George Gaynes, ‘Punky Brewster’ and ‘Police Academy’ Star, Dies at 98

George Gaynes Dead
Photo by Moviestore/REX/Shutterstock

George Gaynes, who portrayed an irritable foster parent on the ’80s sitcom “Punky Brewster,” the bewildered commandant in seven “Police Academy” films and a soap opera star with a crush on Dorothy Michaels, whom he doesn’t know is Dustin Hoffman’s character in drag, in the hit feature comedy “Tootsie,” died on Monday in North Bend, Wash. He was 98.

Gaynes, who was not only a character actor but a baritone singer, made hundreds of appearances both on TV comedies and dramas, as well as 35 films (counting both features and and made-for-TV movies) and many plays, musical comedies and even operas in the U.S. and Europe.

While Gaynes became immediately recognizable to TV viewers and filmgoers, he never achieved name recognition, let alone stardom.

On “Punky Brewster,” Gaynes played building manager Henry Warnimont, who finds an abandoned girl (Soleil Moon Frye) and becomes her foster parent and eventually her adoptive father. The sweet relationship between the two of them was the heart of the show.

The actor got the part after two of his most memorable big-screen performances: in 1982’s “Tootsie,” and in 1984’s first entry in the long-running “Police Academy” franchise. (He appeared in all seven of the movies.)

Gaynes recurred from 1987-91 on the critically acclaimed NBC comedy “The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,” starring Blair Brown and Gaynes’ wife, actress Allyn Ann McLerie; he was a series regular, as Sen. Strobe Smithers, on the first season (1992-93) of Linda Bloodworth-Thomason-created CBS comedy “Hearts Afire,” starring John Ritter and Markie Post.

George Jongejans was born in Helsinki to a Russian mother and Dutch father. Actor Gregory Gaye, who played a Nazi official in “Casablanca,” was an uncle.

Young George was raised in France, England and Switzerland. World War II interrupted his burgeoning opera career. He was interned in Spain for three months; after his release, he traveled to the U.K. and enlisted in the Royal Dutch Navy.

After the war he went to New York, where he joined the New York City Opera. But he considered himself more an actor than a singer.

He changed his last name to Gaynes and guested on TV series including “The Defenders,” “Mission: Impossible,” “Bonanza,” “Mannix,” “Hogan’s Heroes,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” “Hawaii Five-0” and “Chicago Hope.” In addition he appeared on the daytime soaps “General Hospital” and “Search for Tomorrow.” Film credits included “The Way We Were,” “Altered States” and “Wag the Dog.”

He retired in 2003 after appearing in the feature comedy “Just Married,” starring Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy.

In addition to his wife, Gaynes is survived by a daughter; one granddaughter; and two great-granddaughters. His son, Matthew, died in a 1989 car crash.

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  1. Tierra says:

    This has happened to me twice this week; checking on how someone’s doing and I see they just passed away! My oh my. He was on an old Cheers episode just now. I have seen it before but didn’t know who he was. So I googled his name from cable info and I see the deceased date a few weeks ago! Then I see what his career entailed, and, ohhh I know who he was! Wow, he lived a long life.

  2. Never head of a film called “Toostie”.

    “Tootsie”? Yes.

    I remember Mr Gaynes mostly as Cmdnt Lassard in the “Police Academy” movies.

    R.I.P.

  3. brian duchowicz says:

    seemed like a sweet man,good soul,,always made me feel good watchin him act ,,he was really good,,he didn’t get enogh recognition,,,he will in heaven,,Brian Duchowicz,,A Fan

  4. Bill B. says:

    Never saw Punky Brewster & never saw a Police Academy movie after the first one and I don’t remember him or much of the film, but he was simply wonderful in Tootsie. It didn’t happen, but an Oscar nomination for that would not have been a surprise.

  5. GroovFlowr says:

    “He was interned in Spain for three months; after his release…” I dare say you mean interred.

  6. Well, damn. I wonder if there will be a line of Johnsons at his funeral.

  7. Sonya Hawk says:

    I loved him on police academy so funny. He lived a very full life. 😞😢

  8. Marty Gillis says:

    Very sad news. A wonderful and truly beloved character actor with a list of credits 10 miles long! I will always remember George’s small but pivotal part in the fan favorite ‘Columbo’ episode “Any Old Port in a Storm” where he advises the Lt. about wine. George was multi-talented and directed the very last episode of ‘WKRP in Cincinnati’. (his wife of 59 years, Allyn Ann McLerie , co-starred as “Carmen Carlson” , the ‘big guy’s’ wife) The ‘Police Academy’ series, ‘Punky Brewster’ and ‘Tootsie’ , the list is just endless. R.I.P. Mr Gaynes !

  9. I saw George on police academy, found a funny character, anybody wouldn’t and couldn’t stop laughing once they knew what he was all about.

    He’d lived a lot of years. He deserved a medal and a award for the years lived and for the histories he’d actually been admired, loved more, comical comedy and film, drama and comedies as well as a Hitler disguised during the wars he’s actually survived.

    R I P. George Gaynes.

  10. BillUSA says:

    God bless your soul sir. You left an indelible impression with your portrayal of Commandant Lassard.

  11. Ken says:

    Hilarious as The Tongue in TOOTSIE. A long life, well lived!

  12. David Bartlett says:

    What a fine character actor; classy in every respect. And if he had never done anything in life but his sublime, devastatingly funny turn in Tootsie, he would still deserve a spot in the pantheon of great human achievement. Thank you, Mr. Gaynes. You ennobled and entertained us all.

  13. Brandon says:

    RIP Commandant Lassard

  14. Donald says:

    Yes I was just thinking about him because of Tootsie. He was so good in that film. Too bad he didn’t make it to the Spring and his 99th birthday. Still, you can’t complain about 98.

  15. Me says:

    They just ran Tootsie on TCM this past weekend (or Monday)

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