George Kennedy Interview: Screen Legend Reflects on His Life in 'Trust Me: A Memoir'
Image attributed to George Kennedy
Eighty-six year old actor George Harris Kennedy, Jr. is perhaps best known as portraying the convict Dragline in Cool Hand Luke (for which he won an Academy Award), Joe Patroni in the Airport series of 70s disaster movies, and as Captain Ed Hocken in the Naked Gun series of comedy films.
The New York native has also appeared in numerous television shows including The Andy Griffith Show, Perry Mason, Bonanza, McHale’s Navy, Dr. Kildare, Gunsmoke, Dallas, Wings, and The Young and the Restless. His film work included Hush, Hush, Sweet Charlotte, The Flight of the Phoenix, In Harm’s Way, The Dirty Dozen, The Boston Strangler, The Eiger Sanction, Death on the Nile, and Earthquake.
“My time in movies and shows is up. The people who I talk to you about right now with great affection are, for the most part, gone. When they talk about somebody coming out in a brand new movie now, I don’t even know who they are. It is their turn. My turn is over and that’s fine. It was fun. The fact that it was all I could do made it even better. I loved what I did.”
Kennedy has recently released his autobiography, Trust Me: A Memoir, which provides a revealing insight into the world of moviemaking, with its anticipation, joys, thrills, ups and downs, and personal dramas. Trust Me traces Kennedy’s lonely childhood, as he and his mother struggle to survive the Great Depression, his young adulthood fighting in World War II, and finally breaking into the acting business.
The Eagle, Idaho resident has been married to Joan (McCarthy) for 34 years.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mr. Kennedy, it is an honor and a pleasure. How is the weather in Idaho?
George Kennedy: Let’s see, I’m looking out the office window now, and it’s hazy sunshine and cold, but that’s the story of Boise’s life. You get ten months of winter and two months of barely passable summer. It’s an Our Town type of state. There’s no road rage here. There are no busybodies here. There’s a scallywag here and there, but for the most part it’s a quiet place. But, ten months of winter is too much.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Why did you choose to live in the small city of Eagle?
George Kennedy: Eagle is not even really a city. It’s like if you went from Dallas to Fort Worth, and you’d pass something in the middle. It wouldn’t be either Dallas or Fort Worth, but it would be something. Eagle has a very small population. It’s kind of like Thornton Wilder’s Our Town except perhaps with a little less naivety here. People kind of mind their own business. Where are you?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I’m in Birmingham, Alabama.
George Kennedy: Alabama has many small towns. I mean, my God, I spent enough time there! It has, if anything, the small town atmosphere.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely … and beautiful countryside.
George Kennedy: Yeah. When I was younger and the war was going on, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas were big training grounds. But, when you’re a kid from New York City and you travel, some of the things you’ve heard about the south … or north, east, and west for that matter, are so exaggerated.
I found warmth in the south very comforting to me. Being born in New York, you’re used to hustlers all the time. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that there was a lot less of that in the south than there was in the north.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you experience some southern hospitality?
George Kennedy: Yes, but it went beyond that. You didn’t walk over anybody. If you made a fool of yourself, they let you know it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I found your book fascinating. How did you arrive at the title, Trust Me?
George Kennedy: It was really a matter of elimination. You should know something. When I started this, it didn’t start out at all to be like this. If you don’t mind, I’ll tell you just a bit about how it came out this way because I think it may be important to you. I started to write, as best I could, a typical memoir … I was born and then I got older. I started that once and threw it away. I started a second time, got a lot further, and threw that one away. I said, “No. I don’t want to write this.”
I wanted to write what life is like, what it was like for me and the bad luck parts which sometimes turned out to be okay. I wanted to write about the people I met and why we kid ourselves about so many things. It was very important to me to ask people, “What difference does it make to me if you’re a Baptist or a Catholic?” There’s only one God up there. Just go with it and do your best. Once I made that decision, it started to be an entirely different book, and that’s the book you read.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I saw a two-minute video recently and you asked the question, “Why do we torture ourselves over and over?” I believe you were speaking about 9/11.
George Kennedy: I was because 9/11 was so horrible. I see ours as a bunch of naïve people for the most part. I’m not talking about the sharks and the guys who culled billions, but I’m talking about the Americans who aren’t really looking for the next guy to hit them over the head and rob them. That’s not a characteristic. If somebody’s hurting, I don’t care where they’re from, they can find four or five people who will help. Right now! That’s not necessarily true in other places.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): When you became a teenager, did you ever talk to your mom or anyone about the abuse you endured when you were left alone for hours at a time, and how it affected you as a small child?
George Kennedy: I don’t think so. You’re the first person who has ever asked me that. I don’t think so. Teenagers have so many problems just being teenagers. You’re going through physical changes that amount to revolution from inside your body. You go from a little bitty thing in a crib to somewhere around 20 and ready to get married. All of the time you’re faced with problems. Your fingernails get longer, and you get acne. It’s a terrifying time. We all go through it.
When I was growing up, I didn’t feel like talking to other people about my problems because it seemed to me that they had as many problems as I did. I suppose if you get a couple of drinks in you, anybody can spout off. But, I don’t remember particularly talking about mine. They were all there when I needed them for this book, but talking about them … no. I would recall happiness and still do, but the more gruesome aspect of it, I would not talk about. I don’t think people particularly want to hear that. They’ve got their own problems.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Perhaps you were afraid of someone judging your mother or the situation.
George Kennedy: It’s so hard to be a human and be a judge. I think we all do it. I don’t think we’re capable of not judging, but humans really should try to put themselves in the other person’s shoes. One of the hardest experiences is to comfort a mom or dad who has just lost a kid in the war. I’ve done it more than I wish I had. But, you’re so hurting for them that words don’t seem to count. You can’t bring them back, so you just try to be empathetic. Being a human being is no easy chore. Not at all.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you maintain a close relationship with your mother?
George Kennedy: My mother was a saint. Without my mother, I simply didn’t exist. There was nobody … there was my mother and me, and there were the streets of New York. Without my mother, I wouldn’t have made it through the first six weeks of birth. I think if you compared mothers and fathers, most people would say that the mother is far more important than the father. I’m not making a joke and saying, “Yeah, the father is at the bowling alley.” I’m not saying that at all. But, the mother is the life giver. The mother is the life sustainer.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You lost your best friend in the war. Did you stay in contact with others from your unit after the war ended?
George Kennedy: Most of them are dead now. To some degree I did. About 20 years after the war, I got a letter from my former commanding officer. I got a card when they had a little get together. I was very grateful to hear that some were alive at that time. There are many dead people in wars. I’m not a fan of wars at all. But, I didn’t keep in touch with them.
Consider what the army is – you’ve got a guy coming from New Jersey, another from Mississippi, three from Rhode Island, and some from Saskatchewan, Canada who crossed the border to join. You get people from all over and put them in a company of soldiers and they are a unit. They share the sense of fighting, but they are not a unit. They’re individual guys from here, there and everywhere.
As soon as that makeshift orderliness is done and the war is over, the things you were interested in (like soldiering) is over with; therefore, you really don’t seek each other out unless you were very close friends. I’m an old man now. I have found that most merchant marine soldiers did not seek out people who they had known in the army for any length of time. You just don’t do it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You chose the Army Air Corps.
George Kennedy: I served in the Army Air Corps, but I’m 6’4”, and even in those days I weighed 210 pounds. I was interested in airplanes then, and I’m interested in airplanes now. The best explanation came from a master sergeant in the Air Force. He said, “George, there’s nothing wrong with you. But, we can either put you in an airplane or we can put a 200-pound bomb in an airplane. We’d rather put the bomb in the airplane.”
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Then you went into the Army.
George Kennedy: Yes. When the war came up, the Army Air Corps, Navy, Marines, Merchant Marines … they were all out there for you to choose. The minute you got out of high school you were going in one of them. My preference was the Air Corps, but the Air Corps at that time was part of the Army. It wasn’t like the Air Force is today, so you weren’t joining a separate part of the service. You were joining the Air Corps. When they found they couldn’t use me for various reasons, mostly my size, the Army was ready to put a rifle in my hand so that I could shoot at people.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): During your time in the Army, you became involved with the opening of the first Army Information Office which provided technical assistance to films and TV shows. Is that when your interest in acting began?
George Kennedy: No, that’s a little too neat. That’s just too neat. In the early part of the book, I mention how lonesome it was to be a little boy when my mother was out trying to keep us alive. I spent days, months, and years alone, and I would play all the parts of a radio show. There was nobody else there. From dawn to dusk I didn’t see anybody.
I saw myself … I saw my mother very seldom, and yet she was the only person in my life … the only one. There was nobody else. So, why did I do it? Did I do it out of any great thought process? No! I was lonesome. I talked to myself. I talked to anything. I talked to lamps. There was nobody.
The times that my mother would come home and she wasn’t totally spent, I would be right by her side whether she talked to me or not. It was very awkward. People have told me over the years that I live in my head. I’m sure they’re correct. But, it’s something I’ve done all my life. Make any sense to you?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Yes it does. You were a very lonely boy who was left alone many hours at a time. What did acting come to mean to you over the years?
George Kennedy: Acting is beautiful. If I’m prejudiced toward doing it, it is because of the joy that I derive from it. Add that to the fact that I didn’t have any other choices. I either talked to myself, or I didn’t talk to anybody. There was nobody there. Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart, and all the great actors took pride and comfort in acting. Did I like what I did? Oh my God, yes!
If I weren’t 86 now, I’d still be out there trying to do something because it’s my greatest love outside of my home. But, it doesn’t make it anything more. I wonder if the situation had been different, would I have been an actor under those circumstances? Perhaps not, but I would’ve had the instincts I have for it, which were always pleasurable.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And you earned an Oscar also.
George Kennedy: When I got that role (Dragline in Cool Hand Luke), I was known as a good character actor. You don’t give just any character actor half the picture with a superstar. Paul Newman was a superstar at that time and 40 years later he was still a superstar. I’m very proud of that role and that film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That was the year (1968) that Katherine Hepburn won Best Actress for Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner. Did you ever work with her?
George Kennedy: No, I never worked with or met Katherine Hepburn. There were certain stars in my life that I wished I could have met and Hepburn was one of them. She was an icon, a true icon. When you said, “Katherine Hepburn,” to anyone, there was no “fiddly faddling” as to whom you were talking about. You were talking about the Hepburn. Whether you liked her or not, she was dominant and dominant at a time when women were not. She was wonderful.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): In the Heat of the Night won Best Picture that year. That film and Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner concerned race relations and prejudices. What was that atmosphere like in Hollywood back in the 60s?
George Kennedy: It existed in a roundabout sort of way, but I’ve never met a more cosmopolitan or a more generous and giving bunch. It was like, “I get along with you and you can get along with me.” Things have grown so much in the last 50 years in that area though.
When I was a little boy, interracial marriage was unheard of. It didn’t exist. In movies, if the picture called for an interracial marriage, it existed. If the picture called for white troops and black troops charging up the hill together, you did it. There wasn’t time for that kind of prejudice. There just wasn’t time. So, there was less of it in Hollywood than anyplace else. Of course, circumstances have seen to it that there’s less of it in America now than there used to be.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Thank goodness for that. You’ve had quite a career in television also, from Perry Mason to Dr. Kildare to The Love Boat to Dallas. Were you friends with Raymond Burr?
George Kennedy: Yes. Raymond Burr was bigger than Mt. Vesuvius. I’ve got to tell you a story I’ve never told anybody. Raymond and I were big men. We’re talking 6’4”, and both of us weighed more than a ton and a half each. For that reason, as well as others, we liked each other. If you can picture this, we’d talk about being big guys and we would giggle.
Now, here was 600 pounds of guys sitting between shots in a couple of chairs and almost breaking them because we’re giggling at jokes. Over all of Raymond’s movies and TV shows, I remember him as a guy who’d giggle with me and didn’t care. I thought he was a wonderful actor.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Cute story (laughs). You have played your share of villains and died many times in films. Do you have a memorable death scene?
George Kennedy: They asked something of me in Charade. The movie starred Cary Grant and Audrey Hepburn. Stanley Donen, the genius who directed Singin’ in the Rain, directed Charade. Well, I had a metal arm with a hook. In my death scene, they said, “You’re going to lay down in this tub of water. Your eyes are going to be open. As we roll the camera, you’re going to lie back in the water until all the bubbles and all the waves stop. Then we’re going to shoot you as dead, looking up with your eyes open through the water.” I swear to you, I’ve done very few things in my life that were more difficult.
As you’re lying back, there are bubbles that come from the back of your head that keep going up. In one take, Stanley pulled me up and said, “Stop breathing!” I said, “Stanley, I’m under a foot of water. I’m not breathing! I promise you!” We did it over and over and over. I’d strongly suggest you don’t try this at home. But, if you ever do lie there in a tub of water, and wait for the bubbles to go away with your eyes open, you can feel how scary it is!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did you also perform your own stunts in Cool Hand Luke, particularly the boxing scenes?
George Kennedy: Yes, almost all of them. I’ve done most of my own stunts in almost every movie. The only things I wouldn’t do were the things that I couldn’t do. The movie business has, as part of its armory, great stuntmen. In the beginning I did stunts like falling off a moving wagon or popping out of a windowsill. They’d say, “Oh George, will you do this horse fall for us?” I used to do them to the point where I’d end up in the hospital or in the chiropractor’s office.
The stuntmen themselves came to me and said, “Don’t do those stunts. We are paid to do the stunts and if you do them, we don’t get paid.” So, I stopped doing them unless it was one they couldn’t shoot with a stuntman. Dying face up under a tub of water … how are you going to get around that? The camera was right on my face. It couldn’t be a stuntman. It had to be me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I wanted to mention the Naked Gun series of films: From the Files of Police Squad!, The Smell of Fear, and The Final Insult. Do you prefer comedy or drama?
George Kennedy: I love comedy perhaps more than anything else. Leslie Nielsen was the backbone of those films. The difficulty with comedy is repetition. When you see any of the Naked Gun movies on the screen, they were funny. It was a wonderful series. But, when you see them, you are seeing one take.
The Zucker Brothers, producers and writers, did not believe in anything less than 40 takes. Well, if I tell you a short joke and you laugh, you are laughing at the joke as we see it in the movies. You see it once. But, believe me, if you tell a joke 40 times in front of a camera, it isn’t necessarily even funny anymore. It is painful. You are saying the punchline and trying to remember how you said it an hour before. So, that was the difficult part of it. Working with Priscilla (Presley), Leslie, and Ricardo Montalban was a pleasure and I loved every single film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will you be making more appearances on The Young and the Restless portraying Victor Newman’s father?
George Kennedy: They asked me a couple of times. I did it once out of my friendship for Eric Braeden. But, that’s a whole different thing. Those kids are all a fifth my age. They’re just out of high school or college and I felt like an Egyptian mummy sitting there.
My time in movies and shows is up. The people who I talk to you about right now with great affection are, for the most part, gone. When they talk about somebody coming out in a brand new movie now, I don’t even know who they are. It is their turn. My turn is over and that’s fine. It was fun. The fact that it was all I could do made it even better. I loved what I did.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Isn’t there a recent film called Another Happy Day where you play Ellen Barkin’s character’s father?
George Kennedy: I don’t know if it’s coming out. I know they had some difficulty with it, but I haven’t heard a word about it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Mr. Kennedy, looking back on your career, is there a role that you missed and wished you could have done?
George Kennedy: Yes. I can answer you very directly and very honestly, and I mean it with all my heart. Some years ago, I was in Spain doing a western with Henry Fonda who was a friend of mine. I loved him dearly and thought he was one of the best actors who ever existed. Well, he came by my hotel one night and said, “I’ve got an idea and would like for you to think about it. They’ve asked me to do Of Mice and Men.” This was a big theater group that Olivier was also involved with. He continued, “I would start in Florida and come all the way up the east coast and finish in New England. I wonder if you’d be interested in doing the play with me?”
I didn’t answer him immediately because I was overwhelmed by the generosity of his offer. Can you imagine going on stage with Henry Fonda every night and be one of the two people that gets to capture the audience? We didn’t do it because the guy who ran the thing dropped dead right before rehearsals. But, I think it would have been the highlight of my life.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were any of your children interested in show business?
George Kennedy: No, they’re not. We have one daughter, Shaunna, who’s the light of my life. She’d say, “Any part in this new picture, Pop?” I’d say, “No, only for a dog.” She’d say, “Woof!” She was a remarkable child. She had lots of kids and has been married three times. She’s the bright spot in our lives. But, the rest of them … they couldn’t care less.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How many children do you have?
George Kennedy: Well, it’s an odd number. When I was married to another lady in excess of 40 years ago, we adopted two children. Joan and I have been married for 34 years now, and she had two children, and they had children. Some of them came and went and two of them passed on. So, there have been some 6 to 10 kids around the house all the time, including the two who still live with us now. Is it easy? No. But, life is better because of kids.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you and Joan have a secret to marriage longevity?
George Kennedy: I don’t know. It’s very difficult. When I have a viewpoint and she has another, it’s not always easy to compromise or to be the good guy. I think that’s the hardest thing. Fifty percent won’t work. You each have to give fifty-five.
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