The Oscar-winning actor appeared in The Sons of Katie Elder alongside John Wayne.
Sad news for movie fans: George Kennedy, the rugged and reliable character actor who earned an Academy Award for his supporting performance opposite Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, and appeared in westerns alongside such notables as John Wayne and Robert Mitchum, passed away Sunday in Middleton, Idaho, just 10 days after his 91st birthday.
During a film and television career that spanned seven decades, Kennedy demonstrated his versatility playing characters as diverse as Joe Patroni, a doggedly resourceful airline employee, in the drama Airport (1970) and its three sequels, and the hapless Capt. Ed Hocken in the Naked Gun comedy film franchise. He often played violent heavies with tripwire tempers; in 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, for example, he was cast as a humorless brute who beats to death a taunting partner in crime (Jeff Bridges). The same year that film was released, however, he also played a heroic police sergeant who organizes rescue efforts in Earthquake.
As The Hollywood Reporter noted in an admiring obituary, Kennedy earned his spurs as a guest star in several prime-time shoot-'em-ups in the 1950s and '60s. He played “an array of toughs who could go up against such stars of TV westerns as 6-foot-7 James Arness in Gunsmoke, 6-foot-6 Clint Walker in Cheyenne and 6-foot-6 Chuck Connors in The Rifleman. ‘The big guys were on TV and they needed big lumps to eat up,’ Kennedy said in a 1971 interview. ‘All I had to do was show up on the set, and I got beaten up.’”
After moving on to the big screen, Kennedy made a major impact as a hired gun whose pronounced lisp somehow made him sound all the more menacing as he tangled with John Wayne and Dean Martin in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). He later worked with Martin in Bandolero! (1968) and The Duke in Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973).
Kennedy’s other western movie credits include The Ballad of Josie (1967), a comedy for which he received third billing after Doris Day and Peter Graves; The Good Guys and The Bad Guys (1969), which cast him opposite Robert Mitchum; Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), a sequel in which he assumed the lead role originally played by Yul Brynner; and Dirty Dingus Magee (1970), a tongue-in-cheek romp starring Frank Sinatra.