George Gaynes was born in Helsinki, Finland — a somewhat unlikely birthplace for a Hollywood actor — in 1917, months before Finland became an independent nation during World War I. He had a long and varied career that included everything from roles in stage musicals to soap operas. But he was probably best known for his role as Commandant Eric Lassard in all seven Police Academy films, and, to an entire generation of television fans, as Punky Brewster’s foster father Henry Warnimont.
Born May 16, 1917, with the given name George Jongejans, Gaynes served in the Royal Navy during World War II. Gaynes’ career began when he sang opera in the 1940s and continued on stage and screen for seven decades, but he earned perhaps his greatest fame in his 60s when, starting in 1984, he joined the Police Academy series and as the elderly widower who took orphaned girl (Soleil Moon-Frye) under his wing on the popular 1984-1986 sitcom Punky Brewster.
Today, Variety reports that Gaynes has passed away earlier this week at the age of 98.
While Police Academy and Punky Brewster were likely the roles that garnered him lasting recognition, Gaynes had other brushes with minor but durable fame over the years. He continued his stage career after the war, appearing in the original production of Wonderful Town and My Fair Lady. He made guest appearances on such major 1960s and 1970s TV shows as Bonanza, Mission:Impossible, Columbo, and the Six Million Dollar Man. In the ‘80s, he played a mob boss on General Hospital, during the famous Luke and Laura arc, and had memorable big-screen roles in Tootsie and The Way We Were. While Punky Brewster was on the air, Gaynes also lent his voice to It’s Punky Brewster, the bizarre animated spinoff that largely centered around a “leprechaun gopher” named Glomer. After the Punky Brewster shows, he appeared on such series as The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd and Hearts Afire. His final credited role was the 2003 Ashton Kutcher/Brittany Murphy comedy Just Married.
While Gaynes may not have ever become a household name, his story — from its humble beginnings to the eclectic roles he played, and certainly the sheer longevity of his career — is an undeniably remarkable one.
Gaynes is survived by his wife, actress Allyn Ann McLerie, to whom he’d been married since 1953. He is also survived by a daughter, a granddaughter, and two great-granddaughters. Gaynes also had a son who died in 1989.