Film News: Character Actor, Oscar Winner George Kennedy Dies at 91

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MIDDLETON, IDAHO – On the day of the 88th Academy Awards, Hollywood lost a venerable character actor and Oscar winner, George Kennedy. Kennedy won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar at the 40th Academy Awards for his role in “Cool Hand Luke.” He passed away at a care facility in Idaho, age 91.

George Kennedy
George Kennedy in 2010
Photo credit: Joe Arce of Starstruck Foto for

George Harris Kennedy was born in New York City in 1925. He parlayed a military career that began during World War II into a technical advisor role for “The Phil Silvers Show” in the late 1950s. Encourage by Silvers to begin acting, he made his debut in the film “Little Shepard of Kingdom Come” (1961). The beefy, solid character actor made numerous TV and film appearances, including “Charade” (1963), “Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964) and “The Dirty Dozen” (1967).

It was in 1967 that he won the role of “Dragline” opposite Paul Newman in “Cool Hand Luke.” He hired publicity to promote his Best Supporting Actor bid – one of the first actors to do so – and won the Oscar at the ceremony in April of 1968 (famously delayed due to the Martin Luther King assassination). He had a incredibly diverse and successful career afterward, doing high profile roles in the “Airport” series of films as fixer Joe Patroni, and in the “Naked Gun” series of films as sidekick (again) to Leslie Nielsen’s bumbling detective. His last major role was in a Mark Wahlberg film, “The Gambler” (2014)

George Kennedy was married twice, is is survived by a daughter and two grandchildren. He died on February 28th, 2016, in Middleton, Idaho, in a care facility. interviewed George Kennedy in 2010. The entire interview is reprinted below… How did your early career in the army prepare you for show business? And how did you translate that into one of your first jobs advising the Phil Silvers Sgt. Bilko show?

George Kennedy: One came out of a growth out of the other. At the end of the war, I was a high school graduate with no training except for shooting at German soldiers in Europe. I was a staff sergeant, with a couple of bronze stars, so they asked me to re-up and they sent me to Officer’s Training School. When I did that, I became a part of Armed Forces Radio Service. And through that, I became the military advisor to the Sgt. Bilko show. The happiest years of my life. You were part of one of the great casts of all time in the caper film, “Charade.” What type of actor was Cary Grant, and what kind of presence did Audrey Hepburn have in person?

Kennedy: Almost incalculable to describe. Not only did Walter Matthau, Ned Glass, Jimmy Coburn [Kennedy’s co-stars] and I adore Audrey, but Cary Grant – who in my mind’s eye was the biggest, best looking movie star that ever existed – fretted that he wanted to make sure he wasn’t doing anything that would upset her. [laughs]

Audrey Hepburn was so far removed from normal humanity, I swear to God this is true. We would, between shots, sit outside of her dressing room door, on the floor and talk to her while she was inside – even Cary Grant would do this. She was a wonderful actress and lovely lady.

George Kennedy Cool
George Kennedy (right) in ‘Cool Hand Luke’
Photo credit: Warner Home Video You famously paid for trade paper ads yourself to promote your Supporting Actor nomination for Cool Hand Luke. Can you remember what the atmosphere was like surrounding the ceremony, and how you felt when Patty Duke called your name?

Kennedy: I didn’t expect to win. It was hands down that ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ was going to win everything, and the odds against me were phenomenal. The last thing I said to my wife before going in was ‘remember, my award comes up second, so we have a long time to sit there looking like good losers.’ So when Patty announced my name, I remember I hit my leg and went up there. I didn’t have a speech prepared, so I just said ‘thank you for the greatest moment in my life.’ Which it was. Probably your most notable film character is Joe Patroni in the Airport series. Was there anybody you knew in real life who you based the character on, or was it an invention of your own?

Kennedy: Patroni was a real guy, that wasn’t his name, but he existed. He did for TWA what I did in the movie. He actually did what I did in ‘Airport.’ He got a plane out of the mud by the exact method shown in the movie. He was famous. He and I became friends, and through him I started flying airplanes. Although you’re not known for comedy, you scored in the Naked Gun series. What was the most absurd gag you had to do?

Kennedy: The Naked Gun movies were wonderful to do, but they were not easy to do. The Zucker brothers [David and Jerry, with Jim Abrahams] are geniuses, but they do like to do 40 takes. I used to ask them ‘are you watching a fly shit on the wall, because you’re certainly not watching us!’ [laughs] They would laugh, they would laugh at anything.‘Dirty Dingus Magee’ was a very odd film for Frank Sinatra. What do your remember from that set and working with Sinatra?

Kennedy: Frank Sinatra! He and I were friends, and after that movie we were still friends. I think Sinatra was the greatest entertainer of my life. I have everything he ever recorded and I got the privilege to talk to him about it. We were friends, and we could talk about anything.

Sources for this article from Wikipedia and George Kennedy, 1925-2016. senior staff writer Patrick McDonald

Writer, Editorial Coordinator

© 2016 Patrick McDonald,

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