An amusing exercise in which we pour salt on the wounds of those who temporarily achieved Hollywood glory, but were little prepared to keep it.
Just like Michael J. Pollard, last week’s inaugural victim of Hollywood caprice, George Kennedy is a true character actor. Beyond that though, all comparisons come to an immediate end. If Pollard was odd and quirky, Kennedy was solid and stalwart—a real man with a real face, real hairpiece, and real body.
The same year Pollard was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Bonnie and Clyde, Kennedy won for Cool Hand Luke. In it he played Dragline, a prison tough guy who initially gives Paul Newman’s titular character a hard time, until Luke’s unbreakable spirit inspires his respect and admiration. It was his biggest role in a 10-year career that started when he was hired to be a technical advisor on The Phil Silvers Show (aka Sgt. Bilko), which led to him becoming an extra, which led to his getting the occasional line, which led to bit parts in other TV shows and then eventually movies.
Despite his Oscar, Hollywood was reluctant to elevate him to leading man status. When it did it was in Guns of the Magnificent Seven, the third film in the franchise, and the first to not star any of the original Seven. Notable only for putting him onscreen with his cinematic brother-from-another-mother Joe Don Baker, Guns did little to turn Kennedy into a true star.
The 70s saw him starring in a short-lived, forgotten TV series (Sarge), all four entries in the laughable Airport franchise (making him the series' only consistent character), Earthquake, and another just as short-lived, just as forgotten TV series (The Blue Knight), but it was the 80s where things started getting rough. His B-Movie career actually started promisingly with 1981s Just Before Dawn, perhaps the best slasher film of the period not made by John Carpenter, but the same could not be said for Wacko, Chattanooga Choo-Choo, Bolero or Delta Force. Kennedy’s lowest point, though, came in 1988, courtesy of the same directorial genius who gave us this:
I am, of course, talking about:
Unavailable on DVD, Demonwarp is a movie I only saw once on late night TV sometime in the early 90s, yet it has never ceased to haunt my dreams. Directed by Emmett Alston, the film is a bizarre mish-mash of sub-genres, seemingly created by the careless fusion of several unrelated screenplays. It first appears to be a Bigfoot movie, albeit one made to feel like a slasher film (Alston had previously made New Years Evil) before transforming into a cult/alien conspiracy thriller in which a topless screaming Michelle Bauer is sacrificed on an altar to a century old extra-terrestrial/god.
That one scene with Bauer has never left my mind, but it pales in significance to another she appears in earlier in the movie. In it, she and a similarly busty friend (of the blonde variety) are introduced into the film out of nowhere and without context as two tanning enthusiasts who have come to the forest to bask in the sun’s golden rays. To do this requires they unburden themselves of their tops, which they do quickly and efficiently. But, unfortunately, the baring of their breasts attracts the Bigfoot creature who shows his distaste for their exhibitionism by graphically removing the blonde’s head from her body. Bauer screams, is captured by the creature, and then disappears from the narrative until it’s time to sacrifice her on the slab—making this another feature in which she spends more time onscreen naked than otherwise.
Kennedy’s role as the father of one of the moronic teenage characters is negligible and unnecessary, but enough to get his face featured on the poster and top-billed in the credits. It’s the dictionary definition of a paycheque performance.
Fortunately for Kennedy that same year he co-starred in The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! a Zucker-Abrams-Zucker movie based on their very short-lived TV show. It and its two sequels brought him back into the limelight and probably remain the films for which he is best known (at least among my generation). When the franchise ended in 1994 he worked as consistently as any actor of retirement age should be expected to. He’s still at it today, at the considerable age of 86.
Chances are Kennedy had no idea he’d have such a tumultuous career 51 years earlier when he was 35 and guest-starring on a TV western called Sugerfoot. It would be the only time he worked with another future Oscar winner, who was a regular on the show for the third of its four seasons. She too would know the highest highs and the lowest lows, but unlike Kennedy, she has never experienced any significant late-career success.
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