Legendary tough guy character actor George Kennedy has died at the age of 91, the Gore 4 is sad to report. Although he didn’t appear in many horror or other genre films, the Gore 4 admired him just the same for his plentiful other terrific performances in a great many number of memorable films. Indeed, while it is unusual for someone with over 200 acting credits to his name to have appeared in so few horror, sci-fi and fantasy films, perhaps Kennedy’s imposing 6 foot 4 inch frame was too formidable to believe he could be threatened by any otherworldly entity or monstrous beast. He was however, perfectly built to play tough guys, thugs and other assorted baddies for much of his career, in TV westerns like Gunsmoke and Bonanza to crime dramas, Peter Gunn and The Untouchables, to even comedies, such as McHale’s Navy and The Andy Griffith Show. Born in New York City in 1925, Kennedy was a World War II veteran, who ultimately spent 16 years in the Army before getting into acting. After numerous appearances on television, and roles in the films, The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), with John Wayne, The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), with James Stewart, and the star-studded WWII actioner, The Dirty Dozen (1967), Kennedy’s career took off with his next, iconic role.
Going toe-to-toe, and fist-to-fist, with screen legend Paul Newman, George Kennedy scored the role that would put him on the map as the chain-gang convict, Dragline, in the prison drama, Cool Hand Luke (1967). At first an adversary to Newman’s fellow inmate, Luke, Kennedy’s character eventually comes to admire and befriend him as the two attempt to escape the brutal environment presided over by the warden, played by Strother Martin, who uttered the classic line, “What we’ve got here….is a failure….to communicate.” Kennedy’s performance would win him the Academy Award for best supporting actor.
The 70s proved to be a fertile period for Kennedy’s career. The decade known for its plethora of disaster films saw Kennedy at the forefront of this new genre of epic film, generally filled with stellar casts. It was Airport (1970), that began this new wave of film. Starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin, Kennedy played chief mechanic, Joe Petroni, in a pivotal role. In fact, Kennedy would go on to reprise his character in all three Airport sequels, culminating in his promotion to Captain in The Concorde….Airport ’79. It was during this time that Kennedy co-starred in another big-time disaster picture, Earthquake (1975). He also played opposite Clint Eastwood in two memorable films, the crime caper, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), and the mountain climbing actioner, The Eiger Sanction a year later. 1978 saw Kennedy in another star-filled film, the Agatha Christie whodunit, Death on the Nile.
No matter what character he played, and what mega-star he played opposite of, Kennedy always commanded your attention with his powerful figure and gruff voice. And to show his range of acting ability, he later became known for his comic portrayal of Police Captain Ed Hocken in the Naked Gun film spoofs opposite Leslie Nielsen, and a several season stint on TV’s Dallas as a rival to J.R. Ewing. He also lent his incomparable voice to Joe Dante’s action figures come-to-life film, Small Soldiers in 1988 as the appropriately named, Brick Bazooka. As for genre films, while few in number, there were movies like Virus and Death Ship in 1980, Creepshow 2 (1987), and the fun thriller, Brain Dead (1990) (not to be confused with the Peter Jackson film). Kennedy’s last role would be in Mark Wahlberg’s The Gambler in 2014.
Kennedy was married four times, his last wife, Joan, having died last September. He was an avid aviator, and has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He appeared at New Jersey’s Chiller Theatre Convention in October of 2008, as seen above, to the delight of his many, many fans. Kennedy died in Idaho of heart failure on Feb. 28. But his countless screen personas will be cherished for years and years to come. R.I.P., Mr. Kennedy.