George Kennedy, a versatile actor whose long list of credits includes the Airport and Naked Gun films and an Oscar for his supporting role in Cool Hand Luke, has died in Middleton, ID. He was 91. Canyon County Coroner Vicki DeGeus-Morris told the Idaho Statesman Kennedy died at 4:35 AM Sunday. The cause of death isn’t known, but DeGeus-Morris says the actor had a history of heart problems.
The burly Kennedy would star alongside some of Hollywood’s biggest names — including Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood, Bette Davis, Burt Lancaster and Charlton Heston — and was equally adept at broad comedy and heavy drama. He began his career on The Phil Silvers Show in the mid-1950s and guested on numerous TV shows. Specializing in the Western and war genres, he racked up TV credits including Maverick, Gunsmoke, Route 66, The Untouchables and Rawhide. By the early 1960s, he started landing roles on the big screen in such films as Lonely Are the Brave, Charade and In Harm’s Way.
He cemented his Hollywood cred with a pair of film classics in the late ’60s: playing a mild-mannered Army major in the star-studded war drama The Dirty Dozen and chain-gang leader Dragline in Cool Hand Luke. The latter role won Kennedy an Oscar in his only nomination.
The NYC native continued to work on both screens and in 1970 co-starred in 1970’s Airport, the plane-crash saga that helped launched a spate of disaster movies in that decade. He’d also appear in a pair of sequels after appeared in the 1974 disaster pic Earthquake — the first film released in seat-rattling Sensurround.
The following year, Kennedy would topline The Blue Knight, The Onion Field author Joseph Wambaugh’s first foray into series TV. KEnnedy played Bumber Morgan, a stubborn, old-fashioned beat-walking cop with no patrol car who had little patience for red tape. The series, aired over parts of two seasons on CBS, was adapted from a 1973 NBC miniseries in which William Holden played Morgan.
In 1979, Kennedy played President Harding in the NBC miniseries Backstairs at the White House.
The actor might be most familiar to younger movie fans as Capt. Ed Hocken, the boss of Leslie Nielsen’s Sgt. Frank Drebin in the Naked Gun trilogy. The first of the films based on the cult classic 1982 TV series Police Squad! came out in 1988, co-starring Priscilla Presley and O.J. Simpson. Popular sequels followed in 1991 and 1994.
In 1988, Kennedy began a three-year run on CBS’ long-running primetime soap Dallas as Carter McKay, head of Ewing Oil rival WestStar.
He received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1991 and continued to work steadily well into the 2000s. His final film was 2014’s The Gambler, starring Mark Wahlberg.