George Kennedy: ‘Dallas’ Villain, Real Life Hero

Carter McKay, Dallas, George Kennedy, Jeri Gaile, Rose McKay

Rose and the briar

George Kennedy was nothing if not versatile. The actor, who died last week at 91, brought to life such diverse characters as Joe Patroni, the everyman hero of the “Airport” disaster flicks, and Ed Hocken, the dimwitted police captain in the “Naked Gun” movies. Kennedy’s most famous role is the one that won him a best supporting actor Oscar: Dragline, the leader of the chain gang in “Cool Hand Luke.” With the exception of Robert Redford, Paul Newman never had a better sidekick than George Kennedy.

“Dallas” fans also remember Kennedy as Carter McKay, the burly, blustery oil baron who did battle with the Ewings during the original show’s final seasons. The series was already running on fumes when Kennedy arrived, but there were flashes of inspiration, and he played a central role in many of them. The Ewing Oil/Westar tanker collision gets my vote for the second-best business storyline in “Dallas” history (after J.R. and Bobby’s contest for control of Ewing Oil, of course), while the Southfork range war brought the show back to its western roots, at least for a little while. Both stories cemented McKay’s status as a worthy antagonist to the Ewings.

But even when the material wasn’t great, it was still a hoot to watch Kennedy act opposite Larry Hagman. J.R. routinely got a rise out of McKay, causing him to erupt in ruddy-faced anger; it was almost as much fun as watching J.R. toy with Cliff Barnes. Kennedy also had a nice rapport with Patrick Duffy, whose character’s heroics seemed to irk McKay as much as J.R.’s mischief. In fact, the McKay line that “Dallas” diehards probably remember best — “Don’t give me that crap!” — was directed at Bobby, not J.R. You also have to admire the deference Kennedy showed Barbara Bel Geddes in the memorable range-war scene in which Miss Ellie zooms past McKay’s hired guns in her Volkswagen convertible (one of the few times Mama is shown driving), throws the car in park, marches up to his front porch and gives him a piece of her mind.

Indeed, Kennedy ensured McKay was more than a one-note villain. The actor could be downright cuddly in his scenes with Jeri Gaile, whose endearing performance as McKay’s young wife Rose was another bright light during “Dallas’s” final years. Kennedy also did a nice job conveying McKay’s struggles to re-connect with his estranged children, including the drug-addicted Tommy. These scenes seem even more poignant when you realize Kennedy’s family dealt with the scourge of addiction in real life: He and his wife adopted one of their grandchildren after the girl’s mother became addicted to drugs. One of the most touching tributes to Kennedy last week came from Fox News Channel’s Bill O’Reilly, who hailed him as “a hero” and aired a 2002 clip in which Kennedy opened up about his family’s troubles.

It’s also been heartening to see so many “Dallas” fans pay tribute to Kennedy on social media and sites like this one. Some of this might have to do with the fact that the death of a “Dallas” star is a relatively rare thing: Among the actors who appeared in the original show’s opening credits, Kennedy is the only seventh who has died. (The others: Jim Davis, Donna Reed, Dack Rambo, Howard Keel, Bel Geddes and Hagman.) But I also hope Kennedy’s death will prompt fans to revisit — and reassess — the show’s later seasons. Even when the storytelling isn’t great, Kennedy is quite good. We’re fortunate he was part of the show we all love.

What are your favorite memories of George Kennedy on “Dallas”? Share your comments below and read more opinions from Dallas Decoder.

Comments

  1. While George Kennedy didn’t always have the best storylines… The last seasons were not consistent.. He always lent a gravitas to his work and was always fun to watch. I just wanted to add my voice as a note of appreciation for his work on Dallas and all of his other great work. He was blessed with a long life. RIP

  2. Dan in WI says:

    A very nice tribute.
    I’m too young for Airport or Cool Hand Luke so to me Kennedy is equal parts Captain Ed Hocken and Carter McKay with some Match Game panelist (I saw plenty of Game Show Network re-runs when spending time with Grandma) thrown in.
    I don’t have a lot to add that our site master hasn’t already said. I do feel that Kennedy can have some Shatner overacting tendencies at times but someone that too adds to his charm. On Dallas he was the shining star of the “jumped the shark” years. Unlike Jeremy Wendel he wasn’t pure villain. Kennedy played him is a way he could be down right sympathetic at times. As Chris points out you felt for McKay when you found he was nothing more than a blackmailed frontman in the range war. You felt for McKay when he tried so hard to save Tommy. But Kennedy could also make him pure villain. After Tommy’s death McKay got so cold and was an absolute ass the way he drove away Rose.
    There is also no doubt in my mind that Kennedy’s best screen partner was Duffy. That’s not to say he didn’t have great scenes with Hagman but he and Duffy just clicked. There again they played both fast friends and bitter enemies and made each transition between the two extremes so believable. You never got whiplash watching the transition and that is the dictionary definition of consummate actor in my book when you can sell each and every face/heel turn so well. I posted the below as an entry to my list of the the 35th greatest moments back and 2013 and I’ll repost it here because it so perfectly sums up that Kennedy/Duffy chemistry.
    Episode 321 Judgment Day: Bobby Channels Jock
    But the scene I really love:
    Ewing Oil is in trouble over the Westar/Ewing tanker collision. It looks certain they are going to be found at fault and as an independent oil company there is no way it can survive the fines if found liable. So the vultures are circling. Carter McKay goes to Bobby and makes a low ball offer (as good as he makes it sound) for the company. A dejected Bobby is in a position where he has to consider it. A few days later after the written proposal was submitted Carter returns for his answer. Bobby grants that it would be better if he sold outright instead of “letting the vultures pick it [the company] clean.” That sets up this classic exchange:
    Bobby: Do you know who founded this company McKay?
    Carter: Sure. Jock Ewing was a legend.
    Bobby: You’re right. And do you know what he’d be doing if he were standing here right now?
    Carter: Well I imagine he wouldn’t be playing games.
    Bobby: No. He’d be escorting you out of this building. Headfirst through this very window, and I’m just embarrassed I didn’t do the same thing when you first brought me this stinking deal.
    Carter: You’re a fool Bobby. I’ll buy Ewing Oil from the justice department for 50 cents on the dollar.
    Bobby: I’d rather deal with that than sell out to you. [long icy stare] Besides, I have one last card to play.
    Carter: You’re just whistling in the dark.
    Bobby [ripping up the proposal]: But I like the tune.

    That is good stuff.
    RIP

    • Yes! Dan, I love that scene too. Thanks for reminding me. I appreciate your other comments too.

      • Miss Green says:

        I miss the show Dallas so much! It was a different day & time! A much better day & time, I might add! Drama shows now are nothing but trash! Dallas had Character & Class! A moving tribute to Mr Kennedy! Dallas and its characters will be in our hearts forever!

  3. Elizabete says:

    GREAT ACTOR!

  4. Just when I was planning on seizing George Kennedy’s/Carter Mackay’s last shares in Westar Oil he goes & does something noble & dies on me! The nerve!

  5. I thought personally that the last three seasons were the best three seasons, and Kennedy was the stand out cast member. I very much loved him and the show and miss it of course. I thought the tnt one was truly terrible but a bright spot was seeing his character mentioned again.

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