Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Disastrous Demise: George Kennedy 1925-2016

The Underworld felt a slight tremor the other day when one of our beloved 1970s-disaster-movie iconic veterans was taken from us. George Kennedy was one of the kings of the genre, though his career went far beyond that, providing a versatility that not everyone realized. He also had the distinction of appearing in an avalanche of movies whose classic camp value cannot be overstated.

Starting his on-screen acting career on television in 1959, he soon won supporting roles in feature films such as Lonely Are the Brave (1962) and Charade (1963.) In 1964, he worked successfully with both Bette Davis in Hush, Hush...Sweet Charlotte and Joan Crawford in Strait-Jacket (as seen here), which ought to have indicated that he'd be a Hollywood survivor!
Always busy from then on, he scored one of his best parts in the captivating prison yarn Cool Hand Luke (1967), playing opposite Paul Newman. The brawny, brawling role fit him to a tee and resulted in an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. (A Golden Globe nomination resulted in a loss to Richard Attenborough for Doctor Dolittle!)
Two years prior, he'd taken part in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), a plane crash drama with an all-star cast of excellent male actors. This was the precursor to a career that would involve more than a few exploits concerning aircraft in peril.
In 1970, Kennedy was part of the sprawling, all-star cast of Airport, which wove several story threads into one climactic moment involving a blocked runway and a bomb-damaged passenger jet. Kennedy was nominated for a Golden Globe as the cigar-chomping Joe Patroni (losing to John Mills in Ryan's Daughter) and thereafter appeared in the blockbuster's three subsequent sequels.
In Airport 1975 (1974), he again appeared alongside a mammoth cast of performers in jeopardy, this time due to a midair collision between a private plane and a large passenger jet. I couldn't resist sharing this shot of Kennedy amidst several of the movie's ladies: Nancy Olson, Martha Scott, Augusta Summerfield (aka Linda Harrison) and Miss Myrna Loy.
He took time out from terror in the sky to take on the rumblings of a massive Earthquake (1974) with his Airport 1975 costar Charlton Heston and another raft of actors in trauma. Each one of these disaster flicks was a box office champ of one degree or another.
For the inevitable third Airport movie, Airport '77 (1977), he was mostly relegated to the sideline, holding a fretful James Stewart's hand as the multimillionaire considered the fate of his daughter and grandson, trapped with a large handful of others in a private jet at the bottom of the ocean in The Bermuda Triangle! The expanded TV version of this movie gave him somewhat more to do and even brought back his son from the prior installment. Kennedy had previously appeared in four of Stewart's movies. 
By the time of the fourth and last of the series, the utterly preposterous The Concorde... Airport '79 (1979), he was promoted to a leading role as pilot of the title vessel which is in constant danger of being blown to bits by a selfish business magnate whose onboard girlfriend has information that could ruin him.
If you thought that Concorde marked the end of Kennedy's sojourns into airplane drama, think again. He later appeared in the TV-movie International Airport (1985), which starred Gil Gerard and also included Susan Oliver as Kennedy's wife along with Concorde costar Susan Blakely, to name only a few.
Another favorite film with an all-star cast that included Kennedy was 1978's Agatha Christie mystery Death on the Nile, which reunited him with Bette Davis, this time as a costar of hers rather than in a bit part.
Kennedy also appeared in favorite disasters of another type, such as the deliciously, deliriously bad Hurry Sundown (1967), an overheated racial drama with yet another galaxy of major names.
And who could forget the captivatingly rotten musical Lost Horizon (1973), in which a plane he was on crashed (it was ever dangerous to fly with or near this man!) in the Himalayas where its survivors were rescued by members of an idyllic hidden society.
In 1988, he followed many other once-serious actors of the 1950s, '60s & '70s who'd found a new home in zany comedies such as Airplane! (1980) when he joined Leslie Nielsen in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad and its two sequels. As late as 2014, the stalwart actor was still appearing before the camera.
Mr. Kennedy, who'd been in an assisted living facility and had suffered from heart trouble and lung cancer, passed away on the morning of Sunday, February 28th. He was ninety-one.


joel65913 said...

Nice tribute to someone who truly defined the term journeyman actor. I realize that he was elderly now but because of his bulk and fair hair he always seemed older to me, especially in black & white films where his hair appeared white. I was shocked therefore to realize he was in his late 30's/early 40's when he hit his first big success.

He was most definitely a linchpin of disaster movies throughout the years. They served him well and he did the same for them.

GlenH said...

Somehow he always seemed to have been born 45 years old and never got older! RIP George, an actor who alway turned in a good performance, even in a bad flick...

EricSwede said...

He'll always be Petroni to me. Here's Kennedy on the NBC comedy "Wings" referencing the Airport movies, it's right at the beginning of the episode-after the commercial.

Gingerguy said...

No matter how ridiculous the film, he was always good in it and believable. It was reassuring to see him in a disaster movie. I love the picture of him handing the axe to Joan (he should be handing it to Christina) and of course the riveting "Lost Horizon" what a survivor! I was just watching "Charade" the other night when I read that he passed. Nice post Poseidon, thanks.

Poseidon3 said...

Hi all! Thanks for reflecting upon this mini-photo essay and about George's career contributions. Even with an Oscar under his belt, I think he was an underrated actor. He was just very accessible and represented the everyman (husky, burly ones in particular) so well. Even in schlock like "Earthquake" (and I say that with all due love for it!), he could bring everything from sarcasm to outrage to tenderness and excel at it! Watch closely next time if you are reading this and happen to doubt me.

David Brum said...

George Kennedy once hosted Saturday Night Live in the early 1980s. Those were lean years for SNL, but I clearly remember the hilarious disaster movie spoof (that was perfect for him) called 'Escalator' ...in which the title conveyance stopped working and Petroni was called in to help the stranded riders!