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Remembering the Late Acting Legend George Kennedy – Exclusive Interview

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Exclusive Interview by “Bad” Brad Berkwitt

“So many times people ask me: where did you get your acting training? ‘In life’ is what I always answer.”—George Kennedy

“George Kennedy is a great character actor, who is a master at both comedy and dramatic roles.”—Pat Cooper, Legendary Comedian

When one sees the name “George Kennedy” up on the silver screen, they know that they are in for an honest acting performance that will stand the test of the time. Such proof is his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role as Dragline, in COOL HAND LUKE. Kennedy, is an “Actor’s Actor” as my late father, Alvin, used to say. In a movie and TV career that has spanned over 60 years, that has seen him rubbing acting elbows with some of the biggest stars Hollywood has ever produced and holding his own, is something that no doubt he should be very proud of.

Recently, I read George’s autobiography: “Trust Me: A Memoir” and as the Ringside Report readers already know, I couldn’t use enough superlatives to describe just how great of a read it was. Yes, a brutally honest read, something very refreshing to read in a world that has become far too politically correct.

That book review would lead to this interview where I found George such a delight to talk with. He pulled no punches, showed a true love for the movie career that put food on his table throughout the years, and brings you, the Ringside Report readers, a true look into “Old Hollywood.”

Ladies and Gentlemen, Ringside Report welcomes Mr. George Kennedy…

BB: You currently live in Idaho. It’s a long way from Tinsel Town. What is it like there?

I am one of those people who are not crazy about ten months of winter. The thing is, I am a summer person and I like the blue sky when the summer is here. The blue skies in the winter when the clouds form, and it’s drizzly all the time, that doesn’t really move me.

BB: I read that you grew up in New York City.

Yes, that is correct. I remember it also being wet a lot of the time as well.

BB: I recently read and reviewed your book TRUST ME: A Memoir for Ringside Report and you did an outstanding job on it. Your honesty and true respect for your craft along with fellow actors rang through.

Yes, I read it and many people that I know were very impressed giving me nothing, but praises. It was very kind of you and it made my day.

BB: Talk about your book and where the inner part of your soul came up with the idea for it.

The book that you read was the third try at it. I didn’t realize until I threw the first two versions away that I didn’t want to write a book that was like: then, I was in this movie and that movie and this guy was nice and this lady was not so nice. I didn’t want to do that. Once I got started on writing where I came from, all of sudden it seemed important to me to be very careful with the truth to tell people how the depression really was. It was not a joke.

We get to the point now, many years later that people have a tendency to remember the Great Depression, but they throw it away. Well, it was the most horrible thing in my life and many people’s lives. It was like being in a tunnel with no other end.

People committed suicide, but when you say that real quickly, people don’t realize how many hundreds and thousands of people killed themselves because there was nothing for them. Once I got started on that, the other chapters of the book fell in line.

For example, when I talked about other actors, they are not all boneheads and some of them are pretty damn decent people, so let’s talk about that. So that is where it all came from, Brad.

BB: What are your thoughts about the fans out there that see a celebrity on the screen and fall in love with them, but they really don’t know the real person, just the character they have portrayed?

The term “celebrity,” for some reason, puts a different hat on a person you are talking about then a cop or a fireman. Celebrity gives the person, whomever you are talking about, male or female, an entrée to your mind, that the others don’t get. They say, “Oh my God, there’s so and so – she’s such a celebrity, I love her!” They don’t know her. They are making a judgment based on the “her” that they see up on the screen.

What that means though is that there is a responsibility that goes with that. I mean that you cannot go around being untrue to what you made people believe. Believe me, if you do, you will get kicked out of the business because the fans will stop coming to see you anymore.

BB: You have always felt that your acting career was a great blessing. Please elaborate.

I considered the time I spent acting a gift from the beyond. It was what I could do best. It doesn’t mean I did it well all of the time, but it does mean that I couldn’t have been a doctor or a great scientist.

BB: In your book, it appeared to me that your greatest acting teacher was life itself. Is that correct?

Yes, that is correct. So many times people ask me: where did you get your acting training? “In life” is what I always answer.

BB: If you could part with any wisdom to anyone who wanted to write their autobiography, what would you tell them?

The thing I had to find out with writing “TRUST ME” is there is always a place you can cut a sentence shorter. One of the things that the great writers, and I am about to contradict myself, but the great writers knew how to, such as John Steinbeck or Somerset Maugham. They knew how to say in a sentence, as efficiently as possible, what they wanted to get across. I loved how Steinbeck talked about anything from the Mexicans to his dog or to being in New England on a cold day by a lake.

You cannot just go on and on like I am doing with you on the phone now.

BB: Many fans of movies don’t realize that actors in the business, at times, have a lot of down time before the next movie or project comes along. If you would, talk to this point.

A lot of times, you will be in a movie that is no real earth shaker and you know it when you are reading the script. However, you will take the movie because it’s the only thing out there at the time. I don’t care who you are. Even the greatest star whoever lived such as Wallace Berry or Clark Gable, I don’t care.

There was a period and it happened more often than people realized when they had a choice between this picture, that picture or that picture and they had to choose one of them.

Wouldn’t you know that two of them were probably the world’s greatest pictures. What’s worse for an actor or actress is when you are free to work and you are very popular, but there is nothing out there for you to do. That hurts!

So many actors and actresses say, “I had the opportunity to do such and such.” How many times did Judy Garland hear, whether she was the first or second choice for THE WIZARD OF OZ? Every actor I have known, myself included, for COOL HAND LUKE, was not the first choice. I made a screen test to do that and they chose me to do it.

BB: Are the actors and actresses as cutthroat towards each other as many stories lead one to believe?

I have a story along these lines. It just so happens that I was nominated for an Oscar (Best Supporting Actor for COOL HAND LUKE) and Gene Hackman was also nominated for BONNIE AND CLYDE. He and I were at a party one night before the awards were announced and I went over to him and said: “Gene, (somebody had written, I hated his guts) I am not your enemy. I think you’re a wonderful actor. I swear to you that I think you are the best thing in BONNIE AND CLYDE, though Michael J. Pollard was getting all the attention.” But over the years, it has proven what an incredible actor Gene is.

BB: In all your years of making movies, did you have a favorite director and if so, who was it?

Andrew McLaglen. He was a wonderful director and dear friend who I did a lot of pictures with. If you have a bad director, I don’t care who you have as the stars, it’s not going to get the job done!

BB: You have acted in so many movies on all time favorite lists, but is there one movie you would like to forget that you were in?

A movie about cats called THE UNINVITED. We were on a boat and they had all these cats turning into monsters. It was one of those movies I took because there was nothing else going on at the time. It wasn’t bad, it was PUTRID! The worst movie that was ever made anywhere and I love cats! After that picture, I must have taken a six month breather.

BB: That’s hilarious you picked this movie. My business partner in NewzBreaker Geno McGahee, who is a Horror Movie Director, actually saw The Uninvited and liked it.

Tell him my heart goes out to him. (Big laugh)

BB: You have done voice work for movies on top of the acting. Did you enjoy that part of the business?

Yes, I did enjoy it, but I really loved everything I have done in the past tense. I am close to 87. The thing about it is that I think the Hindus say it best. There is a time when you are young and everything is brand new and shiny. In your 20’s and 30’s is when you are hot to trot for everything and you are good at it. Then there is the third area when things are beginning to slow down. Nothing – sex or anything else is as important as it once was. Mel Brooks said one time in a great album: “Never run for a bus, there will always be another.” Then there is the fourth stage and the one I am in. I am delighted to be here, but I am surprised. This is where you do not have the energy or the ability to get up and go. My mother used to say: “My get up and go went!” I am at that stage now, but I can write. I will write a paragraph down and then, come back to it a few days later and feel it was too long.

BB: In 1968, you won the Best Supporting Actor for your role as Dragline in COOL HAND LUKE. When the envelope was opened and you heard your name, what was the first thing that went through your mind?

You have to understand something… It was a total and complete surprise. I haven’t talked much about this, but my personal preference was Gene Hackman for BONNIE AND CLYDE, not Michael J. Pollard. I didn’t think anything bad about Pollard, but he was like everyone’s pet actor that year. He was new and pudgy with a cartoon face that people liked.

When it came to the acting parts, the whole damn picture was marvelous. But I thought Hackman would win. So when Patty Duke announced my name, literally the first thing I did was hit myself on the thigh with my right hand – I punched myself! It was a total and complete surprise – and I told my wife remember now we are not going to win this so we have a long time to sit here this evening and just look pleasant for everyone else.

But of course, it was very pleasant after winning to look that way for the rest of the evening.

BB: Is there one role you had the chance to play, but turned down and really regretted it?

I think everyone does. It’s like the old expression, there’s no use crying over spilled milk. You reach a point as a grownup when you realize what is – is and what was never meant to be – never was. So there is no point in crying about it. You do have some regrets. Part of them is that you lost a job to someone, but if you really felt that you could do something with the part and you didn’t get it, was a factor. It didn’t stay long.

BB: You acted in two movies that starred Clint Eastwood (THUNDERBOLT and LIGHTFOOT AND THE EIGER SANCTION). In your book, you spoke very highly of him. Let’s discuss him some more.

Clint Eastwood is one of the most admired people I have known in the acting business in my life. His integrity is beyond on question. His talent as an actor was established years ago. His ability as a director has been proven so many times over and over.

You just put his name on something today, and people will go to see even if it’s not so hot. He is a remarkable human being. And on top of the movies you had mentioned we made, I could have done KELLY’S HEROES, but there was a conflict so I couldn’t do it. Clint and I laughed a lot together and that is something you don’t hear about, but he is very humane and loves to laugh.

BB: I have been a fan of Don Rickles for years and even had the opportunity to see him in Atlantic City, New Jersey, back in 99. You co-starred with him in DENNIS THE MENACE and he is yet, another you spoke fondly about in your book. Let’s discuss him…

Don Rickles owns me! All he has to do is say: “George,” and I fall down… He is a lovely human being and again, he owns me! (Big laugh) There is nobody quite like Don. I remember we were talking on the set of DENNIS THE MENACE and he was truly hurt that some company put a poll out naming the top 50 comics of the half century or something like that and he was not mentioned as one of them. He said: “My God, they gave it to this guy and that guy. I don’t mind if you say Jack Benny or George Burns, but I wasn’t even on there.” Now you think of Don as bullet proof or what have you. But when he and I were talking, the man was really hurt. He has been married to his wife for 51 years and they love each other dearly. She is a remarkable woman.

BB: I really enjoyed the movie THE BOSTON STRANGLER, which you co-starred in with Tony Curtis. What was he like on the set?

Tony and I got along fine. I would come in on my days off and just shoot pictures of him. I was absolutely certain Tony would be nominated for an Oscar. Whatever Tony was or what he wasn’t, I remember as a kid him being a leading man and a good looking guy. He played that role (Albert DeSalvo) dedicated to being this terrible man and I think he did brilliantly.

I don’t know, but I always suspected that there was more to his not being nominated then just his work. I think he had reached the point where your turn was over and it’s time, even if we have to stretch it a bit, to give a look at someone else. I think so because Tony was marvelous in that picture.

BB: You always wished you had played OF MICE AND MEN with Henry Fonda on stage and were offered, but it fell through. Did you enjoy the movie with Burgess Meredith and Lon Chaney, JR? I thought Lon was a very underrated actor and was at his best, in this movie. Did you see anything from his performance that you might have used had you played Lennie?

Yes, of course. I am going to answer your question in a peculiar way. Lon Chaney, JR…we will talk about first. I never met Lon, but he became as much identified with that role as Lennie in OF MICE AND MEN as he was as THE WOLFMAN. He was very – very good. He was truly good and not just getting out there and making faces. A recent version had a good actor named John Malkovich who was totally wrong playing the role of Lennie and he is a good actor! Chaney, JR. owned it – there is no other way of saying it, that is how good he was!

BB: So with that said, how would you have played Lennie if the chance didn’t fall through opposite Henry Fonda on stage?

I knew that my hands were full with the role. Not to be compared with Chaney, JR. as I said a moment ago, “Chaney owned it!” There are things that you can do as an actor that will show sides of anyone differently than they have been shown before. I have read the book many – many times. But I was not going to play him like duh – duh – duh a big dumb guy – my interpretation would have been slightly different.

To be on stage every night in a two man play with Henry Fonda, but having it fall through, is something in my life that I truly missed doing. The Fonda family is a very talented family

BB: In my opinion, you don’t see the depth of talent in Hollywood on all levels from acting to writing to directing like they had in your day. Why do you think that is?

As a fan and a friend of movies and you obviously are, what are you going to put them in nowadays? Everything is made for television. If you want to see something good tonight, go to American Movie Classics. In the movies they play, you even see small parts being played so well that you can almost taste them.

I am one of those people who can sit back and my wife cannot understand why I watch CASABLANCA, which I may not watch all the way through, but if it were on tonight, I would watch part of it again. I have seen it uncountable times. There are many of them. In fact, if OF MICE AND MEN was on tonight, I would watch that.

Today, on TV, you have the Kardashians’ and I don’t give a rat’s ass what happens to them. For the most part, there is nothing today that they make like the old movies had.

(George: The specific question that we talked about yesterday and today that really touched me is: Why was it better in the old days?

In the old days, that I was in at the end of, you couldn’t say that about previous silent movies and the beginning of talkies had a burden of being the first movies that ever were. By the time it rolled around to be the mid 30s, they were making some damned good movies…1939 the best of all.

BB: I agree with you totally and another thing back then, you had studios that had 20 or 30 stars under their banner.

That’s true and doesn’t exist anymore…

BB: They consider say Tom Cruise a major star, but compared to say a Paul Newman of your day, no comparison!

Brad, your intelligent enough and caring enough that you should be aware of something that crossed my mind many, many times. The days of the studio system existed because they could get you for nothing. When I first started in Hollywood, and Warner Brothers and MGM had their bunch. Those stars that they had were being paid jelly beans, but now, you get 20 million dollars if you have done a cartoon. That’s the difference…

BB: If you were stranded on a desert island, what movie would you like to watch for all-time?

CASABLANCA.

BB: In closing, your final thoughts?

Because we are both such fans of movies, you and I could talk all day. I really loved being in this business. I can’t think of anything I could have done better, but more importantly, I don’t think in my lifetime there was anything I wanted to do more…I thank you well, for being Brad… You really sound like a guy I could talk to for three days…

Purchase George’s book here.

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