George Kennedy, who won an Oscar for his performance as the sadistic chain gang prisoner Dragline in Cool Hand Luke and delighted audiences as a dimwitted police captain in the zany Naked Gun comedies, has died. He was 91. Kennedy died Sunday morning in Boise, Idaho, his grandson, Cory Schenkel, confirmed.
Until his recognition in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Kennedy was usually cast as a tough guy. Following his Oscar win for best supporting actor, he went on to star in The Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) and received second billing in such films as The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969) with Robert Mitchum; Dirty Dingus Magee (1970) with Frank Sinatra; Fools’ Parade (1971) with James Stewart; and The Eiger Sanction (1975) with Clint Eastwood, a frequent co-star.
A former Army career soldier, Kennedy played a series of heavies in the movies. He attacked Cary Grant with a steel claw in Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963), pursued Joan Crawford with an ax in Strait-Jacket (1964), attempted to assassinate Gregory Peck in Mirage (1965) and kicked Jeff Bridges to death in Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974).
The 6-foot-4, barrel-chested New Yorker also appeared as airplane mechanic Joe Patroni in the star-studded disaster thriller Airport (1970) and its three sequels.
Along with Leslie Nielsen, another actor with a straight-arrow reputation, Kennedy played comically against type as Captain Ed Hocken (replacing Alan North from the TV show) in the antic Jim Abrahams/Zucker Brothers spoofs The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), The Naked Gun 2 ½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 33 1/3: The Final Insult (1994).
On television, the sandy-haired Irish-American starred in two short-lived series in the 1970s — as a homicide detective turned priest in NBC’s Sarge and as L.A. beat cop Bumper Morgan on CBS’ The Blue Knight, based on the Joseph Wambaugh best-seller. He also played Ewing family nemesis Carter McKay from 1988-91 on the CBS primetime soap Dallas.
Recently, big George appeared in the films Another Happy Day (2011) and Mark Wahlberg’s The Gambler (2014).
George Kennedy Jr. was born Feb. 18, 1925, in New York City. His father was a pianist and a composer/conductor at the Proctor’s theater in Manhattan, and his mother danced with vaudeville’s Le Ballet Classique. He made his acting debut at age 2 in a touring company of Bringing Up Father, traveling with the show for two years, and later voiced children’s radio shows.
Following high school graduation, Kennedy enlisted in the Army in 1943 with the hope of becoming a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He wound up in the infantry, served under Gen. George Patton and distinguished himself with his valor: He won two Bronze stars and four rows of combat and service ribbons. After World War II, a bizarre medical condition — his left leg was shortener than his right by three inches — left him in traction for two years.
Kennedy also worked in Spartacus (1960); Lonely Are the Brave (1962); the John Wayne classic The Sons of Katie Elder (1965); The Dirty Dozen (1967); The Boston Strangler (1968); Earthquake (1974); Death on the Nile (1978), Albert Brooks’ Modern Romance (1981), in which he played himself as the star of an atrocious sci-fi film; Bolero (1984) opposite Bo Derek; Small Soldiers (1997), in which he voiced Brick Bazooka; and Wim Wenders’ Don’t Come Knocking (2005).
He appeared in NBC’s See How They Run (1964), which is considered the first movie made for TV. He also played President Warren G. Harding in the 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House and had a longstanding role on the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless.
Kennedy’s wife, Joan, died in September.