George Kennedy: 'I feel very, very lucky'

EAGLE, Idaho (KBOI) - Onscreen, George Kennedy was as imposing as a redwood--tall and sturdy.

These days, however, by his own admission, he's too old to be counting the rings.

Sitting in his comfortably furnished Treasure Valley home, he relishes the chance to talk about his career but confides that age is taking a heavy toll.

"I'm 88 years old," he says. "I don't care to do a lot. I really don't. I'll go take a nap in the middle of a nap."

He exaggerates, just like the cat at our feet is an exaggeration of fur and whiskers. Kiki holds a special place in Kennedy's heart, just like the Oscar that sits perched on a shelf nearby.

In the glow of that heavier-than-it-looks statuette, Kennedy is primed to talk about "pictures," the industry-approved substitute for "movies" whenever an A-lister like Kennedy chooses to chat about the business.

"Movies have been my favorite entertainment," says Kennedy, "and for me to have ended up in that business is perhaps the most fortunate thing to ever happen to me."

Though he came from a show-bizzy family, thanks to a mom who performed as a ballerina in vaudeville-style productions, and a father who was an orchestra leader, Kennedy's path to Hollywood wasn't assured.

In fact, that he got into acting at all was more by accident than design.

He started out after high school like so many his age by joining the Army. The day after his eighteenth birthday, he reported to Fort Dix in New Jersey. At the time, he points out, there was no avoiding military service: the nation was at war.

Kennedy grows somber as the memories well up.

"Kids who had never done anything more dangerous than play kickball in the street were shooting BAR's and mortars and killing each other," he relates. "It was awful."

It's apparent that the war experience was one he rarely discusses, and for obvious reasons.

"The war was one horrendous surprise after another. I can't think of anything I did during the war that did not involve death," Kennedy says with startling emphasis on the word "death."

Afterward, with no job prospects, Kennedy re-enlisted as a staff sergeant and found himself in Officer Candidate School. And in turn that led to a stint in Armed Forces Radio.

It was there he was involved in setting up the first Army Information Office, providing technical assistance to movies and television shows. It was in that capacity that he worked on the early sitcom, "Sergeant Bilko." Small speaking roles soon came his way.

Kennedy slowly built a resume that earned him callbacks from casting directors eager to take advantage of his athletic frame and booming voice.

It wasn't long before he was offered increasingly bigger parts in pictures like "Spartacus" and "Charade," a personal favorite.

In later years, Kennedy was able to draw on his military experience for an actor's life in war movies like "The Dirty Dozen." In that movie, Kennedy co-starred with Lee Marvin, who would become a lifelong friend.

"Marvin was in his drinking days then," he says quietly. "He would come to work some days and fall out of his car."

Kennedy says Marvin had three loves: acting, drinking and smoking. He was addicted to all three, but couldn't shake the cigarette habit.

They often dined together, but the outings always ended up the same.

"Doctors would come over while we were eating and say, 'I don't mean to intrude, but you're dying. ' He would say, 'I know, but I can't stop.'"

Marvin died in 1987 of a heart attack at his Tucson ranch, but the way Kennedy relates anecdotes about a cherished friend makes them seem recent and fresh.

Lucky breaks are the hallmark of most successful actors. Kennedy says his came when he landed the co-lead opposite Paul Newman in "Cool Hand Luke."

He says the casting came about quite by mistake.

"There was another actor chosen and my agent said, 'They want you to test.' I said, 'What is it?' He said, 'It's with Paul Newman.' I said, 'Don't send me over there. They're not gonna give me half a picture with Paul Newman.'"

But director Stuart Rosenberg needed a big guy for the role of a bully and saw the right amount of menace in Kennedy. And after the screen test, Rosenberg offered Kennedy the part of "Dragline."

The movie was shot in Stockton, Calif., in the fierce heat of summer.

"There were no places to hide. We had bugs and snakes. We had everything. If it looks like we were there, we were there," Kennedy says, as if to underscore the fact that no special effects were employed.

And that includes a now-famous scene where Kennedy's character challenges Newman's to an egg-eating contest.

"It took three days to shoot that, and the first day all the actors ate the eggs we had," Kennedy remembers with a chuckle.

"The prop man had hard-boiled 200 eggs. Actors being actors, we stole eggs."

That meant the prop man had to hard-boil hundreds more for the shoot the next day, and the smell stunk up the sound stage.

"We would stay on a stage as long as it took to shoot the thing," says Kennedy, " but the stink was so awful, as soon as the director yelled 'Cut!,' we ran off the stage."

Day three was even more difficult.

"They did the whole thing again, and Newman, when he finally got 'That's a wrap,' ran off the stage."

Kennedy says, "He jumped in his convertible, top-down, drove away as fast as he could just to get the smell of eggs out of his face."

Newman clearly impressed the young Kennedy, especially when it came to his dedication to the craft.

In one scene, Newman's Luke, upon learning that his mother has died while he's in prison, sits on a bunk bed and plays 'I Don't Care if it Rains or Freezes.'

Kennedy, clearly impressed, talks about the serious side of his co-star.

"Paul, who does not play a musical instrument, wanted to learn to play the banjo," says Kennedy, pausing for emphasis. "It took the entire shoot, from the time we started until the end for him to get it."

"Cool Hand Luke" not only earned Kennedy an enduring friendship with Newman but industry accolades that ran well into balloting for that year's Oscars.

Kennedy soon found himself on a short list of nominees for Best Supporting Actor.

"I wasn't expected to win," he says with characteristic modesty. "Michael J. Pollard was the shoo-in and Gene Hackman was also nominated."

Both Pollard and Hackman had starred in the controversial "Bonnie & Clyde," along with Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway. Other nominees in the category were John Cassavetes, one of Kennedy's co-stars from "The Dirty Dozen" and Cecil Kelloway who had a memorable and pivotal role
in "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?"

1968 proved one of the most controversial years in Oscar history. For one thing, the ceremony was postponed for two days following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Academy president Gregory Peck had to plead with nominees to show up for the awards. He largely succeeded.

Actor Spencer Tracy was nominated posthumously in the Best Actor category and was, for some voters, a sentimental favorite.

Best Picture honors could go to any of the worthy five nominated films:
"In the Heat of the Night," "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?," "Bonnie & Clyde," "Doctor Doolittle," and "The Graduate."

So there was drama to spare, except in the Best Supporting Actor category.

Kennedy says he turned to his wife and admonished her, "'Remember, our award comes up second. So when we lose, applaud, smile and remember we have three hours to sit here and watch other people do this.'"

Then actress Patty Duke announced his name.

Kennedy looks startled even now as he says, "Nobody expected me to win! Nobody! When I got to the microphone, I had nothing to say. Nothing!"

With fellow "Cool Hand Luke" actor Paul Newman looking on and applauding, Kennedy tried enjoying his moment in the sun, but for once in his life had nothing he could draw on for comfort. An actor is an empty vessel without a script and, suddenly, George Kennedy had no words to say.

He uttered a weak, "I could bust." The rest is just a blur.

Looking back on that night, Kennedy is pained by the need to reminisce.

"I said, 'I want to thank the guy who directed it and thank you all for the greatest moment of my life' and then I got off."

In the weeks to follow, Kennedy tried to make some sense of his very brief acceptance speech, but he still chalks it up to nerves.

"So many people have commented since then 'Why didn't you talk more?' I said, 'I had no idea what to say except thank you.'"

He's sticking with that.

"I didn't," he says. "Thank you was it."