For many years, he was one of those familiar movie actors you would often recognize but not know his name. Then, he hit it big with “Cool Hand Luke,” winning an Oscar as Best Supporting Actor for playing a tough chain-gang convict opposite Paul Newman in the title role. Then, seemingly overnight, everyone knew who he was.
I’m talking about George Kennedy, who passed away recently at the age of 91. Although most people only know Kennedy from his roles in “Cool Hand Luke, ” “Dallas,””Airport,” and “Naked Gun,” he appeared in over 200 films, tv shows, and stage productions in a career that spanned nearly 90 nearly years. That’s right, I said 90.
George Harris Kennedy, Jr. was born on February 18, 1925 in New York. He was born into a “showbiz” family. His father was a musician and an orchestra leader; his mother was a ballet dancer. His father died when George was only four years old, so he was raised by his mother. He debuted on stage at the ripe old age of two in a play called “Bringing Up Father.” At seven he performed as a NY DJ. He spent 16 years in the military before a back injury forced him to retire. So, back to the family biz.
At first, like most beginners, he then bounced around for many years, appearing in small supporting roles. The movies and tv shows were well known (“Spartacus,” “Hush..Hush, Sweet Charlotte,” “The Phil Silvers Show,” ” Gunsmoke,” ” Bonanza,” to name a few), but Kennedy was not. Chances are, you don’t remember him in most of those roles. Then, as I said, he hit it big with “Luke.” Other big roles followed – the “Airport” and Naked Gun” series, “The Dirty Dozen,” and “Dallas,” among others. He wrote three novels, including his autobiography. He has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
But, in my mind all of these accomplishments are secondary to his greatest role. In addition to his two biological children, he and his last wife, the late Joan McCarthy, adopted four children. One of them was actually the daughter of one of their other adopted children who was fighting drug addictions. I guess that would make her his adopted granddaughter.
I maintain that when a loving family, even one that is not rich and famous, adopts a child, it is literally giving him or her the gift of life. Normally, these children come from severely disadvantaged backgrounds – poverty, physical, sexual or drug abuse, etc. We are all familiar with the stories. Their life prospects are exceedingly dim. Adoption is a life saver to them. It is hard enough to raise one’s own children. Anyone who voluntarily takes on the responsibility of four additional children truly has a big heart. I was unaware of this aspect of Kennedy’s life, and I suspect many others of you were as well.
Rest in peace George. You will be truly missed, not only by your many fans, but also by your extended family as well.