The Dependable Sidekick
By Ed Garea
Like most actors who made their living in supporting roles, George Kennedy’s oeuvre included many films that were terrible, with absurd plotting, bad direction, and over-emoted acting. Yet, his versatility was noted by casting directors, and in a career that spanned five decades, Kennedy had 191 film and television roles to his credit. Kennedy, who died February 28 in Boise at the age of 91, played cowboys, drifters, G.I.’s, and other assorted tough guys, including convict “Dragline” in Cool Hand Luke, a role that earned him 1967's Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Except for that performance and a handful of films, he most often played a peripheral role – the dependable sidekick, whose function was to set up the star.
He was born George Harris Kennedy, Jr. on February 18, 1925, in New York City. His father, George Harris Kennedy, was a musician and orchestra leader who dies when Kennedy was four years old, leaving him to be raised by his mother, Helen, who was a ballet dancer by trade. He made his stage debut at age 2 in a touring company of Bringing Up Father, and by age 7 was a radio DJ in New York City.
After graduating in 1943 from Chaminade High School in Mineola, New York, Kennedy enlisted in the Army and fought as an infantryman under George Patton in Europe during World War II. He intended to make the military his career, serving for 16 years and opening the Army’s first office of technical assistance for films and television, until a back injury forced him to find another line of work.
His experience led to his hiring as a technical adviser to The Phil Silvers Show, and soon he was appearing on screen as MP Sergeant Kennedy and given a couple of lines to speak in each episode. He would be quoted later as saying that his duties on the whole provided “a great technical ground.”
Other guest shots on shows such as Colt .45, Cheyenne, Peter Gunn, and Maverick confirmed the acting bug, and Kennedy decided to make acting his career. He was steadily employed as a guest star on various television series from 1959 to 1963 with only a few bit roles in movies such as Spartacus (1960), playing a rebel soldier who, during the scene when the Roman victors asked the crowd for Spartacus, had the last close-up as he yelled, “I am Spartacus.” In the 1961 Civil War drama The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come, he had a meatier role as Nathan Dillon.
In 1963, Kennedy won notice for his performance as heavy Herman Scobie in the Cary Grant/Audrey Hepburn movie, Charade, a film often described as the best Hitchcock movie Hitchcock never made. He also had roles in Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte (1964), In Harm’s Way (1965), and The Flight of the Phoenix (1965).
He returned to television as his main stock, winning a following for his portrayal of “Big Frenchie” in McHale’s Navy, which he parleyed into a role in the big screen version of the series (1964). Many of his television appearances were in Westerns, where Kennedy described his function: “The big guys were on TV and they needed big lumps to eat up. All I had to do was show up on the set, and I got beaten up.” His rugged but bland looks were right for almost any part.
In 1967, his fortunes changed. First he was cast as Maj. Max Armbruster in the cult World War II movie The Dirty Dozen (1967). Then he won the role that brought him the Oscar, that of Dragline, the convict leader in Cool Hand Luke who at first resents the new prisoner, Lucas “Luke” Jackson, played by Paul Newman, for his independence, but is later won over by Luke’s integrity and forcefulness, becoming the disciple who is ultimately responsible for his friend’s death. His mix of brutality and compassion in his portrayal reveled a hitherto unseen range and deftly illuminated the character of Luke.
From then on, movies became Kennedy’s stock in trade, usually in the supporting role. The television roles he took were as the star: Sarge, about a cop-turned- priest, in 1971-72, and The Blue Knight (1975-76), playing patrolman William “Bumper” Morgan, with the only major exception being Dallas, where he played corrupt oil tycoon Carter McKay from 1988 to 1991.
In 1970, he played the improbable rescuer, Joe Patroni, the maintenance chief who comes to the rescue in the soapy, all-star, over-the-top Airport, a melodrama about a bomber on a plane, an airport socked in by a blizzard, and desperation everywhere. He reprised his role in the sequels, Airport ’75, Airport ’77, and The Concorde ... Airport ’79, the only cast member to appear in all four. Because of this, he was sought for a role in the spoof, Airplane, as the airport dispatcher (a role that went to Lloyd Bridges), but according to producer Jerry Zucker, he turned it down because he was afraid of losing his Airport cash cow.
But the Zuckers weren’t done with Kennedy, casting him in the hit movie The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), where he played Capt. Ed Hocken, whose role was to wince at the damage brought on by Leslie Nielsen’s bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin. Kennedy would repose the role in the two sequels that followed: Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994).
Other notable movies included Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974), with Clint Eastwood, the ensemble disaster flick, Earthquake (1974), The Eiger Sanction (1975, again with Eastwood), The 'Human' Factor (1975), Death on the Nile (1978), the box office bomb, Bolero, with Bo Derek (1984), and The Delta Force (1986).
He also co-starred in a Japanese movie, Ningen no shomei (Proof of the Man, 1977) as Ken Shufftan, a New York City detective who joins forces with Tokyo detective Koichiro Munesue (Yûsaku Matsuda) in pursuing a murderer of an American in Tokyo who has fled to the Big Apple. Tensions later arise when Munesue realizes Shufftan is the man who killed his father during World War II.
His last role was in the film The Gambler (2014), where he played Ed, the grandfather of Mark Wahlberg's character.
In 1991, Mr. Kennedy was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 6352 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood, California.
Off screen, Kennedy authored three books: Murder On Location (1983) a murder mystery set on a film shoot, Murder on High (1984), and a memoir, Trust Me (2011).
Kennedy married four times. Kennedy was married four times. He married his first wife, Dorothy Gillooly in the 1940s. He then married and divorced twice Norma Wurman (also known as Revel Wurman), with whom he had two children. In 1978, he married Joan McCarthy, who died a little over a year before his own death. The couple adopted four children, including granddaughter Taylor, whose mother, one of their children, was found unfit due to drug-abuse issues. In addition to grandson Cory Schenkel, Kennedy (who lived in Eagle, Idaho, near Boise) is survived by a daughter, Shannon Sullivan; four other grandchildren; and one great-grandson.