Oscar-Winner George Kennedy: 'It has been a wonderful life'

EAGLE, Idaho (KBOI) -- When George Kennedy violently slams open the door to a chapel early in the movie "Charade," his was an unforgettable entrance as the nefarious one-armed thug Herman Scobie.

Fifty years later, sitting in the elegant dining room of his Treasure Valley home, he reveals that, of all the movies he made over a long and successful career, "Charade" is his hands-down favorite.

"Audrey Hepburn was probably the most charming. We had Walter Matthau. We had Ned Glass, Jimmy Coburn. And we had Stanley Donen who directed 'Singing in the Rain.'"

Most of his scenes were opposite either Hepburn or Cary Grant, who became a longtime friend. But that early chapel scene established Kennedy as a force of nature, a towering, glowering menace.

He remembers opening the door and starting down the aisle and director Donen yelling, "Noooooo!" Donen wanted him to slam it open. So he did--almost shaking the rafters. The flinch we see from Hepburn seems all too real. | Read Part 1 of Kennedy Interview

That one scene, almost by itself, sealed the deal for Kennedy. Casting directors took notice and pretty soon he was running lines with some of the greats.

Like Jimmy Stewart.

"Brilliant actor, caring person," says Kennedy. "And he was my friend and I loved him dearly."

There was also, of course, Paul Newman, his co-star in "Cool Hand Luke."

Kennedy turns pensive as he says, "There were no jokes with him. He was Luke."

And he has no trouble recalling the effortless work opposite a luminous Audrey Hepburn.

"Audrey Hepburn was exquisite," he says in the definitive way of a caring and protective admirer.

Kennedy first met Hepburn on the "Charade" set in Paris. It was the winter of 1963, and one of the coldest in probably a hundred years.

But there was an immediate warmth among the cast members, one of the reasons Kennedy and Grant became fast friends. One day on the set, he says Grant confided he felt too old to be romancing on-screen the much-younger Hepburn.

Recalling that pivotal conversation early in the shoot, he talks about Grant's reservations.

"He said, 'I tried to turn this down because the age difference is real.' But I said, 'But the age difference doesn't look real.'"

And yet Grant's age was indeed a factor in a fight scene that called for the two men to duke it out on the rooftop of a Paris high-rise.

"Everybody was concerned because I was in my 30's," says Kennedy, "and Cary was getting on, although he moved like a leopard."

The script called for the one-armed Scobie to lash out at Grant's hero in an attempt to push him off the roof. In take after take, Kennedy tried his best to look like he meant business, but he pulled his punches in order not to injure the older Grant.

Kennedy says that frustrated the director.

"Stanley kept saying, 'George, you're missing him by too much'. But I loved the man. If I had hit him, I never would have forgiven myself."

The scene ends with a series of swipes and jabs, high above Paris, after which Scobie loses his footing and slides backward down the roof, his prosthetic arm trailing him and shooting sparks off the roof tiles. The Scobie character ends up hanging from the eaves, but Kennedy wasn't scared at all.

"That was an indoor set," he grins. "Donen had the roofs of Paris created and it was a sound stage no more than a story high."

"Charade" was a dream assignment, except for one scene toward the end of the movie, the one where the Scobie character turns up dead in a hotel-room bathtub.

"The hardest thing was where I died in the water," says Kennedy. "That was the toughest."

In 1963, at a time when special effects were still in their infancy, the production team had called upon Kennedy, and not a dummy, to spend hours submerged in the cold tub water.

The trouble was bubbles, the ones that kept issuing from Kennedy's nose, despite his best efforts to hold his breath and remain as still as possible. More than a few times, he says Donen begged him to "stop breathing."

Some of the crew played a practical joke on Kennedy as filming wound down. They set him in the water and, without a word, simply walked off the stage. Kennedy waited several more minutes than seemed practical--or safe. Finally, he could take it no more and jumped out of the tub to find himself alone.

Outside in the hallway, the cast and crew gave him a round of applause.

Throughout the production, Kennedy reminded himself he was in the big leagues. After all, he was appearing alongside some of the biggest stars of the day. Until it came time for Audrey Hepburn to wrap up her work on "Charade."

As often happens in movies, many of the scenes were shot out of sequence, mostly to accommodate the busy actress. Everything with Hepburn had to be shot by the first of February because that was the day she was scheduled to fly off and make "My Fair Lady."

Once she was gone, the male members of the cast fell into a funk, especially Grant.

Kennedy says his co-star was bereft.

"The most professional leading man there ever was--Cary Grant--was disheartened because Audrey Hepburn wasn't there anymore," he says. "But by gum he was right."

The afternoon is winding down and the end of our chat is imminent. Kennedy turns reflective, almost tender.

"I'd hate to have to work in something now," he states for the record. "I'm too old. It is a business where you've got to go from zero to 80."

"It has been a wonderful life. I loved the money, loved the doing of it. But time waits for no one."