George Kennedy and the art of scene stealing

George Kennedy's Patroni steals a scene from Burt Lancaster, the star of Airport.

George Kennedy’s Patroni steals a scene from Burt Lancaster, the star of Airport.

We deviate from our normal format to note the passing of character actor George Kennedy, who has died at the age of 91, according to an obituary at  THEWRAP WEBSITE.

Kennedy won an Oscar for Cool Hand Luke. But he also provided a kind of acting lesson in the 1970 film Airport — namely, a practical demonstration of how a supporting player can steal a movie from its stars.

Airport has been copied and parodied over the years. But in 1970, it was a big, prestigious film, starring Burt Lancaster and Dean Martin. It eventually was nominated for Best Picture and the distinguished actress Helen Hayes, who appeared in the film, picked up an Oscar for best supporting actress.

Nevertheless, Kennedy in a secondary role actually dominates the scenes he’s in. He plays Joe Patroni, a gruff airliner mechanic. For much of the movie he has a cigar. He also takes great advantage of the structure of the Big Movie.

Tom Mankiewicz, the one-time James Bond screenwriter, in his audio commentary for Live And Let Die describes a type of character such movies can’t do without — Leo The Explainer.

These characters provide expository dialogue, giving the audience information it needs to know. As Mankiewicz told it, stars don’t like providing such explanations. So Leo The Explainer serves that purpose.

The thing is, Kennedy’s Patroni — Airport’s Leo The Explainer — does so in an entertaining fashion that draws attention to himself.

In the movie, a mentally disturbed man (Van Heflin) intends to explode a bomb aboard a flight to Rome so his wife will collect insurance. The authorities have figured this out but the question is how to stop him.

There’s a scene in the office of airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Lancaster) with a model of a Boeing 707. Patroni talks about what what happens when there’s sudden decompression, giving a semi-graphic explanation. (Patroni says he once witnessed such an incident personally.)

Eventually, the disturbed man sets off the bomb. Later, it’s up to Patroni to get a stranded airliner, stuck in snow, to free up the airport’s main runway so the returning, damaged jet can land safely. With time running out, Patroni declares, “We’re going for broke!” and against all odds moves the stranded plane out of the way.

Universal, the studio that released Airport, decided to release other Airport movies between 1974 and 1979. The one constant: George Kennedy as Patroni. Acting schools teach you about the craft. But Kennedy’s performance in the original Airport is a lesson for aspiring actors about the reality.

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2 Responses

  1. I just watched “AIRPORT” recently. And yeah . . . Kennedy was great.

  2. Actually, you can tie Mr. Kennedy’s passing to the spy movie genre. He pretty much stole the show in Clint Eastwood’s “The Eiger Sanction” – or, at least, he had the funniest lines.

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