Wonderful Westerns: Remembering the Great George Kennedy

Another legend has left our world. George Kennedy, an Academy Award-winning actor, passed away February 26 at the age of 91. This was man whose career expanded over five decades starting as a slave shouting “I’m Spartacus” in Spartacus (1960) all the way to playing Mark Wahlberg’s grandfather in The Gambler (2014). The man’s filmography was anything but dull. The Airport movies of the ’70s, the Naked Gun films, and Small Soldiers (1998) are some of the obvious ones.

But then there are his roles in Death on the Nile (1978) where he played a crooked lawyer trying to swindle his client’s money and becomes a suspect in her murder case, a vicious criminal in Thunderbolt in Lightfoot (1974), a mild-mannered Army officer in The Dirty Dozen (1967), an oil-company worker in The Flight of the Phoenix (1965), a criminal in Charade (1963), and of course his Oscar-winning performance as the prison chain-gang leader Dragline in Cool Hand Luke (1967). He also did a ton of television, including starring as a police officer turned priest in the ’70s crime drama Sarge. 

Of course like so many actors of that time, he made frequent appearances in Westerns and was great in them. Surprisingly though, he didn’t make as many Westerns as one would think or at least compared to his colleagues (not including TV show appearances), but nonetheless, here are some of the highlights of George Kennedy’s Westerns.

Kennedy in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965).
Kennedy in The Sons of Katie Elder (1965).

First is one of Kennedy’s earliest performances and one of his first real acting roles in Henry Hathaway’s The Sons of Katie Elder (1965). This was a pretty good film in which to gain some notoriety, seeing as it was one of John Wayne’s post-op productions after major lung cancer surgery. According to IMDB, Kennedy was surprised to see Wayne smoking cigars on set. As for Kennedy’s role in the movie, he plays a hired gun named Curley who’s working with villain Morgan Hastings (James Gregory) to help keep things secured for himself and cause trouble. Dressed in all black throughout the film, Kennedy makes a very strong impression, and just from a few looks, you get an idea that this was a guy who was up to no good.

Over the next few years, Kennedy would maintain steady work as a character actor starring in supporting roles and working for a lot of good directors including one of my favorites, Robert Aldrich. Kennedy then went one to win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in Cool Hand Luke (1967), which played a big part in his career picking up.

Kennedy, left, and Andrew Pine in Bandolero! (1968)
Kennedy, left, and Andrew Pine in Bandolero! (1968)

His next big Western role would be in Andrew V. McLaglen’s Bandolero! (1968), where he played the role of Sheriff July Johnson. Sheriff Johnson, along with his deputy, Roscoe Bookbinder (Andrew Pine) and a posse, track down the Bishop brothers (James Stewart and Dean Martin) and their gang who escaped the hangman’s noose and captured a woman that Johnson loves, Maria Stoner (Raquel Welch). Now, the character itself wasn’t too deep or anything, but it’s Kennedy that brings a lot to the role. Also, reportedly Larry McMurtry based two of his characters in his novel Lonesome Dove off Kennedy’s and Pine’s characters. I’d like to think that Kennedy’s performance played a role in that, and anything that influences a part of my favorite book of all time has to mean something and be worth noting.

In 1969, Kennedy stepped in to fill Yul Brynner’s boots for Guns of the Magnificent Seven, the third installment of The Magnificent Seven series. I covered this movie briefly in my sequel retrospective article, and I stated that Kennedy filled in the role of Chris Adams just fine, but I don’t think I gave him enough credit. Casting Kennedy to replace Brynner seems like an odd choice but Kennedy does an amazing job in the role. He has the cool demeanor, delivers one liners with ease, and keeps the tough guy appearance up all the while actually caring about the people who hired him.

Kennedy has left a great legacy behind him, along with a great catalog of movies.

R.I.P. George Kennedy

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About John Hamilton 41 Articles
John Hamilton is a lover of classic cinema from Southern Ohio and has been since he was a tiny little lad growing up on the farm. He's a fan of every type of film out there, especially Westerns and movies from the '60s and '70s. John is also a blogger and freelance writer.