Tim Woodward

Tim Woodward: My complicated friend George Kennedy

George Kennedy won his best supporting actor Oscar in 1968 for his role in “Cool Hand Luke.”
George Kennedy won his best supporting actor Oscar in 1968 for his role in “Cool Hand Luke.” The Associated Press

This is a few weeks late. I was committed to writing travel columns when he died. But I knew George Kennedy too long not to tell you about one of the most interesting and perplexing friends I’ve ever had.

There were at least two George Kennedys. The first was the one everyone who goes to movies knew — the bear of a man who could play anything from villains (“Charade”) to endearing heavies (“Cool Hand Luke”) to the straight man in the “Naked Gun” movies.

That was the Hollywood George Kennedy. The one I knew was very different.

I’d been a fan of his films forever. I must have watched “Cool Hand Luke” half a dozen times on movie nights in the Navy, and “The Dirty Dozen” was a favorite for my wife and me during our courting days. So it was a big surprise when I picked up my phone in the Statesman newsroom about 10 years ago and heard the rich, baritone voice that couldn’t have belonged to anyone else.

“Tim, this is George Kennedy. We don’t know each other, but I’ve been reading your column since I moved to Idaho, and I have an idea for a television series based around the sort of colorful characters you’ve written about. Is that something that would interest you?”

Would it interest me? I’d have been less interested in winning the lottery.

We met to discuss it, teamed up with a local production company and spent a little over a year working to bring his idea to fruition. We shot a demo about a colorful character in Owyhee County, worked with a producer’s agent in Portland and had two cable networks vying to come aboard. A major corporation was on the verge of signing as the primary sponsor when it all blew up in our faces.

More on that later. First, the George Kennedy I came to know along the way:

He could be the most charming of men. Maybe that’s part of why he became a star. He’d smile that winning smile of his, give you a compliment or make you a proposition in that signature voice, and he had you. I don’t mean to imply that any of it was insincere. It wasn’t. He wholeheartedly believed in everything he said.

Until he didn’t.

Ours was a business proposition that went beyond business. He didn’t need to spend time with me apart from the business end of it, but he did and we became friends. Maybe he needed a friend, isolated as he was in Idaho from his Hollywood friends. Whatever his reasons were, he invited me almost weekly to share meals with him — breakfasts at the recently departed Rodeway Inn across the street from the Statesman, lunch at the Sandbar in Marsing, dinner with our wives at Murphy’s, Italian feasts at Georgio’s, leisurely trips to Danskin Station in Garden Valley. George loved good food and good conversation, and conversations with him could be endlessly entertaining.

So many stories, so many stars: working with Cary Grant and Sophia Loren, companionable dinners at Jimmy Stewart’s house, a life-changing moment with John Wayne, falling in love with Audrey Hepburn on the set of “Charade.”

“We were all a little in love with her,” he said. “We’d go to her place after work just to spend time with her.”

Things were different with the star of “Cool Hand Luke.”

“Members of the cast and crew would go out together after we were finished shooting. Everybody but Paul Newman. There was a star on his door, and there was never a doubt that he was the star and not the rest of us.”

Kennedy, of course, won an Oscar for “Cool Hand Luke.” Newman didn’t.

My favorite Kennedy yarn was about a scene he did with Clint Eastwood for “The Eiger Sanction.” As an acrophobic, I had no trouble relating. The two of them were perched atop a needle-like rock spire, hundreds of dizzying feet above the desert floor of Monument Valley, their legs dangling over the edge. Weeks later, Eastwood called George to say the scene had to be reshot because the cameraman had been so frightened that his hands were shaking.

The actors for whom he had the highest praise: his pal Jimmy Stewart and — this will surprise you — Margaret Hamilton, aka the wicked witch in “The Wizard of Oz.”

He’d led such an interesting life that I propositioned him to write his biography. He immediately accepted, and for months we met regularly for breakfast interviews. It went well until we reached his service in World War II, when he seemed to get cold feet. Not surprising; a lot of WWII veterans didn’t talk about the war. What he didn’t say was that he’d decided to write the book himself, and did. Frankly, he could have used a ghost writer.

He told me something one day that I’ve never forgotten. He said that every morning when he woke up, his first words were, “Please, God, don’t let me hurt anybody today.”

So it was beyond surprising when he marched into the office of the producers who had worked so hard to make his television series a reality, told them they were subverting his idea, said hurtful things and walked out. That was the end of the project.

His reasoning didn’t make sense. Nobody was trying to subvert anything or had ever been anything but respectful and accommodating with him. My theory was that once it looked like the series was actually going to happen, he realized how much time, travel and work it would mean and, in his 80s, wasn’t comfortable committing to that.

We stayed in touch for a while. We went to dinner a few more times, drank wine, solved the world’s problems. It wasn’t the same, though, and gradually our relationship sputtered to an end.

Even after the painful way he ended the television project, I missed him. I hadn’t been there to see it happen, so I never saw that side of him and couldn’t help missing the George Kennedy I knew and liked. It isn’t often you get to be friends with a movie star, and I was lucky to have had him in my life, however briefly.

The last time I saw him was a little over a year ago, in a Costco. He was riding a motorized cart. He told me his wife had died, and he himself had aged considerably. Knowing it might be the last time I’d see him, I was tempted to ask the real reason why he abruptly ended what could have been a beautiful relationship.

I didn’t ask — it would have been awkward — and now I’ll never know for sure. The Hollywood George Kennedy was a man of many personae, and so was the private one. He could charm my socks off one day, dash my dreams the next, and somehow made the charming part what I’ll always remember most about him.

A captivating, complicated man.

Tim Woodward’s column appears every other Sunday and is posted on woodwardblog.com the following Mondays. Contact him at woodwardcolumn@hotmail.com.

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