Oscar-winning actor George Kennedy dead at 91

By Shawn Price   |   Updated March 1, 2016 at 7:23 AM
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BOISE, Idaho, Feb. 29 (UPI) -- George Kennedy, the big, gruff, tough-guy character actor who won an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke and later lampooned those type of characters in The Naked Gun movies has died. He was 91.

Kennedy died of natural causes at his home in Boise, Idaho, grandson Cory Schenkel reported on Facebook Tuesday.

The long career of the actor included TV and movie roles stretching from the 1960s to 2014. He was born into a show business family in 1925 and had his first stage role at age 2 in a touring company of Bringing Up Father.

He enlisted and fought under General George Patton in World War II, where he earned two Bronze Stars and four rows of combat and service ribbons, all despite having a left leg three inches shorter than the right.

Working for the Army Information Office, he was an adviser on the TV comedy Sgt. Bilko in the 1950s, where he was really bitten by the acting bug.

At an imposing 6-foot-4-inches tall, he played bad guys in TV westerns against the even taller stars James Arness, Chuck Conners and Clint Walker. But his breakthrough came in his 1968 Oscar-winning role as Dragline in Cool Hand Luke, opposite Paul Newman.

"The marvelous thing about that movie," Kennedy said in a 1978 interview, "was that as my part progresses, I changed from a bad guy to a good guy. The moguls in Hollywood must have said, 'Hey, this fellow can do something besides be a bad guy.' "

He was a regular in 1970s disaster movies like Airport and Earthquake, then lampooned the type of big, gruff tough guy roles he'd always played in the Naked Gun movies as Leslie Nielson's sidekick and also had roles in the classics Spartacus, The Sons of Katie Elder and The Dirty Dozen.

Kennedy wrote three books, including the murder mysteries Murder on Location, Murder on High, and his autobiography, Trust Me, in 2011.

His wife Joan died in September.

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