To the world, George Kennedy was a man of action in films such as “The Dirty Dozen” and “Airport,” and TV Westerns such as “Rawhide” and “Bonanza.” Sandy haired, tall and burly, he was a stalwart Hollywood character actor who often played the heavy, roughing up the likes of Clint Eastwood and Cary Grant. Sometimes, those tough guys had a heart of gold.
Kennedy, 91, died of natural causes early Sunday morning at an assisted living facility in Middleton, said Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris. Kennedy had been in hospice care for the past month, his grandson Cory Schenkel, of Boise, said.
“He had a history of heart problems,” DeGeus-Morris said.
On screen, Kennedy was a physical force, with an keen ability for nuance and emotional depth — the kind of acting chops that won him the 1968 Oscar for best supporting actor in “Cool Hand Luke.” He also had a flair for comedy, gaining a following in the cult-comedy film series “Naked Gun.”
To those who knew him, he was a family man who loved his community and always wanted to give something back.
“He was a quiet man,” says his grandson, who spent the past 14 years helping Kennedy and his wife, Joan, who died in September. The Kennedys moved to Idaho in 2002 to be close to their daughter and Cory’s mother, Shannon Sullivan, who lives in Eagle with her family.
“He never really tried to be famous, like you would think. He was just a man who loved his family and his fans. He would never turn a fan away,” Schenkel said.
Schenkel, who works at Bodybuilding.com, would go along when Kennedy needed to travel for work. He grew up knowing his grandfather was an actor and had been in some big films, “but I didn’t get how big he was until I went with him to London. People stood in line for three hours to meet him. That’s when it really hit me. He was a lot more famous than he let on. He definitely made a huge impact on a lot of lives.”
While in Idaho, Kennedy helped raise awareness for sleep apnea, a condition he suffered with and found relief from at Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center. He also helped raise funds for Boise chef Ray DiLulo, who suffered from ALS, and he lent his presence to a variety of causes, including working with students at area schools.
“He’d talk to kids about his life and his career,” Schenkel said. “He enjoyed doing that.”
Kennedy often seemed as indestructible as the characters he played, but that changed after Joan died, Schenkel said.
“Once she passed, between that and his old age, he went downhill from there,” Schenkel said. “We visited the day before.”
His grandfather’s legacy is on film, of course, but it’s also in his heart, Schenkel said.
He remembered a moment on a film set that continues to inspire him. In 2008, Kennedy was filming “The Man Who Came Back,” a Civil War drama with Billy Zane, Armand Assante and Eric Braeden, who produced the film. Kennedy played, of course, the bad guy.
“There he was, sitting at the bottom of a staircase,” Schenkel says.
The director wanted him to run up a flight of stairs.
“Stairs were hard for him because of an injury he had during the war (World War II),” Schenkel says. “Grandpa just looked at him and said, ‘Well, you better get a crane in here to lift me up.’”
The director blinked, dumbfounded. “He looked around like, ‘How am I going to get a crane in here,’” Schenkel said.
Kennedy suggested he get the two biggest guys on the set and let them hoist him up, and that’s what they did.
“You know, he never said, ‘I can’t do this.’ He would never say that,” Schenkel says. “He said, ‘Let’s figure it out.’ I think about that moment if there’s ever a challenge in my life, I think of how grandpa got up those stairs. You just find a way and get it done.”
Though Kennedy had been ailing, his death took the family by surprise, Schenkel says. Plans for a funeral are underway. Kennedy, who was a World War II veteran, wished to be buried in the Idaho Veteran’s Cemetery.
Reporter John Sowell contributed to this story
George Kennedy (1925-2016)
George Harris Kennedy Jr. was born Feb. 18, 1925, in New York City. His father, a musician and orchestra leader, died when Kennedy was 4 years old. His mother, Helen Kieselbach, was a ballet dancer.
Kennedy debuted on stage at age 2 and later became a radio performer. He enlisted during World War II and served in the U.S. Army, both in combat and in Armed Forces radio for 16 years.
He later became a technical adviser for “The Phil Silvers Show” on television and got his start in front of the camera on that show with several one-line parts.
His career spanned nearly 60 years. In that time, he logged more than 200 appearances in film and on television. His last role was in 2014’s “The Gambler” with Mark Wahlberg and Brie Larson.
Notable George Kennedy movies
▪ “Spartacus” (1960; uncredited)
▪ “Charade” (1963)
▪ “Hush ... Hush, Sweet Charlotte” (1964)
▪ “Cool Hand Luke” (1967)
▪ “The Dirty Dozen” (1967)
▪ “Airport” (1970)
▪ “Lost Horizon” (1973)
▪ “Earthquake” (1974)
▪ “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot” (1974)
▪ “Death on the Nile” (1978)
▪ “The Naked Gun” (1988)