Sunday 21 January 2018

Obituary: George Kennedy

Character actor who won an Oscar for his performance in the chain gang drama 'Cool Hand Luke'

George Kennedy and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke Photo: Rex Features
George Kennedy and Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke Photo: Rex Features

George Kennedy, who died on Sunday aged 91, was one of America's most recognisible and versatile character actors; 6ft 4in tall, sandy haired, burly and gruff, he appeared in more than 175 films, ranging from westerns to disaster movies and from thrillers to comedies.

During his early years in Hollywood, it seemed Kennedy might be forever typecast as a villain.

In 1967, however, that all changed when Stuart Rosenberg's prison chain gang drama Cool Hand Luke gave him the opportunity to show he was capable of more, with a role that earned him an Academy Award as best supporting actor.

As Dragline, the tough-talking prison veteran who mercilessly bullies Paul Newman's Luke, a newcomer to the chain gang, but eventually finds his ideas about life are being transformed by his nonconformist new colleague, Kennedy changed from bad guy to good guy with such subtlety and panache that, as he himself recalled, he increased his earning power by a factor of 10. "If there were no other good reason to watch Cool Hand Luke," one reviewer observed, "George [Kennedy] would do by himself."

Born in New York to a show business family on February 18, 1925, George Harris Kennedy began his acting career at the age of two when he joined a touring company production of Bringing Up Father, a musical based on a popular comic strip.

After George's father, a band leader, died when he was four, he was brought up by his mother, a dancer, and spent much of his childhood acting on children's radio productions, even hosting his own show.

He was educated at WC Mepham High School in Bellmore, New York State.

His budding show business career, however, was interrupted by America's entry into the Second World War, in which he served in the US Army in Europe, fighting in the Battle of the Bulge.

After the war ended, he re-enlisted, earned a commission and served with the Armed Forces Radio Network in Germany, Japan and Korea.

In the late 1950s, still in the army, he became a military adviser on the army sitcom The Phil Silvers Show, starring Silvers as Sgt Bilko. Reminded of how much he enjoyed performing, Kennedy longed for one of the regulars on the show to fall ill so that he could stand in for him.

He got his wish when an actor playing a military policeman failed to turn up, one of the studio staff telling him: "Hey, you are a really big guy, and you look like you could play a bad guy."

After 16 years in the army, Kennedy was forced to retire in 1959 due to a recurrent back problem, but his acting experience stood him in good stead and within a few weeks he had landed a role as a baddie in a television western.

The following year he made his (uncredited) screen debut as a rebel soldier opposite Kirk Douglas in Spartacus (1960).

Kennedy's most important early film (and his personal favourite) was Stanley Donen's Charade (1963), starring Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn, in which he played a hook-armed villain who tries to frighten a widow (Hepburn) into revealing where her late husband stashed money stolen during the war. In The Flight Of The Phoenix (1965), he played a passenger on board a stranded aeroplane.

During the 1970s, Kennedy appeared in numerous television westerns, recalling that stars such as James Arness (of Gunsmoke) and Clint Eastwood (of Cheyenne) were "big men who needed someone big to beat up". He had supporting roles in two Clint Eastwood films, Thunderbolt And Lightfoot (1974) and The Eiger Sanction (1975), and became a dependable mainstay of disaster films.

As cigar-chomping mechanic Joe Patroni, he was the one constant in all four Airport movies, and in Earthquake (1974) he played a Los Angeles cop struggling to cope with the aftermath of an earthquake reaching 9.9 on the Richter Scale.

In the late 1980s, Jerry and David Zucker exploited Kennedy's gift for deadpan comedy by casting him in The Naked Gun (1988) as Captain Ed Hocken, the dim-witted boss of Leslie Nielsen's bumbling Detective Frank Drebin. He also appeared in its two sequels.

Kennedy's other roles included supporting parts in The Dirty Dozen (1967), Lost Horizon (1973) and Death On The Nile (1978).

He also appeared in numerous television series, including Dallas, in which he played Carter McKay, a cattle rancher and rival to the scheming JR Ewing (Larry Hagman).

His final film role was in the 2014 crime drama remake The Gambler, with Mark Wahlberg and Brie Larson.

Kennedy was the author of two thrillers and an autobiography, Trust Me, published in 2011.

He was married four times, first to Dorothy Gillooly and secondly and thirdly to Norma Wurman. His fourth wife, Joan McCarthy, died last year, and a son and daughter also predeceased him.

He is survived by a daughter, a grandson and a granddaughter whom he helped to bring up after her mother developed drug addiction problems.

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