie Spartacus, his career in Hollywood accelerated rapidly into more frequent roles and better parts, and he found plenty of work as a burly cowboy or western sheriff, as a gruff and imposing military officer, or as a street-wise cop.

The imposing Kennedy also took on a recurring role as Carter McKay in the long-running and successful prime-time soap Dallas. Over the period 1978-1991 he appeared on Dallas some 100 times.

Among the other things not widely known about Kennedy: he was an author of several books, including the successful mystery fiction works Murder on Location and Murder, On High.

Kennedy, who smoked for a large part of adult life, died of lung cancer, according to his family. Since early 2015, he had been living in an assisted living facility in Idaho—not far from his home—where he was being monitored regularly for an ongoing heart condition as well as his progressing lung cancer.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Alan Rickman Dies at Age 69; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 14, 2016.

M*A*S*H Star Wayne Rogers Dies at 82; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; January 1, 2016.