An Actor’s Actor – Remembering Arthur Kennedy (1914 – 1990)

Posted in Remember by - November 21, 2013
An Actor’s Actor – Remembering Arthur Kennedy (1914 – 1990)

In a career spanning 50 years, accomplished character actor Arthur Kennedy swam every lane in the talent pool. From scene-stealing in Oscar winning movies such as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ (1962) to slumming it in trashy fodder like 1976’s ‘Emmanuelle on Taboo Island’.

Born John Arthur Kennedy on February 14th 1914, he would spend his early years in local theatre. Moving to Los Angeles with his wife in 1938, Kennedy was later discovered by James Cagney, who cast him as his brother in 1940’s ‘City for Conquest’. This role would lead to a contract at Warner Brothers.

This early period in Arthur Kennedy’s career saw him co-star in some prestigious movies, alongside the likes of Humphrey Bogart, John Garfield and Errol Flynn. These included two 1941 classics for director Raoul Walsh, (‘High Sierra’ and ‘They Died with Their Boots On’).  After the war Kennedy continued to act on Broadway, most notably in a 1947 award-winning version of Arthur Miller’s ‘All My Sons’, directed by Elia Kazan. Kazan then cast him in the semi-documentary ‘Boomerang!’ (1947), based on the true story of a drifter wrongly accused of murder. The excellent cast also included Lee J. Cobb, Dana Andrews and Karl Malden.

The next few years would be Arthur Kennedy’s busiest period, and between 1949 and 1958 would see him nominated five times for the Academy Award. The first of his four Supporting Actor nominations was for the classic boxing story ‘Champion’ (1949) an early triumph for Kirk Douglas. His only Best Actor nod came in 1951’s ‘Bright Victory’, playing a blinded war veteran. A juicy role followed in Fritz Lang’s ‘Rancho Notorious’ (1952) opposite Marlene Dietrich, before Anthony Mann cast him in two acclaimed westerns alongside James Stewart, (1952’s ‘Bend of the River’ and ‘The Man from Laramie’ in 1955).  After a third nomination for the 1955 courtroom drama ‘Trial’, Kennedy appeared in two glossy pictures, ‘Peyton Place’ (1957), which garnered Kennedy another nomination, and ‘A Summer Place’ (1959), playing Dorothy McGuire’s alcoholic husband. In between these, Kennedy would receive his fifth and final Supporting nomination for Vincent Minnelli’s ‘Some Came Running’ (1958), starring Frank Sinatra and Shirley MacLaine.

One of Kennedy’s best performances came in Richard Brook’s 1960 Oscar winner ‘Elmer Gantry’. I always thought he should have at least been nominated for his terrific role as cynical reporter ‘Jim Lefferts’, trading words with a barnstorming Burt Lancaster. 1962 saw Kennedy as photographer Jackson Bentley in David Leans epic ‘Lawrence of Arabia’, while other notable roles came in John Ford’s ‘Cheyenne Autumn’ (1964), the cult favourite ‘Fantastic Voyage’ (1966), and the Robert Mitchum war drama ‘Anzio’ in 1968.

During the Seventies it was kind of sad seeing such a great actor reduced to starring in a lot of trash. 1973 had Kennedy as mafia boss Don Vito in ‘Cauldron of Death’, then as a bishop in the 1974 Italian Exorcist rip-off ‘The Antichrist’. One of his worst films around this time was the poorly made ‘Emmanuelle On Taboo Island’, playing stunning Laura Gemser’s dad. One minor gem from this period however, was Jorge Grau’s ‘Living Dead at the Manchester Morgue’ (1974), one of the best of the many zombie offerings from that decade.

After 1978’s CIA thriller ‘Covert Action’ Kennedy retired from acting. He had lost his wife in 1975 and with failing eyesight and suffering from thyroid cancer, had lost interest in making movies. Kennedy briefly returned to the screen in the late 80’s and his final film was the warm and uplifting family drama ‘Grandpa’ in 1990. He died of a brain tumour on January 5th 1990, aged 75. One of my favourite actors, Arthur Kennedy left behind two children and a wealth of great roles which hopefully will be rediscovered by a new generation of movie buffs.

Favourite Movie: Lawrence of Arabia
Favourite Performance: Elmer Gantry

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