George Kennedy, versatile actor who won Oscar for 'Cool Hand Luke,' dies at 91

Tough-guy actor George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a savage chain-gang convict in the 1960s classic "Cool Hand Luke," has died. [Times files (1991)]
Tough-guy actor George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his portrayal of a savage chain-gang convict in the 1960s classic "Cool Hand Luke," has died. [Times files (1991)]
Published Mar. 1, 2016

George Kennedy, who played tough guys, oafs, GI's and a bonanza of cowboys as one of Hollywood's most versatile and durable character actors, and who won an Oscar as the best supporting actor of 1967 for his performance in the Paul Newman film Cool Hand Luke, died Sunday in Boise, Idaho. He was 91.

Vicious killers, bumbling lawmen, saddle tramps, bank robbers, scowling bullies — anybody you'd be foolish to mess with or trust in an emergency — Mr. Kennedy portrayed them all in more than 200 films and television productions in an acting career that spanned nearly five decades.

No critic ever spoke of a George Kennedy oeuvre. Many of his films were hokey, with absurd plots and over-the-top acting. And, with the exception of his Academy Award performance and his work in about a dozen other films, he was most often a peripheral player, a sidekick of the star or the straight man with setup lines for the comedian.

But from the early 1960s on, hardly a year went by without a Kennedy picture — often there were four or five a year — and he was memorable as the heavy in Charade (1963), with Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant; as an Army major in the World War II drama The Dirty Dozen (1967); as a regular in the Airport pictures, and later as Leslie Nielsen's dumbstruck captain in the Naked Gun comedies.

He was perhaps best known for his role in Cool Hand Luke: Dragline, a chain-gang prisoner whose brutality and compassion as the gang leader not only revealed Mr. Kennedy's rarely seen range as an actor, but also deftly illuminated the character of his tormented fellow convict, played by Newman.

Besides winning the Academy Award, Mr. Kennedy's performance won wide critical acclaim. "George Kennedy is powerfully obsessive as the top dog who handles things his way as effectively and finally as destructively as does the warden or the guards," Bosley Crowther wrote in the New York Times.

Mr. Kennedy typically helped to make other stars look good, and he worked with a pantheon of them: Bette Davis, James Stewart, Burt Lancaster, Charlton Heston, John Wayne, Clint Eastwood and many more.

Occasionally Mr. Kennedy headlined the cast of a B-movie, like The Human Factor, a 1975 vigilante-justice film, in which he wiped out terrorists who killed his family. He also starred in two television series: He was a cop turned priest in Sarge, seen on NBC in the 1970-71 season, and a patrolman in The Blue Knight, on CBS in 1975-76.

But his stock in trade was the supporting role, and his rugged but bland looks were right for almost any part. He was tall and burly, with a bull neck, eyes that widened with shock or narrowed to menacing slits, a disingenuous smile and big ham hands to grip the gun or slap the girl. In the mold of Lee Marvin or Lee Van Cleef, he was a first-rate thug, and his deadpan look was perfect for disaster pictures or comedies.

In 1970 he played the improbable rescuer, Joe Patroni, in Airport, a soapy melodrama with an all-star cast about a bomber on a plane, an airport socked in by a blizzard and desperation aloft and on the ground. He reprised his role in the sequels, Airport '75, Airport '77 and The Concorde … Airport '79. He was the only cast member to appear in all four.

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In the cult favorite The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988) and its sequels, Naked Gun 21/2: The Smell of Fear (1991) and Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994), Mr. Kennedy played Capt. Ed Hocken, wincing and grimacing at the wreckage wrought by Nielsen's bumbling Lt. Frank Drebin.

In 1991, Mr. Kennedy was awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. "Ever since I was a little boy," he said, "my primary heroes were movie stars."

George Harris Kennedy Jr. was born in New York City on Feb. 18, 1925, the son of George and Helen Kennedy. His father, a musician and bandleader, died when he was 4, and he was raised by his mother, a ballet dancer. His parents put him on the stage at 2, and he later worked in radio. But his entertainment career got off to a late start.

A military career seemed more likely. After graduating from W.C. Mepham High School in Bellmore, N.Y., he joined the Army, fought in the infantry in Europe in World War II and spent 16 years in the service.

He opened the Army's first office of technical assistance for films and television, and in the late 1950s retired and became an adviser to The Phil Silvers Show. Soon he was speaking lines on that program, and by the early 1960s he was playing roles on shows like Maverick, Peter Gunn and Route 66. From 1988 to 1991, he was on the prime-time CBS soap opera Dallas, playing Carter McKay, a rival of the Ewing brothers.

He made occasional appearances in films and television shows in recent years. In 2014, he was in the film The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg and Jessica Lange. He published a memoir, Trust Me, in 2011.

His first marriage, to Revel Wurman in 1959, ended in divorce in 1978. He married Joan McCarthy in 1978. She died in 2014.

In addition to his grandson Schenkel, Mr. Kennedy, who lived in Eagle, Idaho, near Boise, is survived by a daughter, Shannon Sullivan; four other grandchildren; and one great-grandson.