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On Tuesday night (22nd April 2009) I had the great opportunity to attend a live interview with George Kennedy at the BFI Southbank. The conversation was preceded by a screening of Cool Hand Luke in which Kennedy played Dragline, the self-appointed leader of the prison gang who transforms into Luke’s most ardent disciple. His performance of rough masculinity contrasts well with Newman’s cooly confident title character.
I knew Kennedy primarily from his films with James Stewart such as Shenandoah, The Flight of the Pheonix and Fools’ Parade, but of course he has starred in a range of films such as The Sons of Katie Elder with Dean Martin and John Wayne, The Dirty Dozen, Demented with Joan Crawford and the Aiport and Naked Gun series.
When Kennedy took the stage he was gracious and talked engagingly about getting drunk with John Wayne, befriending Bette Davis and even hanging out with Leslie Nielson and O.J. Simpson in their Naked Gun days. I was also interested to find out that he had served in the airforce and went on to act as a technical advisor on Sergeant Bilko where he witnessed the artistry of the vaudevillians at work.
Of particular interest to me was his recollections of knowing James Stewart. To Kennedy, who never knew his father, Stewart became a kind of father figure. Without ever having a male role model in his life, Kennedy believed that Stewart embodied everything a man should be. Interestingly this rings true with our perceptions of Stewart through the virtuous characters he played on-screen. Kennedy had seen Stewart’s films in the 1930s, naming Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, and felt extremely lucky to have worked with and known him. Indeed Kennedy talked of him with reverence and came to hold him in the highest regard of any male in his life. He did not mention the connection between his own wartime service in the airforce (he actually participated in the Battle of the Bulge) and James Stewart’s famously distinguished wartime service.
The evening was a rare opportunity, as would be the next night. It was revealed that Kennedy had flown to London with his old friend and co-star, Ernest Borgnine.