(c) Universal Pictures
During my impressionable youth in the 1970s, if I’d been about to take a flight and I’d seen the American character actor George Kennedy lurking on board the airplane, or around the departure gate, or for that matter anywhere in or near the airport, I would have refused to fly. In fact, I’d have spouted the catch-phrase of Mr T in The A-Team: “I ain’t gettin’ on no plane!”
You see, George Kennedy – who sadly passed away two days ago – was somebody you associated with disaster. He made a career for himself during the 1970s appearing in movies where airplanes fall, or come close to falling, out of the sky: Airport (1970), based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Arthur Hailey, and its sequels Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977) and Airport ’80: The Concorde (1979). He’d also turned up in an older movie, 1965’s The Flight of the Phoenix, which I’d seen on TV. No wonder the plane in that movie crashed in the first five minutes.
Come to think of it, if George was around, you weren’t necessarily safe even if you were standing on terra firma; for he’d also been in the rumbly 1974 disaster movie Earthquake. I saw Earthquake at my local cinema when I was a kid and the movie’s thrilling (for the time) special effects and thunderous Sensurround soundtrack ensured that its prestigious cast – Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Lorne Greene, Geneviève Bujold and Richard Roundtree – were dwarfed by the visual and auditory mayhem. But Kennedy, burly and six feet, four inches tall, was larger than life. He might have played one of Earthquake’s least complicated characters, but he was the only cast-member I remembered afterwards.
Kennedy joined the US military during World War II, served with them for 16 years and eventually reached the rank of captain. Then in the late 1950s he was assigned as army technical advisor to the legendary CBS situation comedy The Phil Silvers Show, or as we still call it in the UK, Bilko. I doubt very much if Kennedy’s military employers approved of how the show – in which Phil Silvers’ Sergeant Bilko character runs US Army post Fort Baxter as a giant gambling den – depicted the soldiering life, but Kennedy seemed to get on well with Silvers. It was Silvers, in fact, who encouraged Technical Advisor Captain Kennedy to try acting and got him in front of the show’s cameras in a few episodes playing a military policeman.
(c) 20th Century Fox
After leaving the army, Kennedy got into movies, starting with an uncredited appearance in Stanley Kubrick’s sword-and-sandals epic Spartacus (1960). And during the ensuing decade he appeared in a series of films that are supremely entertaining because of their ensemble casts of craggy leading men and sweaty character actors. As I said earlier, he was in The Flight of the Phoenix – with James Stewart, Richard Attenborough, Peter Finch, Hardy Krὔger, Ernest Borgnine, Ian Bannen, Christian Marquand and Dan Duryea. As far as I know, after Kennedy’s demise, German actor Krὔger is the only member of Phoenix’s cast still alive.
He was also in Stuart Rosenberg’s allegoric prison drama Cool Hand Luke (1967) in which he played second fiddle to Paul Newman, won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor and appeared alongside Strother Martin, Clifton James, J.D. Cannon, Harry Dean Stanton, Dennis Hopper, Anthony Zerbe, Joe Don Baker and Wayne Rogers. By a melancholy coincidence, Rogers, better known as Trapper John in the TV version of M*A*S*H*, died just two months ago.
And he was in Robert Aldrich’s famous war movie The Dirty Dozen (1967), with a truly testosterone-charged cast that included Lee Marvin, Charles Bronson, Ernest Borgnine (again), Jim Brown, John Cassavetes, Richard Jaeckel, Ralph Meeker, Clint Walker, Trini Lopez, Donald Sutherland, Telly Savalas and Robert Ryan. 21 years after The Dirty Dozen, when Joe Dante made his toys-coming-to-life fantasy movie Small Soldiers, he hired Kennedy, Borgnine, Brown and Walker to provide the voices for a batch of ultra-violent military action-figures called the Commando Elite.
Kennedy was also one of that almost-vanished breed, a western-movie actor. Equally capable of playing a dependable sheriff or a scumbag outlaw, he appeared in such cowboy epics as Lonely are the Brave (1962), Shenandoah (1965), The Sons of Katie Elder (1965), The Ballad of Josie (1967), Bandolero! (1968), The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969), Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), Dirty Dingus Magee (1970) and Cahill US Marshall (1973). Between them, old western hands Andrew V. McLaglen and Burt Kennedy directed half-a-dozen of those films; and in two of them – Katie Elder and Cahill – he starred alongside the greatest cowboy star of all, John Wayne.
By the 1980s, after the disaster-movie boom had passed, Kennedy’s career dipped and he appeared in some desperate clunkers. There was, for example, Alvin Rakoff’s seabound horror movie Death Ship (1980); John Derek’s sex romp Bolero (1984), which starred Derek’s bosomly wife Bo, had the notorious Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus as its executive producers and unsurprisingly won six Golden Raspberry Awards; Ray Spruce’s tatty horror anthology Creepshow 2 (1987), based on three lesser short stories by Stephen King; and the forgotten action movie Hired to Kill (1990), directed by Nico Mastorakis and Peter Rader and co-starring a definitely seen-better-days Oliver Reed as the villain.
At least Kennedy got regular employment in The Naked Gun movies (1988, 1991 and 1994), masterminded by Jerry and David Zucker and Jim Abrahams, who’d previously had a big hit in 1980 with their anarchic spoof of the Airport films, Airplane! Actually, the Zuckers and Abrahams had wanted to cast Kennedy in Airplane! However, Kennedy had politely declined, aware that by appearing in a piss-take of the Airport series he might jeopardise his chances of being employed in future instalments of it.
The Naked Gun trilogy, in fact, is probably how Kennedy is best-known to younger film audiences; and I was annoyed that the BBC news website announced his passing the other day with the headline, GEORGE KENNEDY, STAR OF THE NAKED GUN, DIES… So much for that Oscar for Cool Hand Luke.
Kennedy left us at the age of 91, which was a very respectable innings. However, I enjoyed his hulking and reliable, if sometimes disaster-prone, presence in many a movie; and I’m sad to see him go.
(c) 20th Century Fox