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Tough-guy actor George Kennedy dies aged 91

Published 01/03/2016

George Kennedy won an Oscar for best supporting actor for Cool Hand Luke (AP)
George Kennedy won an Oscar for best supporting actor for Cool Hand Luke (AP)

George Kennedy, the tough-guy character actor who won an Academy Award for his portrayal of a savage chain-gang convict in the 1960s classic Cool Hand Luke, has died.

His grandson Cory Schenkel said Kennedy died on Sunday morning of old age in Boise, Idaho. He was 91.

He had undergone emergency triple bypass surgery in 2002. That same year, he and his late wife moved to Idaho to be closer to their daughter and her family, though he was still involved in occasional film projects.

His biggest acting achievement came in Cool Hand Luke, a 1967 film about a rebellious war hero played by Paul Newman who is bent on bucking the system as a prisoner on a Southern chain gang.

Its theme of rebelling against authority and the establishment helped make it one of the most important films of the tumultuous 1960s.

Kennedy played Dragline, the chain-gang boss who goes from Luke's nemesis to his biggest disciple as Newman's character takes on folk hero status among fellow inmates.

The film garnered four Academy Award nominations, and Kennedy was named best supporting actor.

After the critical and commercial success of Cool Hand Luke, Kennedy carved out a niche as one of Hollywood's most recognisable supporting actors.

He had parts in several action flicks in the 1970s, played Leslie Nielsen's sidekick in the Naked Gun spoofs and was JR Ewing's business rival in the final seasons of Dallas.

One of his strongest supporting roles was in the hit 1970 film Airport, which spurred the run of 1970s disaster pictures.

The film spawned several sequels (Kennedy was in all of them) and landed Kennedy a Golden Globe nomination.

Kennedy said his acting ambitions were cemented when he was a young child.

"I remember listening to a radio programme when I was young and it made me feel good and I remember telling my mom that I wanted to make people feel the way this radio programme made me feel," Kennedy said in 1995.

"I got some great breaks, and I wound up being an actor."

His film career began to take flight when he starred in 1963's Charade, while his other acting credits in the 1960s included The Dirty Dozen and Guns Of The Magnificent Seven.

Kennedy became a regular face in action movies in the 1970s after the success of Airport, including Earthquake and Death On The Nile.

He turned to comedy roles in the 1980s and 1990s, the most memorable being the three Naked Gun films.

Kennedy's last on-screen role was in the 2014 remake of The Gambler, which starred Mark Wahlberg.

Kennedy was born in New York in 1925. He started acting at the age of two when he joined a touring company.

He enlisted in the Army at 17 and served in the Second World War, opening the first Army Information Office that provided technical assistance to films and TV shows. Kennedy spent 16 years in the Army and left as a captain.

He m ade his television debut in The Phil Silvers Show in 1955 and made guest appearances in the Westerns Have Gun, Will Travel, Cheyenne and Gunsmoke.

Kennedy, an avid reader, also dabbled in writing and published a couple of murder mysteries.

In later years, he became an advocate for adopted children. He had four adopted children, including his granddaughter Taylor, whose mother, also adopted by Kennedy, had become addicted to drugs and alcohol.

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