‘Airport’ Star George Kennedy Dies at 91

George Kennedy
Snap Stills/REX/Shutterstock

George Kennedy, who won a supporting actor Oscar for his role alongside Paul Newman in the beloved film “Cool Hand Luke,” and was also a fixture of 1970s disaster movies including the “Airport” franchise and “Earthquake,” died Sunday in Boise, Idaho. He was 91. His grandson Cory Schenkel reported the death on his Facebook page.

While Kennedy largely played gruff, blue-collar characters in dramas and genre films, he allowed a comedic side to emerge in the deadpan “The Naked Gun” movies.

Kennedy appeared in all four of the “Airport” movies of the 1970s as Joe Patroni, the reluctant, cigar-chomping but highly effective chief mechanic who could be counted upon when the chips were down and supreme expertise was required. He also turned in a powerful performance in 1975’s “Earthquake” as the hearty, sentimental police sergeant Slade, who helps where he can in the wake of the devastating temblor.

Kennedy toiled in the TV trenches for much of the 1960s, especially guesting on Westerns — and occasionally appearing in supporting roles in high-profile films such as “In Harm’s Way,” “The Sons of Katie Elder,” “The Flight of the Phoenix” and “The Dirty Dozen.”

He finally burst into the public consciousness with his 1967 role as Dragline in “Cool Hand Luke,” in which he was second-billed and held his own alongside star Paul Newman. The New York Times said: “George Kennedy is powerfully obsessive as the top-dog who handles things his way as effectively and finally as destructively as does the warden or the guards.”

During the 1970s he made two attempts at starring in his own television series: 1971’s brief “Sarge,” in which he played a priest with a police background, and 1975’s “The Blue Knight,” an adaptation of the Joseph Wambaugh novel and subsequent TV movie in which he played a Los Angeles beat cop.

Other notable film credits during the 1970s included Michael Cimino’s “Thunderbolt and Lightfoot”; “The Eiger Sanction”; and Agatha Christie. period mystery “Death on the Nile,” in which he was gruff as always but in this case exceptionally well groomed. He worked steadily in the 1980s but made an impression only in the 1988 deadpan police comedy “The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad!” and its sequels.

He recurred on primetime soap “Dallas” as rancher Carter McKay from 1988-91 and appeared in the reunion telepics “Dallas: J.R. Returns” (1996) and “Dallas: War of the Ewings” (1998).

Most recently he appeared in the 2014 crime drama remake “The Gambler,” starring Mark Wahlberg.

Kennedy was born in New York City to parents in show business. He first appeared onstage at the age of two, but later he would spend 16 years in the U.S. Army, ultimately working for Armed Forces Radio. He participated in the opening of the Army Information Office, which provided technical advice to the entertainment industry. A role as technical adviser to “The Phil Silvers Show” led to his early career in television.

The actor also wrote books: murder mysteries “Murder on Location,” published in 1983, and “Murder on High, released in 1984. His autobiography, “Trust Me,” was published in 2011.

Kennedy was married four times, the first time to Dorothy Gillooly in the 1940s, the second (and third) time to Norma Wurman, the fourth to Joan McCarthy, who died in September.

He is survived by two children from Wurman.

Filed Under:

Want to read more articles like this one? SUBSCRIBE TO VARIETY TODAY.
Post A Comment 33

Leave a Reply


Comments are moderated. They may be edited for clarity and reprinting in whole or in part in Variety publications.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

  1. JCinCT says:

    We will miss you George Kennedy…..we delighted in your acting, and now you enter onto a new stage!

  2. Rodrigo says:

    … Soube agora no jornal!
    Very sad. Well, he was old: and I don´t have prejudice about ages _ what matters is HAVING GOOD HEALTH.
    I watched some films where he acted: Earthquake, Death Ship/this one still shocks me.
    Another one along LESLIE NELSON (comedy is my favorite genre).
    Rest in peace.

    Rodrigo (Brazil)

  3. 85wzen says:


  4. guest100 says:

    “That’s one nice thing about the 707. It can do everything but read.” (as Patroni)

  5. Rex says:

    Probably not the first to point this out, but his wife died last year. Probably should correct that.

  6. noreen britt says:

    loved him in the sons of katie elder very good actor will be much missed r.i.p. xx

  7. Mary Mutti says:

    We’ll miss you. Enjoyed your movies!

  8. Yak says:

    He was one of the greats. For some reason I always remember him from a cameo in Modern Romance, he played himself doing a bit part in a bad B movie that Albert Brooks was editing. He was great in Cool Hand Luke too, that I just happened to watch again last week.

  9. ludi66 says:

    I loved him in everything! Bon vent Joe Pétroni!

  10. Edward says:

    So long George Kennedy. Always a class act. Fly safely home to the heavens Joe Petroni.

  11. RIP, loved you in so many movies. Hope you are in heaven with an eternity of movies better than anything we have yet seen. And thanks for falling off the truck in The Dirty Dozen with such grace!
    May God have mercy on your soul, as I wish for it upon myself.
    Thank you for being a MAN!

  12. David Holmes says:

    A great actor in films and tv kept us happy watching him all our lives RIP

  13. One of my favorite character actors, great in every role.

  14. Tess Carlisle says:

    I loved George when he played the character Joe Patroni in Airport 70, 75, 77 and the Concorde. He was always the go-to guy who could make it all happen. I always thought of him when I flew on air planes as if he would come rescue me if I needed assistance. They don’t make great actors like him any more.

  15. Jim says:

    He was a really great actor, and will be missed!

  16. jetty says:

    “My boy say he can eat 50 egg, he can eat 50 egg.”

  17. Paul Farren says:

    Airport star? Is that all you could think to address George Kennedy in the title of the article. Come on. That’s lazy.

  18. Ken says:

    He made a memorable villain opposite Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn in one of fave flicks CHARADE (1963). Fine character actor, indeed!

  19. BillUSA says:

    God Bless You, Mr. Kennedy. Thank you for many memorable roles like that of the character Dragline in “Cool Hand Luke”. Prayers and condolences to your family.

  20. Bob Diaz says:

    He was one of my have to watch actors. If he was in a movie I expected it to be worth my time. So long and condolences to the family.

  21. Ra-Ana says:

    Had the pleasure of working with him on The Man Who Came Back. So many wonderful stories he told. RIP.

  22. Mikka says:

    Joan McCarthy is dead..get your facts or die trying..How the fuck you can screw something so simple.. Media worker..my ass..

    On September 14, 2015 Kennedy’s wife of 37 years, Joan McCarthy died.

  23. He will be missed. I loved every role I saw him in. without him many movies would not have been as good as they were

  24. kenfurman46 says:

    George was the army advisor to the famous Phil Silvers Show and learned to act watching that show for a few years and getting bit and background parts. He narrates a few episodes on the DVD series. Seemed like a really nice man. RIP.

  25. Bill says:

    RIP, Patroni/Slade.

  26. KB says:

    Sorry to lose him, but at least he had a good run. He was a talented actor.

  27. MerryMarjie says:

    A solid actor who I loved to see in movies, George Kennedy was a first-class actor. He always made his characters interesting and added greatly to all of his films, a real pro. RIP.

  28. Such sad news. Everything he did was excellent. Fantastic actor. I just loved watching him whether on tv or in the movies.

  29. Alex says:

    NOOOOOOO!! He was great!

  30. lavinia says:

    How about showing him some respect in the title and call him Academy Award Winner!
    He won a Oscar for one of the best films ever ,Cool Hand Luke.

More Film News from Variety