Charismatic actor George Kennedy won an Oscar as best supporting actor and was nominated for the Golden Globe for his role in the great action drama Cool Hand Luke by Stuart Rosenberg

George Kennedy – Spitfire, Hero and Clown

Career of George Kennedy, charismatic actor who won an Oscar as best supporting actor and nominated for the Golden Globe in the crime drama Cool Hand Luke by Stuart Rosenberg, lasted more than half a century. Roughly we can divide his career in three segments according to the type of roles he played and based on three particular roles that defined his acting habitus.One of them is the typical role of a spitfire and aggressive man such as the role of the rough Dragline in the above mentioned Cool Hand Luke. Kennedy portrays the burly leader of prisoners, a man resembling a bear who confronts the lonely and tragic anti-hero from the film’s title, portrayed by Paul Newman in if not one of his best roles then certainly in one of his most emblematic ones. Rosenberg’s best work is simultaneously a beautiful and cruel, humorous and tragic, entertaining and deeply disturbing film. It is a counterculture milestone film from the 1960’s and an adaptation of Donn Pearce’s novel set in a time after an undefined war, possibly Korean, which ensures it a certain universality or rather timelessness. This film still functions well as a provocative study of non-conformity as well as multi-layered study of the character of a stubborn loner who resists authority and establishment, which, at the current moment of growing, practically global opposition to establishment, ensures it additional attractiveness. Newman plays the honored war hero Lucas Jackson who ends up in prison where he comes into conflict not just with the seemingly mild but in fact sadistic prison warden Captain (excellent Strother Martin), as well as a group of prisoners led by the fantastic George Kennedy. In the context of opposition to establishment, the end of the 1960’s was a time similar to today; resistance to governments and all kinds of authorities was flourishing on all sides. However, this resistance had a different or even diametrically opposite ideological character – leftist, individualistic and existential in comparison to today’s right-wing, collectivistic and populistic. Cool Hand Luke became perhaps the most important celluloid reflection of these social movements. Even though at a first glance there seem to be some crucial differences between today and then, because for example Captain says at one moment “what we have here… is a lack of communication”, today it seems to us that thanks to the internet and social media communication has never been more outspread and richer. Nevertheless, at a more careful examination it becomes evident that, in spite of formal technological development and potential, communication in today’s “sub-factual reality” becomes pronouncedly unilateral, monocentric and more than ever susceptible to manipulation and as such only apparently rich and outspread. The film owes its authenticity and everlasting intrigue to the fact that the novel the film’s screenplay by writers Donn Pearce and Frank Pearson is based on, Pearce wrote inspired by his own experience as former inmate and the fact that Jackson’s character was based on the real safe burglar by the name of Donald Graham Garrison. Originally Telly Savalas was supposed to play the leading role and Bette Davis Jackson’s mother, but finally the antihero was masterfully portrayed by Newman and the mother by the excellent Jo Van Fleet. Even though the interpretation of Lucas Jackson is the contemporary metaphor for Christ or a Messianic figure may be exaggerated, certain religious interpretations, symbolism and references of the story about a peculiar outsider who ends tragically in an attempt to transform a group of inmates cannot be denied.

The second typical role for George Kennedy is the hero such as in the action thriller drama Airport by George Seaton and the unaccredited Henry Hathaway, adapted from the widely popular, even in these parts, novel by Arthur Haley. It is a disaster film in which Kennedy plays the aviation expert Joe Petroni. It is not a film of great quality but it owes its attractiveness to the great acting crew led by Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin, in which Kennedy portrays a calm professional and an ordinary man who turns out to be a hero thanks to an unfortunate set of circumstances. One decade before that, Kennedy was partner to the above mentioned Bette Davis in the successful horror drama from 1964 Hush…Hush, Sweet Charlotte by Robert Aldrich, with which the director tried to repeat his success with the master piece What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? from 1962. Even though he did not succeed in his attempt, the film was also based Henry Farrell’s novel and starring an old friend of Bette Davis Olivia de Havilland, who jumped in after Joan Crawford declined the role due to illness and prior dissatisfaction with working with Bette Davis in Baby Jane. The film is characterized by strong female roles (Agnes Moorehead who won the Golden Globe and was nominated for an Oscar and Olivia de Havilland), impressive photography by Joseph F. Biroc (It’s A Wonderful Life), Bette Davis’s tendency to overact and a certain campy feel to it thanks to several shocking scenes already in the prologue (cutting off of a head and dismemberment of a body).

Finally, the third typical role for George Kennedy was the one in comedies, partly of a clown. He is well known to the fans of the film and TV series Naked Gun in which he portrayed captain Ed Hocken, the not very bright sidekick of the equally dumb lieutenant Frank Drebin. In the last part of his career and life Kennedy acted mostly in comedies and appeared predominantly in comical roles, from westerns (Three Bad Men, The Man Who Came Back, Mad Mad Wagon Party) action dramas (Six Days in Paradise) to musical dramas (Don´t Come Knocking by Wim Wenders), while film lovers remember him for his roles Charade by Stanley Donen, Dirty Dozen, Thubderbolt And Lightfoot and The Eiger sanction in which he joined forces with Clint Eastwood, as well as in the somewhat underestimated Lost Horizon by Charles Jarrott. He is known for his ability to suggestively portray most diverse characters as well as making them convincing, full of life, believable and acceptable. (Josip Grozdanić)