A hard-scrabble existence in Depression-era New York City was Oscar-winning character actor George Kennedy’s fate until he left for World War II service. Lacking a male influence in his life due to the untimely death of his father, life was hard with “plenty of nothing.” With his mother’s help, who was good and unselfish to a little boy, he made it to Hollywood and beyond with a simple prayer: “Dear God, don’t let me mess up.”
Trust Me: A Memoir, written solely by Kennedy [Applause Books, 2011] and available on Amazon, is raw, earnest, quintessential, and chock full of vintage photographs taken from the late actor’s remarkably consistent career, consisting of over 180 film and television roles according to the Internet Movie Database.
Kennedy toiled in episodic television for six years [e.g. Bonanza plus seven plumb guest spots on Gunsmoke] until ascending to leading roles in 1965 in such well-remembered films as Shenandoah, The Flight of the Phoenix, Cool Hand Luke (as Paul Newman’s chain gang buddy “Dragline,” Kennedy nabbed his only Best Supporting Oscar), The Dirty Dozen, Bandolero!, The Boston Strangler, Guns of the Magnificent Seven (the source of this review’s lead photo), Airport, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot, and The Eiger Sanction.
All of the major actors of the day worked with Kennedy, e.g. John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, Robert Mitchum, Paul Newman, Lee Marvin, Dean Martin, Tony Curtis, Doris Day, and Maureen O’Hara. Kennedy presents brief vignettes between each chapter recalling escapades with most of the afore-mentioned stars.
Often cast as deliberating, burly heavies in Westerns and military flicks, the six foot, three inch Kennedy’s career consisted of poor script choices and unimaginative Airport disaster knock-off sequels as the ’70s and ’80s dragged on. He serendipitously received a second wind in the late ’80s when he teamed up with Chuck Norris for the action-soaked Delta Force and ultimately Leslie Nielsen in the uproariously funny Naked Gun trilogy.
Slightly over 200 pages including a filmography but no index, Kennedy’s narrative is generally a breezy read, particularly his harrowing pre-Hollywood years. Unfortunately, the book tends to lose focus once Kennedy discusses his life in front of the camera.
Instead of offering linear, fascinating reflections of his costars and reasons why he made certain career decisions, Kennedy shoots for an esoteric, whimsical style of writing that more often than not was difficult to maintain this reader’s interest. A co-author possessing a sharp editing eye might have offered a more satisfying resolution. Still, as of this writing, Trust Me: A Memoir is the only source for fans wishing to learn more about an oft-forgotten actor who emboldened any celluloid scene he appeared in.
- DON’T GO ANYWHERE YET! John Wayne was George Kennedy’s costar in a trilogy of fine films, including “In Harm’s Way,” “The Sons of Katie Elder,” and “Cahill: U.S. Marshal” [the Duke memorably extinguished Kennedy in the latter two]. Wayne had no plans to retire after “The Shootist” opened to excellent reviews but slow box office receipts in August 1976. After open heart surgery in late spring 1978, the Duke was determined to begin work on “Beau John.” He went to impressive lengths to secure the project, actually buying the film rights via Batjac, the first time that had happened since he unsuccessfully bidded for “True Grit” 10 years earlier. The legend also had plans to reunite with one of his recent costars. Little has been known about the unfinished film until now. To learn more about the one project that gave Wayne some much needed hope during his final days, head on over to “‘Beau John’: The Untold Story of John Wayne’s Last Project.”
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Exclusive Interview: George Kennedy was comrade-in-arms with imposing, intelligent, battle-scarred hombre Richard Boone. Before Kennedy hit the big time, he was yet another working character actor, appearing in a startling eight episodes of Boone’s iconic Have Gun—Will Travel CBS Western series as—you guessed it—the bad guy. Boone was a multifaceted individual who experienced frightening Kamikaze attacks and hand-to-hand combat during World War II. The gruff cowboy was capable of gregarious carousing one evening while attending opera or art gallery openings the next. Biographer David Rothel took it upon himself to shine a light upon the thespian’s varied life and career. Fortunately, yours truly convinced Rothel to undertake his first Boone-centric interview (“A Knight Without Armor in a Savage Land: Saluting Erudite Tough Guy Richard Boone”) in well over a decade.
Exclusive Interview No. 2: Burly character actor Gregg Palmer appeared in an impressive six films with John Wayne. By far, “Big Jake” contains Palmer’s best work with the towering legend. In the action-packed 1971 Western, the 6’4″, 300-pound Palmer memorably plays a vicious machete-brandishing villain who threatens Big Jake’s grandson with near deadly results. In the words of fan Tom Horton, Palmer was one of the nastiest bastards to ever tangle with the Duke. In a quite rare two-part interview with the 86-year-old thespian [e.g. “The Man Who Killed John Wayne’s Dog”], the gentle giant relives his friendship with Duke and remembers his 30-year career alongside some of the greatest actors in Hollywood.
Exclusive Interview No. 3: Believe it or not, Steve McQueen, aka the quintessential King of Cool, had an unconfirmed half-sister for six decades. Dogged researcher Marshall Terrill revealed Teri McQueen’s identity to the world in his well-received 2012 biography, “Steve McQueen: The Life and Legend of a Hollywood Icon.” In the four-part “Daydreams of Having an Older Brother” interview series, Teri painstakingly relives her miserable childhood exacerbated by alcoholic, often resentful parents who shuttled her back and forth to various temporary homes when they couldn’t live together anymore. Pregnant at age 15 and working at Woolworth’s five and dime store after lying about her age, Teri’s hard-scrabble beginnings ironically mirrored much of her brother’s rebellious adolescence. As the tried and true adage plainly says, Teri’s experiences are definitely a page turner.
- Exclusive Interview No. 4: George Kennedy’s “Dirty Dozen” costar Lee Marvin made many a cowboy hero quiver in their dusty boots, including drinking pal John Wayne in “The Comancheros” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” In Part One of a just-released interview entitled “Battle Scars and Violent Interludes: Point Blank with Lee Marvin’s Biographer”, author Dwayne Epstein focuses on Marvin’s World War II experiences, revealing why he believes Marvin suffered from undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). He also presents the venerable tough guy’s surprising connection to Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now”, why one of his favorite projects, “Hell in the Pacific”, is a bold, experimental failure, and the chilling tale of a Silver Star recipient and future Marvin co-star who briefly wound up in a California mental hospital.
Exclusive Interview No. 5: Though not a household name, cult actor Warren Oates lit up the screen in a 25-year career cut inexplicably short by a heart attack at age 53 in April 1982. His hardscrabble Depression-era upbringing in the predominantly coal-mining community of Depoy, Ky., no doubt influenced his honest characterizations as the voyeuristic deputy of “In the Heat of the Night,” a good-natured outlaw gang member in “The Wild Bunch,” the psychotic pill-poppin’ villain in Lee Van Cleef’s “Barquero,” a tall-tale spewing car driver in “Two-Lane Blacktop,” the sympathetic title role of “Dillinger,” and Bill Murray’s constantly exasperated sergeant in the comical “Stripes.” His pre-eminent biographer, Susan Compo, speaks in a fascinating interview [i.e. “That Guy You’ve Seen But Can’t Remember His Name…”] about Oates’ hell-raising and humanity, best and worst movie roles, working alongside the mercurial Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, and what she might have said to Oates if their paths had intertwined.
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