O Captain!: Remembering a few of the forgotten films starring tough guy and gentle giant George Kennedy

By on March 1, 2016

We learned yesterday of veteran character actor George Kennedy’s death at the age of 91, and while he is being remembered for the many memorable major roles that defined his long, storied fifty-years plus career in both film and TV, we thought today we would also highlight a few of the forgotten film titles that many of his obituaries have been overlooking.

For instance, have a look at this wacko clip from Wacko, the 1983 slasher film parody about a lawnmower-pushing, Jack O’ Lantern pumpkin-headed serial killer.

It was directed by Greydon Clark, who also directed Black Shampoo (1976), Satan’s Cheerleaders (1977), the raunchy Joysticks (1983) and quite a few others that we love here at Night Flight HQ.

The plot takes direct aim at the slasher horror sub-genre, and of course, just about everything in the screenplay is played for laughs. The story concerns a woman named Mary Graves who is still troubled by the death of her older sister, murdered on Halloween night thirteen years earlier by the psycho pumpkin-headed dude, who of course, is back in business again.


Kennedy plays it straight here as Mary’s dad, “Mr. Doctor Graves,” in a scene where Mary’s boyfriend — who is named Norman Bates (yep) — does a ventriloquist act with his dead mother (what a psycho!) before Mr. Dr. Graves carves up the turkey.

He’s not the only great name to be found here in the credits — the film boasts an awesome cast of character actors, including Joe Don Baker as “Detective Harbinger” (look it up), Stella Stevens, Julia Duffy, Andrew Dice Clay as a singer named Tony Schlongini, Charles Napier at the Chief of Police and several others you’ll no doubt recognize even if you don’t know their names.

Kennedy also appeared as a henchman in 1988’s Uninvited, another bizarre b-movie from 1988, and another entry written and directed by Greydon Clark. It’s about a mutant killer cat. On a luxury yacht… full of partying cokeheads. Just fucking awesome.

Kennedy — born on February 18, 1925, in New York City, NY — spent sixteen years of his life in the Army, enlisting at age seventeen in 1943. As a WWII veteran he served in the infantry in Europe, where he fought in the Battle of the Bulge, then he re-enlisted after the war, becoming an officer and working with the Armed Forces Radio Network in Frankfurt and Berlin and later in Tokyo and Korea. His final assignment was as the military advisor for TV’s “The Phil Silvers Show.”

After that, he was bitten by the acting bug, and headed to Hollywood, in the late 1950s, where he quickly began to find work.


Charles Bronson And George Kennedy (as “Major Max Armbruster”) in The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Just a partial listing of some of those great character roles of his would have to include the ones he did on classic TV shows like “The Andy Griffith Show,” “Perry Mason,” “Bonanza,” “McHale’s Navy,” “Dr. Kildare,” “Gunsmoke,” “Dallas,” “Wings,” and the long-running soap opera “The Young and the Restless.”

Due to his impressive size — 6’4″ tall, and roughly 230 lbs. in his prime — and with his deep baritone voice, was often cast as an authority figure, and many times he played a character whose named was preceded by the rank of “Captain,” although sometimes he was given an even higher rank that that. He played judges and reverends, doctors and cops — lots of cops: detectives, sergeants and street cops.

He also played a lot of tough guys with nicknames — like Red, Tex, Cotton, Lefty, Curley, Hawk, Slade, Big Buck, Big Lew, Big Frenchy, Big Jim and Big John — and he was great in all of them.

Sometimes it seems as though casting agents simply slotted him into stereotyped antagonist parts in these many TV shows, where he was often playing the gruff, ill-tempered bad guy — particularly in some of our favorite TV and film westerns — but it should be noted that many are saying today that he was reportedly one of the nicest, kindest men in Hollywood.


Kennedy as “Chris” in Guns Of The Magnificent Seven (1969)

During the 1970s, Kennedy starred in two TV series: as a cop-turned-priest (“Father Samuel Cavanaugh” in “Sarge,” a 1971-72 drama; and as an old-school beat cop named “Bumper Morgan” in “The Blue Knight,” a 1975-76 police drama.

He also played President Harding on the 1979 mini-series Backstairs at the White House, and played cattle rancher Carter McKay on the prime-time drama “Dallas” from 1988 to 1991.

One of our favorites was his role as the Sheriff named July in the 1968 film Bandolero!, which also featured Raquel Welch, James Stewart and Dean Martin.

His film work is impressive — just a short list would include his roles in movies like Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Flight of the Phoenix, Charade, In Harm’s Way, The Dirty Dozen, The Boston Strangler, The Eiger Sanction, The Sons of Katie Elder, Death on the Nile, Cahill U.S. Marshal, and Earthquake.


Kennedy (as “Herman Scobie”) attacks Cary Grant in Charade (1963)
Kennedy as TWA airline’s  senior maintenance officer “Captain Joe Patroni” (here with Burt Lancaster) in Airport (1970)

As the 1970s came to an end, Kennedy was also wrapping up a four film run as “Captain Joe Patroni” in The Concorde: Airport ’79, the fourth and final movie in the “Airport” franchise, beginning with the original Airport (1970), which was then followed by Airport 1975 and Airport 1977.

The 80s were truly an interesting decade for Kennedy, though, where he continued to find consistent work that kept his name above the title on many prominent feature films that everyone remembers, but he also had the occasional odd one-off appearance on forgotten TV shows and B-movies, like Wacko.

In Death Ship (1980), his character was yet another one of the many “captain” roles he had — here he plays Captain Ashland, who learns that the mysterious black ship that has suddenly appeared on the open ocean and helping to rescue his shipwrecked cruise ship crew is actually a Nazi torture ship, luring unsuspecting seafaring travelers aboard and then killing them off one by one.


Kennedy as “Captain Ashland” in Death Ship (1980)

That same year (1980), he again starred with the great Strother Martin — one of our absolute favorite character actors, memorable as the prison warden in Cool Hand Luke — in Hotwire, a campy comedy/thriller about car thieves, directed by Frank Q. Dobbs.


Hotwire (1980)

In the movie, one of the last great car chase movies of the late 70s, Kennedy plays a dual role of Farley and Harley Fontenot, one a corrupt Police Chief and the other a hotshot used car lot dude, both living in the same town.

Hotwire had a short theatrical run in Texas before the Paragon Video company released it on VHS in 1984.

Later in the 70s decade he was famously funny as “Captain Ed Hocken” in The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! (1988), the first of the many films he did with Leslie Nielsen (who was memorable as detective Lt. Frank Drebin). We’re pretty sure you’ve probably heard of that one.


Kennedy as “Captain Ed Hocken,” here with Leslie Nielsen, in The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad! (1988)

That very same year, however, Kennedy also appeared in the utterly forgettable Demonwarp, and as you can see in this trailer, he helped a bunch of teenager girls in skimpy outfits fight off a Bigfoot-type schlockmonster.

For sure, however, Kennedy’s break-out role seems to have been his Academy Award-winning turn as the tough fist-fighting convict named “Dragline” who grew to hero-worship Paul Newman’s defiant title character in the 1967 prison flick Cool Hand Luke, a role that Kennedy thought he originally had no chance of getting once he read the script, telling his agent, “They’re not going to give me this role. I’m one of those third-guy-through-the-door bad guys.”

Kennedy screen-tested through the roof and was given the part, of course, which went on to earn him the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, awarded at a ceremony in Santa Monica in April 1968, and he will forever be remembered for the movie’s many, many memorable scenes, like the one where he serves as Paul Newman’s character Luke’s “trainer and official egg peeler” for the scene in which Luke eats fifty hard-boiled eggs in an hour, based on a bet Dragline makes with pretty much every one of the rest of the road gang prisoners.


Kennedy as “Dragline” feeding eggs to his “boy” Cool Hand Luke (1967)

We also loved this scene — Dragline and the rest of the road gang are forced to watch a sexy blond temptress, the warden’s daughter, as she soaps herself up while washing her car.

As you see here, Kennedy’s character says “Hey Lord, whatever I done, don’t strike me blind for another couple of minutes. My Lucille!…That’s Lucille, you mother-head. Anything so innocent and built like that just gotta be named Lucille.”

The amazing thing about this scene is that voluptuous actress Joy Harmon was hired for a half day’s work to get shots of her character washing the car, but the actors playing the convicts were not present that day. Kennedy, in an interview with TCM, said it took three days, not half a day, to get the shots:

“Somewhere in this world, there is about 86,000 feet of that girl washing that car,” he joked. Kennedy also noted that when the time came for the actors to play the reverse shots of the convicts working in a ditch and being driven crazy by the sight of the sexy car wash, director Stuart Rosenberg didn’t use Harmon. Instead, he substituted a teenage cheerleader fully dressed in an overcoat. “It took a lot of imagination,”Kennedy wryly commented.

“Winning that [Oscar] was the highlight single moment of my life,” he would later said in the 2003 interview with The Tennessean, providing those of us who love Cool Hand Luke with some of our favorite all-time movie highlights.


We also loved him as “Red Leary” in 1974’s Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (loved it when he told that obnoxious kid to go fuck a duck), although making a full list of our favorite George Kennedy movies would be quite long: he was simply one of our favorite actors.


Kennedy (as “Red Leary”) in Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, with Jeff Bridges, Clint Eastwood and Geoffrey Lewis (1974)

In yesterday’s New York Times‘s obit, writer James McFadden writes:

“Vicious killers, bumbling lawmen, saddle tramps, bank robbers, scowling bullies — anybody you’d be foolish to mess with or trust in an emergency — Mr. Kennedy portrayed them all in more than 200 films and television productions in an acting career that spanned nearly five decades.

No critic ever spoke of a George Kennedy oeuvre. Many of his films were hokey, with absurd plots and over-the-top acting. And, with the exception of his Academy Award performance and his work in about a dozen other films, he was most often a peripheral player, a sidekick of the star or the straight man with setup lines for the comedian.”

A gentle giant who often played movie tough guys, George Kennedy — who wrote an autobiography called Trust Me: A Memoir, published in 2011 — died on Sunday, February 28th, of natural causes, a mere five after the death of his wife, Joan McCarthy, who died in September 2015.

Kennedy had been married to her since 1978, but before then he had been married three times, including twice to the same woman; he married his first wife, Dorothy Gillooly in the 1940s, and was hen married and divorced twice from Norma Wurman, also known as Revel Wurman, with whom he had two children.

At the time of his death, Kennedy had been living in Eagle, Idaho, a small suburb of Boise, Idaho.

Below: George Kennedy as Sheriff July Johnson in Bandolero!


About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.