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:
..without making you think he was doing anything at all.
Or letting you forget that he, alone, was George Kennedy.