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Writer-helmer Burt Kennedy dies

Burt Kennedy, a prolific screenwriter and director of the big-star Western epic “The War Wagon,” as well as lighthearted features including “Support Your Local Sheriff” and “Dirty Dingus McGee,” died Thursday of cancer at his home in Sherman Oaks. He was 78.

Kennedy’s companion, Nancy Pendleton, was at his side when he died, according to family spokesman Leonard Maltin.

During his four-decade career in radio, film and TV, Kennedy earned a reputation as an accomplished director with a talent for injecting humor into the traditionally straightlaced Western film.

During the 1960s, when the movie Western was declining in public favor, he enlivened the genre with gag-filled films such as “Support Your Local Sheriff” and “Support Your Local Gunfighter,” both starring James Garner in his “Maverick” mode, and “Dirty Dingus McGee,” a raucous spoof with Frank Sinatra as a two-bit gunfighter. Kennedy wrote the Dingus script with novelist Joseph Heller.

Although never nominated for an Oscar, Kennedy was recognized for his skill by devotees of the Western. In 2000 he was given the Nebraskaland Days Buffalo Bill Award at the annual celebration in North Platte, Neb., and hailed as “Hollywood’s Trail Boss.”

Kennedy was honored with a star on Palm Springs Walk of Fame in 1996.

The youngest son of vaudeville-headlining parents, Kennedy was born in Muskegon, Mich., and toured with his parents who performed as the Dancing Kennedys. He joined their act at the age of 4.

He served as an officer in the Pacific with the Army’s First Cavalry, serving in the liberation of the Philippines, and was discharged in 1946 with a Silver Star, Bronze Star and Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster.

Upon his discharge, he relocated to Los Angeles, studied at the Pasadena Playhouse, realized writing was his strong suit and found work in radio by 1948.

He was later signed to a writing contract by John Wayne’s Batjac Prods.

Among his early scripts were a “The Tall T,” “Ride Lonesome” and “Comanche Station,” all directed by Budd Boetticher and starring Randolph Scott.

Kennedy’s first directorial effort, “The Canadians” in 1961, flopped, and for three years he wrote and directed episodes of “The Lawman” and “The Virginian.” He also directed and produced six episodes of “Combat” and segments of “Magnum P.I.”

He returned to the bigscreen as writer-director of Buddy Ebsen starrer “Mail Order Bride” in 1964.

The Glenn Ford-Henry Fonda starrer “The Rounders” (1965) established his reputation as doubly talented. The comedy Western became a sleeper hit.

The director’s most ambitious project was “War Wagon” in 1967, which starred Wayne and Kirk Douglas. Despite the tongue-in-cheek comedy and well-staged action, it suffered from the moviegoing public’s decreasing interest in Westerns.

When his feature career dwindled, Kennedy busied himself with made-for-television movies.

Kennedy will be buried at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C. on March 2.

He is survived by two daughters and five grandchildren.

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