George Kennedy and Paul Newman in ‘Cool Hand Luke’ (Warner Bros.)
By Carmel Dagan
George Kennedy, who won a supporting actor Oscar for his role alongside Paul Newman in the beloved film Cool Hand Luke, and was also a fixture of 1970s disaster movies including the Airport franchise and Earthquake, died Sunday in Boise, Idaho. He was 91. His grandson Cory Schenkel reported the death on his Facebook page.
While Kennedy largely played gruff, blue-collar characters in dramas and genre films, he allowed a comedic side to emerge in the deadpan The Naked Gun movies.
Kennedy appeared in all four of the Airport movies of the 1970s as Joe Patroni, the reluctant, cigar-chomping but highly effective chief mechanic who could be counted upon when the chips were down and supreme expertise was required. He also turned in a powerful performance in 1975’s Earthquake as the hearty, sentimental police sergeant Slade, who helps where he can in the wake of the devastating temblor.
Kennedy toiled in the TV trenches for much of the 1960s, especially guesting on Westerns — and occasionally appearing in supporting roles in high-profile films such as In Harm’s Way, The Sons of Katie Elder, The Flight of the Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen.
He finally burst into the public consciousness with his 1967 role as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke, in which he was second-billed and held his own alongside star Paul Newman. The New York Times said: “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.”
Watch Kennedy take on Paul Newman in ‘Cool Hand Luke’:
During the 1970s he made two attempts at starring in his own television series: 1971’s brief Sarge, in which he played a priest with a police background, and 1975’s The Blue Knight, an adaptation of the Joseph Wambaugh novel and subsequent TV movie in which he played a Los Angeles beat cop.
Other notable film credits during the 1970s included Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot; The Eiger Sanction; and Agatha Christie period mystery Death on the Nile, in which he was gruff as always but in this case exceptionally well groomed. He worked steadily in the 1980s but made an impression only in the 1988 deadpan police comedy The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! and its sequels.
Watch a scene from ‘Naked Gun’:
He recurred on primetime soap Dallas as rancher Carter McKay from 1988-91 and appeared in the reunion telepics Dallas: J.R. Returns (1996) and Dallas: War of the Ewings (1998).
Most recently he appeared in the 2014 crime drama remake The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg.
Kennedy was born in New York City to parents in show business. He first appeared onstage at the age of two, but later he would spend 16 years in the U.S. Army, ultimately working for Armed Forces Radio. He participated in the opening of the Army Information Office, which provided technical advice to the entertainment industry. A role as technical adviser to The Phil Silvers Show led to his early career in television.
Watch Kennedy receive his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for ‘Cool Hand Luke’:
The actor also wrote books: murder mysteries Murder on Location, published in 1983, and Murder on High, released in 1984. His autobiography, Trust Me, was published in 2011.
Kennedy was married four times, the first time to Dorothy Gillooly in the 1940s, the second (and third) time to Norma Wurman.
He is survived by fourth wife Joan McCarthy and two children from Wurman.