The most somber moment of any Academy Awards telecast is the “In Memoriam” segment, wherein the names and faces of Hollywood professionals who passed away during the previous year are honored one final time. 2016 was an especially rough year, with iconic names like Wes Craven, Leonard Nimoy, Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee and more counted among those whose like we won’t see again.
Now, only a day later, we know at least one name to be counted at next year’s presentation: legendary actor George Kennedy has passed away at 91.
The imposing yet outwardly warm-hearted star was one of Hollywood’s great working performers, among the rare breed of actor who could segue comfortably between leading roles opposite some of the biggest and most glamorous celebrities of his day and character parts that placed him among large ensembles. A burly figure with a face that practically shouted authenticity and lived experience, Kennedy was a 16-year veteran of the United States Armed Forces who first came to show business through work with the Army Information Office, which advised film and television productions on technical matters when portraying events set in and around the military.
His associations with the entertainment industry led to a slew of regular television work in the 1960s and guest-starring spots in features films as well. With his distinctive deep voice and tough-guy persona, he was frequently called upon for roles as soldiers, cowboys, and cops in films like Flight of The Phoenix and The Dirty Dozen. His star-making turn was in 1967, when he played Paul Newman’s co-star and antagonist in the prison-gang drama Cool Hand Luke — for which he received an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role.
Major roles in films frequently featuring large casts and big spectacle followed, most famously the four Airport features, which cast Kennedy as a gruff but highly skilled chief mechanic whose expertise under pressure played a key role in thwarting each successive aviation disaster. He also turned up in another disaster epic, Earthquake, which saw him as an ordinary police sergeant trying to aid survivors of a devastating seismic event that leveled much of Los Angeles. The actor also racked up diverse credits, including an adaptation of Death on The Nile and the offbeat Clint Eastwood-starring action-adventure The Eiger Sanction. In the 1980s and 90s, he became a popular regular on the hit prime-time soap opera Dallas.
Kennedy was also one of several older “serious” character actors to find surprising career second-winds later in life in comedies. Though post-70s Hollywood gradually found itself creating fewer and fewer roles that called for the kind of everyman gravitas actors like him excelled at, Kennedy was discovered to possess a fundamental sense of comic-timing whereby combining subtle notes of absurdist humor with the stern, matter-of-fact delivery he’d once employed in straight dramas led to hilarious results. He put this newfound skill set to use opposite fellow ex-leading man Leslie Neilsen (whose career from drama to comedy had followed a near-identical path) in the three smash-hit Naked Gun comedies, which are likely the films younger viewers and fans most remember him from.
Kennedy is survived by his fourth wife and two children from a previous marriage.
R.I.P. George Kennedy: February 18, 1925 – February 28, 2016