“Your career is like a step ladder. As long as you don’t miss any of the rungs, and as long as you don’t take any of the rungs for granted, you will go from one rung to the other.” –George Kennedy

Prolific character actor George Kennedy died earlier this week of natural causes at the age of 91. He enjoyed an acting career for a whopping 58 years, and appeared in over two hundred film and TV productions. His most notable achievement was winning an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in Cool Hand Luke opposite Paul Newman.

Kennedy’s first career, however, was as a soldier. He enlisted in the Army during World War II, serving under General George Patton; his career in the military lasted 16 years. As fate would have it, an injury affecting his legs and back changed the direction of his life. He found work as a military consultant on the television sitcom The Phil Silvers Show which he said proved to be “a great training ground” in the entertainment industry. His first screen role was playing a military advisor on the show, and this launched Kennedy’s career as a character actor. With a robust six-foot, four-inch frame, Kennedy often played no-nonsense tough guys. One of his first film roles was playing a slave in Spartacus. See him here as the last close-up of a slave shouting, “I’m Spartacus!”

Examples of Kennedy’s thuggish roles include Stanley Donen’s Charade, in which he attacked Audrey Hepburn and Cary Grant’s characters with a steel claw. Similarly, in Strait-Jacket he chased after Joan Crawford’s character with an ax. And he tried to assassinate Gregory Peck’s character in Mirage. Kennedy once described his ruffian roles in an interview this way: “The big guys were on TV and they needed big lumps to eat up. All I had to do was show up on the set, and I got beaten up.” Ironically, all of this on-screen bullying stood in stark contrast to the reputation he had off-screen as one of the nicest actors in the business.

But things changed when George received an Oscar for his performance as the chain gang prisoner, Dragline, in Cool Hand Luke in 1967. Kennedy said the roles he was then offered also included good-guy parts. In a 1978 interview he reflected, “The marvelous thing about that movie was that as my part progresses, I changed from a bad guy to a good guy. The moguls in Hollywood must have said, ‘Hey, this fellow can do something besides be a bad guy.'” He often went on to play dependable sidekick roles as well.

Kennedy is known for his performances as Police Captain Ed Hocken in the comedy Naked Gun film series; Joe Patroni in the Airport films; and the oil tycoon Carter McKay in the long running CBS drama Dallas. His last appearance in a film was in 2014 in The Gambler playing the dying grandfather of Mark Wahlberg’s character, Jim Bennett.

Those who knew him best describe George Kennedy as generous and kind, well respected in Hollywood, a pleasure to work with, highly professional, and never demanding.

Which of George Kennedy’s roles do you find the most memorable?

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