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.

007 degrees of separation of James Bond trivia

001: Barry Nelson (1917-2007) was the first actor to play James Bond in the 1954 CBS adaptation of Casino Royale.

002: Barry Nelson also played the captain of the airline plane in 1970’s Airport. (Dean Martin was only the co-pilot.)

003: Aiport was the last film to be scored by Alfred Newman (1901-1970), who was also composer of the “20th “Century-Fox Fanfare” that starts every film released by that studio.

004: Alfred Newman is the father of film composer Thomas Newman (b. 1955).

005: Thomas Newman is the composer for Skyfall, the 23rd James Bond film made by Eon Productions. It’s his first 007 assignment. He got the gig because he has done other films directed by Sam Mendes, the director of Skyfall.

006: Barry Nelson was once a panelist on an installment of To Tell The Truth, the game show hosted by Bud Collyer (1908-1969), who was the first person to play Superman (albeit on radio, later as the voice of Clark Kent/Superman in movie and television cartoons).

007: That’s all we got; we’ll conveniently ignore the often-cited trivia that Skyfall producer Michael G. Wilson is the son of Lewis Wilson (1920-2000), the first actor to play Bruce Wayne/Batman in a 1943 serial.