This week, and we’ve had a seemingly endless spate of them, has seen another well-known, admired, and beloved actor of TV and film leave this mortal coil. I literally grew up watching George Kennedy in many a role. At first, via the TV in my grandmother’s living room. Remember distinctly him getting a bad guy beat down in the Cheyenne western series care of big Clint Walker — who along with Kennedy went on to co-star in Robert Aldrich’s insurrectionary war motion picture, The Dirty Dozen, later in ’60s. Clearly, the times were a changin’ on the little screen then.
“But it was the era of big guys. Men Like Jim Arness and Clint Walker needed someone big to beat up in their television series.” ~ George Kennedy
I swear, he was in every television western this side of the Pecos back in the day. Caught them all as a TV-addicted kid during that span, seemingly. And all villains. Stints on grandma favorites like 77 Sunset Strip, Route 66, The Untouchables, even The Andy Griffith Show, at least got him out of the saddle. Certainly enough he’d eventually land a supporting role in Stanley Donen’s Charade (1963) film. Scaring the bejesus out of my favorite Hepburn (Audrey), along with giving Cary Grant what-for with that prosthetic hand hook of his.
Even so, the character actor really gained attention when he starred opposite the idol all of my aunts (even mom) regularly swooned over, Paul Newman, in Cool Hand Luke (1967). The role that elevated Mr. Kennedy beyond anything he’d accomplished across TV (McHale’s Navy, Bonanza, Gunsmoke) or movies (Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte, In Harm’s Way, The Flight of the Phoenix) that decade. Highlighting that mug of his, and a distinct personality you couldn’t miss. “Dragline” not only unforgettable as a tough fan of Luke’s, but we with him as an actor.
As much as this role brought him stardom, like Cat Ballou (1965) showed a heroic light upon veteran western baddie Lee Marvin, his calling still lay with supporting roles. Even if he took on the occasional movie lead — George would heft Yul Brynner’s iconic “Chris” from The Magnificent Seven in its second sequel, The Guns of…, on his broad shoulders, and excel in the undervalued The ‘Human’ Factor — only TV put him up front with any regularity. Cinematically, much as Dudley Smith explained years later to his subordinate Bud White in L.A. Confidential:
“Your talents lay elsewhere, Wendel.”
Hence, the ’70s was where you’d constantly find George Kennedy. The “elsewhere” in this case, the many characters where a gruff exterior hid a passionate soul. Like aircraft engineer Joe Patroni’s from Airport (1970) and later sequels. Even the burly sourpuss LAPD sergeant Slade would anchor the biggest local disaster (and patiently deal with Charlton Heston) in Earthquake. He was almost ubiquitous, and continuously second fiddle. Still, the most relatable guy up on the screen…standing right next to the film’s over-the-title-star.
Holding his own in every scene no matter if it was the likes of Burt Lancaster, Peter Finch, Peter Ustinov, or hell, even John Wayne right there with him. During the most robust portion of a decades-long career, this turbulent era Kennedy’s height. And he played it with a delightful twinkle in his eye. Surprised no one when he’d walk on — you just knew he’d steal the audience’s eye with either brusque charm, or that steely “What the f*ck are you looking at?” gaze. Only Strother Martin (his Cool Hand Luke co-star) could pull off a similar dimension ahead of him.
It’s this reason two of George Kennedy’s “Seventies” stints stood out, and sure as shootin’ came to mind when the passing of the Oscar-winning 91-year old came to light on the first of March. They’d involve the biggest movie box office star of the period, two up-and-coming directors (one ironically that same leading man), and released a year apart. Both character roles, while divergent, displayed the qualities already touched upon. [spoilers ahead] Whether or not they survived to the end of the movie, each stayed with you long after the curtain came down.
Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974)
Clint Eastwood had already crested the field by the time the ’70s rolled to its midpoint. Be it westerns, war, or even a musical, he’d seemingly done it all to this point. An unexpected “buddy” movie involving a Korean War vet, bank robbery, and a young con man, helmed by screenwriter Michael Cimino (who owned the rights), surprised everyone. Thunderbolt and Lightfoot teamed a boyish Jeff Bridges with Eastwood in an exciting, ultimately touching heist film. Naturally, they drew most of the attention. If you think about it, most were character actors (leads included) filling out the cast1.
Even in a film brimming with eccentric (some batsh*t crazy like Bill McKinney in his cameo) roles, George Kennedy still made a mark as the violent, strangely personable Red Leary in the production. The former bank robber on the lookout for Eastwood’s “Thunderbolt”, who he thinks betrayed him in a heist gone wrong years earlier. To say he’s held a grudge would be an understatement, even as they agree to re-team. That he has a code, attempting (of all things) to beat Eastwood in a standup fight is commendable, but Kennedy’s Red maintains a viciousness that remains palpable throughout the film.
Even if darkly funny on occasion:
Yeah, it’s the same type of humorously menacing role we’ve seen countless times in the last decade or two onscreen. But if today’s audiences want to know whom to credit for its initial depiction, look no further than this role. Even if Thunderbolt initially hands him his ass at the start, only someone as venal like this will simply bide his time before he erupts. Hopefully, you’re not in the way when it happens. A smash-mouth couth that lulls everyone around him with his quirks, whether he realizes it or not, distracting those into a false sense of security.
It’s George Kennedy as his malicious best.
The Eiger Sanction (1975)
Given how great the Eastwood-Kennedy pairing came off2 in the above film, no surprise another follow-up of the two former Rawhide actors (Clint a series regular, George a guest appearance in the ’62 “The Peddler” episode) would come about. And George had earned his prominent second-billing for The Eiger Sanction, what with The Blue Knight series returning to TV that May, he assuming William Holden’s former role. Kennedy moved across both the small or big screen without a hitch. This time, in the fourth feature film Clint ever directed, where he’d portray author Trevanian’s Jonathan Hemlock character.
A fine arts college professor who so happens to be a former alpine climber, and a retired assassin of a clandestine government agency. Don’t roll your eyes. Hey, it was the ’70s. Extorted by his former employer when they steal his art collection, Hemlock agrees to one more “sanction.” Find and eliminate the killer of a former colleague, who’ll be attempting a climb of the one mountain he’s failed at…the Eiger. An unconventional thriller so typical for this era, but made that much diverting by George Kennedy’s presence. The man’s natural jocularity, which provided the main byplay with the lead as a former climbing buddy, shined through.
His Ben Bowman a standout among the stellar support of vets Jack Cassidy, David Thayer, and Eastwood regular, the late-Gregory Walcott, backing the production. No mean task, and just the same Kennedy delivered the most-liked persona out of the entire brood of morally questionable individuals. No doubt, this screen adaptation of the dour novel thriller was given a boost with the Kennedy treatment of Bowman’s wry demeanor, even if his motives become ever more darkly apparent by the tale’s end.
It spoke to the range of acting among the “character” legends of the trade, which George clearly was, along with the others here. They offer us “the part”, and we the audience, buy it whole by their sheer salesmanship. We’re already yearning for a more mundane character to believe in than the impossibly heroic lead, anyway. Especially, if troubled3 like everyone else is, only with a personality we wish we had. That’s George Kennedy in the Big Ben Bowman role. Amiably whipping Clint’s Hemlock back into shape, while secretly his adversary. Yet, more Hemlock’s friend than any of his so-called associates helping him out.
Few could pull the balancing act off nearly as well, or so effortlessly, as this brawny actor did…and we’ll miss him greatly for all the roles like these he made so indelible.
- Another Eastwood-regular, the great Geoffrey Lewis (also father to Juliette Lewis and who passed away last year) starred as Red’s sidekick, Eddie Goody, and made quite the impression. ↩
- The Eiger-director-superstar primarily cast George Kennedy because of the friendship they had formed on their previous work in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot. ↩
- “In this movie, George Kennedy has a daughter who had been a drug user. In real life, George’s daughter Shaunna was a chronic drug offender. George adopted Shaunna’s daughter Taylor in March 2000 when Shaunna was declared an unfit mother.” ~ IMDB ↩