George Kennedy, Oscar Winner for 'Cool Hand Luke,' Dies at 91

George Kennedy in 'Cool Hand Luke.'
Courtesy of Photofest

The burly actor played bad guys in such films as 'Charade' and 'Thunderbolt & Lightfoot' before memorably playing against type in the 'Naked Gun' movies.

George Kennedy, a bear of a man who won an Oscar for his performance as the sadistic chain gang prisoner Dragline in Cool Hand Luke and delighted audiences as a dimwitted police captain in the zany Naked Gun comedies, has died. He was 91.

Kennedy died Sunday morning of natural causes in Boise, Idaho, his grandson, Cory Schenkel, confirmed to The Hollywood Reporter. "He was a great man who loved his family and his fans," he said.

Until his recognition in Cool Hand Luke (1967), Kennedy was usually cast as a tough guy. Following his Oscar win for best supporting actor, he went on to star in The Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) and received second billing in such films as The Good Guys and the Bad Guys (1969) with Robert Mitchum; Dirty Dingus Magee (1970) with Frank Sinatra; Fools' Parade (1971) with James Stewart; and The Eiger Sanction (1975) with Clint Eastwood, a frequent co-star.

A former Army career soldier, Kennedy played a series of heavies in the movies. He attacked Cary Grant with a steel claw in Stanley Donen's Charade (1963), pursued Joan Crawford with an ax in Strait-Jacket (1964), attempted to assassinate Gregory Peck in Mirage (1965) and kicked Jeff Bridges to death in Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (1974).

The 6-foot-4, barrel-chested New Yorker also appeared as airplane mechanic Joe Patroni in the star-studded disaster thriller Airport (1970) and its three sequels.

Along with Leslie Nielsen, another actor with a straight-arrow reputation, Kennedy played comically against type as Captain Ed Hocken (replacing Alan North from the TV show) in the antic Jim Abrahams/Zucker brothers spoofs The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988), The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and The Naked Gun 33⅓: The Final Insult (1994).

On television, the sandy-haired Irish-American starred in two short-lived series in the 1970s — as a homicide detective turned priest in NBC's Sarge and as L.A. beat cop Bumper Morgan on CBS' The Blue Knight, based on the Joseph Wambaugh best-seller. He also played Ewing family nemesis Carter McKay from 1988-91 on the CBS primetime soap Dallas.

Recently, Big George appeared in the films Another Happy Day (2011) and Mark Wahlberg's The Gambler (2014).

George Kennedy Jr. was born Feb. 18, 1925, in New York City. His father was a pianist and a composer/conductor at the Proctor's Theater in Manhattan, and his mother danced with vaudeville's Le Ballet Classique. He made his acting debut at age 2 in a touring company of Bringing Up Father, traveling with the show for two years, and later voiced children's radio shows.

Following high school graduation, Kennedy enlisted in the Army in 1943 with the hope of becoming a pilot in the Army Air Corps. He wound up in the infantry, served under Gen. George Patton and distinguished himself with his valor: He won two Bronze Stars and four rows of combat and service ribbons. After World War II, a bizarre medical condition — his left leg was shorter than his right by 3 inches — left him in traction for two years.

(Kennedy would later play Patton, the target of an assassination plot, in 1978's Brass Target opposite Sophia Loren, John Cassavetes and Robert Vaughn.)

In the mid-1950s after re-enlisting, Kennedy worked in Armed Forces Radio and Television, and that got him a job in New York as technical adviser (and a few uncredited appearances) on the army-camp comedy Sgt. Bilko. Watching Phil Silvers and show creator Ned Hiken work whetted his appetite for acting. Additional good fortune arrived when the production company's secretary referred him to a chiropractor who alleviated his leg and back problems.

With 30 percent disability after 15 years of service, Kennedy moved to Hollywood in 1959 and played an array of toughs who could go up against such stars of TV Westerns as 6-foot-7 James Arness in Gunsmoke, 6-foot-6 Clint Walker in Cheyenne and 6-foot-6 Chuck Connors in The Rifleman.

"The big guys were on TV and they needed big lumps to eat up," Kennedy said in a 1971 interview. "All I had to do was show up on the set, and I got beaten up."

Of course, he fought Paul Newman early on in Stuart Rosenberg's drama Cool Hand Luke as Dragline, the leader of the prisoners who gives Newman's character his nickname.

"The marvelous thing about that movie," Kennedy recalled in a 1978 interview, "was that as my part progresses, I changed from a bad guy to a good guy. The moguls in Hollywood must have said, ‘Hey, this fellow can do something besides be a bad guy.' "

Kennedy's vast body of work also includes Spartacus (1960); Lonely Are the Brave (1962); the John Wayne classic The Sons of Katie Elder (1965); The Dirty Dozen (1967); The Boston Strangler (1968); Earthquake (1974); Death on the Nile (1978), Albert Brooks' Modern Romance (1981), in which he played himself as the star of an atrocious sci-fi film; Bolero (1984) opposite Bo Derek; Small Soldiers (1997), in which he voiced Brick Bazooka; and Wim Wenders' Don't Come Knocking (2005).

He appeared in NBC's See How They Run (1964), which is considered the first movie made for TV. He also played President Warren G. Harding in the 1979 miniseries Backstairs at the White House and had a long-standing role on the CBS soap opera The Young and the Restless.

Kennedy's wife, Joan, died in September.

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