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.
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