In a career spanning an impressive 55 years, George Kennedy (who died on Sunday at 91) was an always-welcome character actor who lent a solid presence to hundreds of films and television episodes. Early in our mutual heyday, the 1960s and ’70s, his roles ranged from the psychotic Herman Scobie in Stanley Donen’s Hitchcock pastiche, Charade (1963), to the slow-witted Leo Krause in William Castle’s Robert Bloch-scripted Strait-Jacket (1964), who underwent a graphic, if not very realistic, decapitation. After appearances in Robert Aldrich’s Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte (1964), Otto Preminger’s In Harm’s Way and Henry Hathaway’s The Sons of Katie Elder (both 1965), Kennedy entered sacred ground, working with Aldrich in two BOF favorites: The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), based on the novel by my late friend Elleston Trevor, and The Dirty Dozen (1967).
In fact, although his role in the latter is far from flashy, it’s probably because I’ve seen that seminal (in every sense) classic so many times that when I think of Kennedy, I think of him first as the good-natured Major Max Armbruster, and remember his amused reaction to the Dozen’s shenanigans during the war games. He followed that up with his Oscar-winning supporting role the same year in Cool Hand Luke, a film for which my appreciation has always been dampened by its gloomy ending, and a substantial part in another personal favorite, Bandolero! (1968). But it perhaps goes without saying that despite being omnipresent in Westerns, Kennedy was an odd choice to succeed the charismatic Yul Brynner as Chris in Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), the third in that increasingly desperate quartet.
He found a role of his own—opposite a cumulative cavalcade of stars—as Joe Patroni in Airport (1970) and its sequels, Airport 1975 (1974), Airport ’77 (1977), and The Concorde…Airport 1979 (1979); he was also featured in another high-profile disaster film, Mark Robson’s Earthquake (1974). Sadly, his two big-screen collaborations with Clint Eastwood (after “The Peddler,” a 1962 episode of Rawhide that I’ve never seen) were decidedly lesser efforts, the dreaded Michael Cimino’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and Eastwood’s own disappointing The Eiger Sanction (1975). Other notable credits from that period include the all-star Agatha Christie extravaganza Death on the Nile, with Peter Ustinov unable to hold a candle to Albert Finney in his first of several impersonations of Hercule Poirot, and as General George S. Patton, the object of the exercise in Brass Target (both 1978), featuring Patrick McGoohan.