Earlier this month the much loved actor George Kennedy passed away at 91. Born in New York in 1925, he seemed destined to have a career in the arts given that at just 24 months he made his first appearance in a stage play of Bringing up Father.
Because of the onset of military service followed by World War II, Kennedy didn’t make his screen debut until the 1950’s when he appeared on “The Phil Silvers Show.” Interestingly enough, his character was named Sergeant Kennedy! Throughout the 50s he appeared in numerous shows for television, most of them based on the Western genre.
In 1960 he got his break in movies with a small role in Spartacus, and there began a movie career that lasted 54 years. The 60’s were Kennedy’s most important decade as a serious actor; he won the Academy Award for his portrayal of Dragline in the 1967 prison drama classic Cool Hand Luke.
But it was also in the 1960’s when Kennedy ventured into another genre: horror. His first experience was starring in the classic show “Thriller” presented by Boris Karloff; Kennedy’s episode was a take on the classic story of Burke and Hare, the Scotsmen who made a living robbing graves. Kennedy also starred in “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” episode “Misadventure.”
In 1964 he was cast in schlock horror director William Castle’s Strait-Jacket, a movie about axe murderers, and starred alongside Joan Crawford and Lee Majors in his film debut. He had a small role in Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte about a reclusive woman played by none other than Bette Davis who slowly falls into madness amid a family secret. Towards the end of the decade he played a detective in The Boston Strangler; although this movie was more of a thriller than straight horror, it did give Kennedy the opportunity to flesh out his character alongside such talents as Tony Curtis and Henry Fonda.
In the 70s he will be most remembered for the countless number of “disaster” movies that he appeared in, including all four Airport films. But it was arguably in these roles that Kennedy formed his other acting talent which would serve him so well in the 80’s: knowing when not to take everything so seriously.
The 80’s is where a certain generation will always remember Kennedy. The actor seemed to own late night television; he was the typical character you’d see pop up on your television when you were channel hopping. Or when you took your Friday night visit to the VHS store, his name would be big and bold and colorful on the sleeve before you looked at the title and thought, “Hmm.” But you’d take the risk anyway and throw in Robocop just in case. And he starred in many good and bad B-movies, including a Japanese one which in theory could not be considered a B-movie since it cost $16m back in 1980 and had all the ingredients for a classic. Virus had a cast to die for: Glenn Ford, Robert Vaughn, Chuck Connors, Olivia Hussey, Bo Svenson, and Sonny Chiba gave their all. But the film still bombed.
The artwork for Death Ship will be ingrained in anyone who is over 30, and here Kennedy played the captain of a cruise ship which is wrecked at sea. But lucky for him and his passengers, an old ship is waiting for them with terrifying consequences. From ghosts he went to the slasher film, which, in 1981, was at the height of its powers. Just Before Dawn saw Kennedy as a wise forest ranger who warns traveling teens not to go too far into the mountains. But they don’t listen and get picked off one by one by a very menacing, creepy, and clever killer. Indeed this is perhaps one of the best horrors that Kennedy starred in.
His next starring role would be the classic comedy horror spoof Wacko, which saw him as head of a dysfunctional family, and when he wasn’t peeping on his teenage daughter with the classic excuse of “Just mowing the lawn, dear,” he was operating on patients! The bigger budget movies were still there when he was cast in Creepshow 2. He played the old guy who ran the general store in the story “Old Chief Wood’nhead.” Kennedy’s character is robbed and murdered, but his trusty Chief comes to life and exacts revenge.
Demonwarp saw him battling a Bigfoot in the woods; the movie was co-written by John Carl Buechler, who had directed such films as Troll and would go on to direct Friday the 13th Part VII: The New Blood. Nightmare at Noon, originally called Death Street USA, saw him as the sheriff of a local dusty town who finds out that the water has been contaminated and anyone that drinks it will turn into a frenzied zombie. Kennedy’s response is a classic: “I haven’t drunk water in years.” Kennedy is backed up by 80s star Wings Hauser, and Brion James plays the bad guy. You’d be seriously pushed to find a movie with more explosions than this one, and right when the horror dies off, the movie does a U-turn and becomes a Western.
Just when you thought plot lines for Kennedy’s films couldn’t get any more bizarre, we come across The Uninvited. Not to be confused with the Ray Milland classic ghost story, this one is about a mutated killer cat that kills on a yacht where somehow a playboy millionaire parties with a couple of no hope kids. Kennedy plays the millionaire’s right-hand man, and when he gets attacked by the cat, it seems to take half the movie to succumb from the bite.
Roger Corman then cast him in The Terror Within, a horror/sci-fi dystopian movie that is a cross between Alien and Creature from the Black Lagoon. Kennedy and his team must live underground as the radiation from the fallout could kill them, and whilst this movie is classic Corman silly, it’s not all that bad. Hey, they even made a sequel!
For fans who like their B-movies, Kennedy seemed perfect. He could act, of course; his 13-inch Oscar statuette could verify that. But it was because he could act that made him perfect for these movies. He was fun, he was deadpan, and he delivered his lines so well that he probably knew we were all laughing, especially because he kept such a straight face. So let’s toast the man, and if you have a spare 90 minutes and need cheering up, go watch any one of the above titles.