The Good, The Bad & The Badass: George Kennedy
I'm well aware that of the people that read this column, only a fraction of them will know who George Kennedy is. Those that do will probably only know the late actor who passed away this week from playing Captain Ed Hocken in the NAKED GUN trilogy opposite the great Leslie Nielsen and AHEM O.J Simpson. The fact is, Kennedy's big days were before the time of most of our readers. Heck, his salad days were even before mine, as I was born in '81, although my all-consuming (bordering on obsessive) love of classic film has given me a special appreciation for his career.
For a time in the late sixties/seventies, George Kennedy was one of the big go-to character actors. He rarely played leads, but he was very busy. In a way, his stature was similar to that of a guy like Paul Giamatti, in that maybe he wasn't a household name, but he was someone people were always happy to see. Prior to winning an Oscar for his role opposite Paul Newman in COOL HAND LUKE, Kennedy was a prolific film/TV actor, usually playing heavies in movies like the classic CHARADE, where he had a memorable fight with Cary Grant. He also did fine work as a sadistic bully in the film MIRAGE, where he memorably beat the tar out of Gregory Peck.
Those types of parts were his bread and butter thanks to his imposing size, but COOL HAND LUKE changed his image, and during his seventies heyday Kennedy usually played nice guys, with his most popular part being that of Joe Petroni in the AIRPORT movies. It was fitting that Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker put him in THE NAKED GUN as his AIRPORT movies gave them lots of fodder for AIRPLANE. Like Leslie Nielsen, the ZAZ films gave Kennedy's career a second wind. He was so good at sending himself up that his parts got bigger-and-bigger as the series went on. Had O.J not I dunno killed two people the series might have gone on, but alas.
Without a doubt, COOL HAND LUKE is Kennedy's best part and his most enduring work. While THE DIRTY DOZEN is more popular, his part in that one wasn't especially notable, with him not being among the titular dozen, as it was shot before he broke out with LUKE. CHARADE is also a classic, but again it was a small part. But in LUKE, Kennedy is pretty central. In a way, he's actually the lead, with Newman's enigmatic, even Christ-like Luke being a somewhat unknowable figure. By contrast, Kennedy's tough guy, who starts out as Luke's enemy but becomes a kind of apostle-like figure to him by the end, is where the movie's heart is. You wouldn't think a prison flick with fight scenes and a raunchy wet t-shirt bit would be a kind of biblical allegory, but in a way COOL HAND LUKE really is, with Kennedy almost a Judas figure towards the end. It's a complex movie and Kennedy's performance is masterful.
I have to say, I was kind of upset to see George Kennedy show-up in the recent remake of THE GAMBLER. Already ninety and clearly ailing, I felt like his poor health was exploited in his bit part as Wahlberg's dying grandfather. It made me uncomfortable seeing him so sick. I'm sure everyone's intentions were good and Kennedy probably had a ball, but I dunno it rubbed me the wrong way. Anyone else could and probably should have played the part.
While Kennedy mostly played good guys after COOL HAND LUKE, one notable exception is THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT. An atypical Clint Eastwood vehicle, this was actually the movie that allowed director Michael Cimino to go on and make THE DEER HUNTER. By contrast to the epics that defined his later career (for better or worse) THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT is a charming road movie/heist flick. Eastwood plays a con who shows the ropes to a younger guy (Jeff Bridges in an Oscar-nominated part) and gets into a heist with two nasty thugs, the worst of which is played by Kennedy at his sadistic best. This is a nifty little flick, and one that's often overlooked in Eastwood's filmography. It's an off-beat film for everyone involved, but well-worth tracking down.
OK, so this isn't really Kennedy's best scene. When I was putting together this piece, I figured I'd use the car wash part from COOL HAND LUKE or maybe a good gag from THE NAKED GUN. But, that wouldn't give any of you a real example of the kind of figure Kennedy was in his prime. During the seventies, his bread and butter was disaster movies, and he was part of that genre from its very start (AIRPORT) to the bitter end (THE CONCORDE AIRPORT '79). This bit from THE CONCORDE shows what kind of larger-than-life figure Kennedy was, and how much silly fun those movies could be. In this installment of the series, his Joe Petroni has somehow gone from being on the ground crew to being the co-pilot (with French star Alain Delon as the captain) of the titular Concorde's maiden flight. In classic disaster movie fashion, bad guy Robert Wagner wants everyone on board dead, so he sends a fighter plane to shoot them down. Luckily, Kennedy is able to bend the laws of physics numerous times in order to save the day. This is incredibly stupid, but also kinda awesome.
4. THUNDERBOLT & LIGHTFOOT
3. THE NAKED GUN: FROM THE FILES OF POLICE SQUAD
1. COOL HAND LUKE
While a solid appreciation of Kennedy's work probably requires a certain love of big-screen cheese, no one can deny he was a man's man, and a true icon of a certain period of film history. And heck, he was also apparently one hell of a nice guy to boot. Rest in peace sir.