TYPES? WHO NEEDS TYPES? (George Kennedy, R.I.P.)

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Like all great character actors, including those who never took an acting class, George Kennedy could disappear into an astonishing variety of roles without resorting to any device detectable to the human eye. Like only the very greatest–a Ward Bond, a Harry Morgan, a John Carradine–he could do so without losing or surrendering any part of himself. He didn’t so much disappear into his best roles as make those roles disappear into him.

The only thing that kept him from leaving quite the legacy as the others was the absence of opportunity. He didn’t enter film acting until 1960 (after a sixteen-year stint in the military). He had missed the decade-and-a-half that might have given him a dozen memorable roles in noir or westerns. By the end of the first decade he did play in, the studio system that had given those other men so many chances to stamp themselves on the future had collapsed. Given what little time he had–how much trash and television was bound to infiltrate his resume as the world of the seventies-and-beyond fully emerged–he still left a remarkable legacy.

For my generation, especially the male half, his defining role was bound to be as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke. It’s the kind of performance you only have to see once for it to be burned into the memory forever. Dragline was the very definition of the kind of man you knew you might have to deal with if you ever found yourself in prison or the military, one whose rough respect might actually have been worth earning if, by chance, you measured up.

It’s hard to overemphasize just how rare it is for any actor, let alone one hired solely for support, to embody a character so completely that it’s impossible to imagine anyone else playing him at all, forget as well. Just as a for instance, I can actually imagine others (Harry Morgan, say, or, adjusting for age, John Carradine) replacing Strother Martin in the same movie without putting a hole in its side. If you’ve seen the movie, you can appreciate how hard and rare that is. And I’m not saying I’d prefer anyone to Martin, just that I can comprehend it.

Nobody else could ever be Dragline. That was one case where they didn’t have any choice but to give him an Oscar.

But what’s far more interesting is that Kennedy wasn’t defined even by that.

He gave real menace to the fundamentally comic Audrey Hepburn/Cary Grant thriller Charade, put indelible worry lines on the face of the permanently harried, middle-rank go-between in The Dirty Dozen (where those he had to go between were merely Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine and Robert Ryan), and played the crucial deadpan foil who allowed Leslie Nielsen’s comic genius in The Naked Gun movies to flourish without ever suggesting his own indispensability to anyone who wasn’t prepared to think longer and harder about it than he ever would.

In other words, he could do this:

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or this…

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..without making you think he was doing anything at all.

Or letting you forget that he, alone, was George Kennedy.

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6 thoughts on “TYPES? WHO NEEDS TYPES? (George Kennedy, R.I.P.)

  1. It’s been so long since I saw COOL HAND LUKE—just placed a hold on a copy with the library. Berni and I have been meaning to do a Paul Newman retrospective for some time, as NOBODY’S FOOL is a personal fave of both of ours.

    CHARADE is another fave: I always see the leads (Grant and Hepburn) giving the movie to the support (Mathau and Kennedy and Coburn and the ever under-appreciated Ned Glass).

  2. Yeah, I watched Charade for the umptieth time to get myself in the mood for the piece and it’s remarkable all around. Always thought GK’s presence lent a real edge to the proceedings, like a lit fuse in a room full of dry martinis. In the south, at least in my generation, Cool Hand was just one of those movies you had to know in order to be able to converse with a certain segment of the population…like Lynyrd Skynyrd lyrics!

  3. We just watched COOL HAND LUKE, and it’s been decades since either of us last saw it. What struck us this time is how similar Donn Pearce’s story, theme, and Christ-analogies (1965) are to ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST (1962) …

    While George Kennedy was marvelous, Joy Harmon should have won the Oscar for Best Performance by an Actor/Actress in a Carwashing Role!

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