PBR: Today we have the unique pleasure of being with academy award winning actor, well known to most all of us for his over 200 movie and television appearances, and author of his new autobiography titled Trust Me, Mr. George Kennedy. Thank you for joining us today.
GK: Thank you, the pleasure is mine. I tried twice (2 years apart) to write an autobiography, starting around 2003. I threw them both away. Basically, the words touched me, but wouldn’t mean much to others. Instead, the book as released relates to everybody. I believe we’re not just good, bad and guilty. We are all we got, have lots to learn, and there’s no terrifying Beelzebub waiting around with a pitchfork. We live. We die. God ain’t mad at you.
PBR: Your book has received many favorable reviews and accolades, and is sure to get more. I’d like to ask you what in particular made you want to write an autobiography?
GK: I didn’t. I wanted to write about us, all of us, unsure and trying hard to survive in a world of greed. Though instructed not to think about it, I wondered why one church was touted better than the other. An old Irish priest got drunk with me one night in Madrid, and said, “Keep questioning… and if you don’t get an answer, pray harder. God always gets back to you." Nobody ever leveled with me like he did. Which star is perfect? The one you wish upon. God is love, supreme.
PBR: How did you come up with the title?
GK: “Trust Me” is a title of many books. Publishers weren’t keen on putting out another one with that name, but in the long run, I stuck with it because it spoke my heart. Life’s path took me along a show business route, as both of my parents were vaudevillians. I couldn’t have been a farmer. I would have milked Man-o-War. But as a lonely boy, I enjoyed writing. Whatever writing I do, though, is with a nod in the direction of understanding.
PBR: How long did it take you from start to finish for writing and publishing Trust Me?
GK: About 10 years, including the two aborted starts. There’s so much more. As it is now “Trust Me” is only as couple of hundred pages long. That wasn’t intentional, and there’s enough material untouched to have continued until it was twice that. But look. I’m well known, but not as a writer. A 10 goal polo player might be the toast of the town, but not as a jockey. I had something to say for the benefit of my fellow humans. I hope they heed it.
PBR: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
GK: This is hardly news, but it’s “keeping at it”. I think it was Somerset Maugham who said there are days when you can’t write your name, but there are also days when your creative juices are flowing from sunup until your keyboard becomes your pillow next break of day. There were so many heroes and heroines to write about I didn’t get to them all: Dinah Shore, Albert Schweitzer, Joe Louis, Elinor Roosevelt, Lowell Thomas, Eugene Ormandy etc – and many more. They’d fill a book.
PBR: When writing your book, who, if anyone, did you “edit out” prior to publication?
GK: I would never purposely leave Art Carney Jr. out of anything. In the early 50’s, I was still an Army Captain on active duty in New York City, and the Jackie Gleason show was in rehearsal. I went to his theatre and picked up something Gleason had promised Washington. He invited m e to stay and watch. The scene involved Gleason and Audrey Meadows, and Carney (not involved) pointed I should sit with him in the theatre. All afternoon I watched magic. You couldn’t be ill at ease around Carney, because he was the warmest human being there was. I tried not to gush when I talked about his hilarious dialogue with “Captain Video” on the Gleason show, or playing the piano intro to “Sewanee River” over and over while Gleason fumed, or “Magic Chef of the Future”. When I left, he hugged me goodbye, and thanked me for making his afternoon bright.
Years later, 1979 in Pittsburgh, Art Carney was one of the stars in the movie “Steel”, and so was I. It was as though time had stood still for this giant – effervescent, gentle and brilliant as always. Jennifer O’Neill, he and I talked and laughed a lot, and when I told her the Gleason story, she said I had to tell him. On my last day, I went to his motor home. I just wanted to thank him for being so kind to a nobody. His door was open, and he was sitting behind the driver’s wheel, his hand waving in the air. Grinning, he said, “I’m giving the main speech at Alcohol Anonymous tonight…wanna hear me rehearse?” He was plastered, and almost fell out of the driver’s seat. Two guys carried him to the back. I never got to tell him the story.
PBR: Each person in your book would eventually read what you said about them … who would you most want to say something to beyond what you wrote about?
GK: There was a black lady in a Memphis hotel lobby who screamed when she saw my wife and I get out of an elevator, despite our pleas not to yell. She just loved me, and erupted in a flood of tears and hugged us, and we circled in sort of a do-si-do. It didn’t take long, and the closing elevator doors masked her gleeful wave. Joan and I cried during our stumbling walk to the sidewalk as a very concerned doorman rushed to ask what was wrong. He’ll never understand why we suddenly walked away laughing til it hurt.
PBR: Now that the book is finished, who do you wish you put into your book – that you haven’t -- and why?
GK: Ted Williams was as good a hitter in baseball as there was. When I was working in New York for Phil Silver’s in the “Bilko” show in 1957, word came that Williams had a back injury, and it could be serious. I grabbed a page of the script and wrote him a note on the blank side recommending a chiropractor who had helped me, and wishing him well. The Bilko ‘platoon’ guys laughed and said Williams would never even see it. About a week later I got a handwritten note on the same script page. It was from Ted Williams thanking me, and saying he loved the show. The platoon guys, mouths open, said they wanted to show it to Phil Silvers and everybody, so I let them. I never saw it again.
PBR: Let’s talk about feedback – what has been some of your friend’s remarks about your book thus far?
GK: Everyone has been, in no particular order: surprised, complimentary, supportive and generous. The most touching to me is: “You write like you talk”. Good or bad, I do, but I’m floored by the number nice enough to pass along they’ve read it cover to cover twice.
PBR: I’d like to step out of the envelope, and ask you a few questions that may seem personal and challenging. I hope it’s ok with you. For example, why you – why do you think you were chosen for your life experiences? I say this in a manner not to be facetious, but asked in a different way, what is it about you that you feel is why such fame has bestowed itself upon you?
GK: Orson Welles told me in a radio interview that success was mostly a matter of luck. Perhaps, but Welles’ brilliance was being ignored. My background was show business, so my mother always had show business stories. Other kids listened to the “Lone Ranger” and “Inner Sanctum” on the radio, but I was IN THEM in spirit. In my head, I was on Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s lap when he gave a ‘Fireside Chat”. I could name every cowboy actor who ever did a Republic western. Why? It was the only joy I can remember from those bleak days. My reality became a screen reality, and years later, when I got to be part of the process, it was important more than words can say to give it my all.
PBR: When or what in your life was your game changer – at what point did you realize George Kennedy will be making a significant mark on the culture of your time?
GK: I don’t know about making significant marks on the culture. It’s a tough business. You do your best, and luck plays a great part. In a series that only ran 15 episodes, I played “Sarge”, a cop who becomes a Roman Catholic priest when his wife dies. I did my best, but in reality, a priest’s primary job is to save bad guys, not catch them. “Cool Hand Luke” changed everything. I got $20,000 for doing it, but the day after I won the best supporting actor award, I signed to do “Guns of the Magnificent Seven” at $75,000 for four weeks in Spain.
PBR: Tell us a bit about your views on alcoholism, drinking, drug abuse and what you think may or can be of help to others not seeing things the way you do.
GK: The paradox is well known, really. I told a psychiatrist once that I drank because “I didn’t like who I was”. He asked if drinking made it better. I said only the first drink or two, and after that I became a lout and a bore. Drug abuse was never my problem – experiments with pot just made me giggle – we don’t use anything stronger than Nyquil. As the book says, “YOU are the most important thing in life. Without you, I don’t exist”. Take care of you, please. Or I’m gone.
PBR: There’s a saying, “If I knew then what I know now…” What would your “then and now” be?
GK: There was a black baseball pitcher years ago named Satchel Paige who threw a baseball faster than light, who said, “Never look back…somethin’ might be gainin’ on ya”. Good advice. What could I change, anyway? I’d still have weighed 12 pounds at birth, with an irreparably crooked spine. The big depression of ’29 went on until WWII, and I went to Hollywood when actors were allowed to be over 6 feet tall. I think I had all the breaks a guy could wish for, and I’m grateful enough to be thankful I could write a book about it. The movie business is big business, and ‘Californication’ is snobby elitism. When you drag yourself home at 8 pm, eat, bathe, study lines and flop, five a.m. comes around in a flash.
PBR: When you see yourself in your mind (not the mirror), how old are you?
GK: I’m 86, creaking and addicted to naps. I smile at people because I do. I’m quiet. Amen.
PBR: Another question, a silly one perhaps, but if you were given one wish, you know, a Genie-kind-of-thing, what would you wish for?
GK: It’s the one I say before sleep every night, borrowed from Dickens’s Tiny Tim: “God bless us, every one”. I’ve never doubted that He does, and I hope it’s the last thing I say on earth.
PBR: One last question, tell us, please, about your views on God.
GK: God is eternity. We are transient. A baby at the moment of birth has just come from God. The sparkler is lit. When your Fourth of July sparkler has expired, you’ll go back to where that baby came from. There is no God up there who is mad at you. You’ll see. Trust me.
PBR: Thank you so much for your revealing answers. I hope when others read this interview they too are brought closer to the remarkable “George Kennedy” I have gotten to know from your book and now your interview. All of us wish you the best of success with your book, and all the best for your health and happiness in the future.
GK: Thank you, Gary.