Detectives and Dames Blogathon: The Life and Times of Arthur Kennedy
Arthur Kennedy was once described as “one of the subtlest American supporting actors, never more so than when revealing the malice or weakness in an ostensibly friendly man.” But while he was certainly acknowledged for his undeniable talent and versatility, he might also – unfortunately – be counted among the most underrated character actors from Hollywood’s golden age.
And that’s a real shame.
A five-time Academy Award nominee who appeared in nearly 100 movies over a span of six decades, Kennedy was seen in a variety of screen gems, including Rancho Notorious (1952), The Man From Laramie (1955), Peyton Place (1957), Elmer Gantry (1960), and Lawrence of Arabia (1962). Kennedy was also a significant presence in the film noir era, with five features to his credit: High Sierra (1941), The Window (1949), Champion (1949), Chicago Deadline (1949) – and the soon-to-be-released Too Late for Tears (1949).
John Arthur Kennedy was born in Worcester, Massachusetts, on February 17, 1914, the only child of dentist John Timothy Kennedy and his wife. After receiving his secondary and preparatory education in Worcester at South High School and Worcester Academy, Kennedy studied drama at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1936, after his graduation from Carnegie, Kennedy headed for New York, where he lived in a brownstone with several actors, including David Wayne and Ben Yaffee.
“Half of us slept on cots. We’d pound at Shubert Alley doors during the day and then try to whip together enough to eat for supper,” Kennedy said in a 1952 interview. “With a dollar, Yaffee could somehow bring back half a delicatessen. When things were really rough, Wayne used to cook griddle cakes like crazy – when I think of the stuff I’ve put in my stomach!”
After 10 months in the Big Apple, Kennedy landed a job with the Globe Theatre traveling repertory company, and a year later, he made his Broadway debut in King Richard II. Initially billed as John Kennedy, the actor later changed his stage name to J. Arthur Kennedy because there was already a John Kennedy on the rolls of Actors Equity. After a few years, he dropped the first initial, saying that he considered it “unnecessarily pretentious.”
With his professional stage career underway, Kennedy took time out in 1938 to marry actress Mary Cheffey, whom he had met while both were students at the Carnegie Institute. The couple went on to have two children, Terence Gordon, born in 1943, and Laurie Ewing (who later became an actress herself) in 1945. Kennedy and Mary remained together until her death in 1975.
Professionally, Kennedy was seen as a dancing cab driver in Madam, Will You Walk, starring George M. Cohan, who termed the actor “the most brilliant actor on Broadway.” But Kennedy was about to leave the bright lights of New York – while performing in Life and Death of an American, he was spotted by a talent scout from Warner Bros., who recommended him for the role of James Cagney’s younger brother in City for Conquest (1940). After a screen test, Kennedy won the role and a contract with the studio.
In the year following his well-received screen debut, Kennedy appeared in five features, including his first film noir, High Sierra (1941), starring Humphrey Bogart and Ida Lupino, and Air Force (1943), one of the best aviation films of the era. Following the release of the latter film, Kennedy himself joined the Army Air Forces, where he traveled the country in the same unit as such stars as William Holden, Ronald Reagan and Robert Young, making a series of training films that included How to Fly the B-17 and Resisting Enemy Interrogation.
The actor’s first feature after the war was Devotion (1946), which had been shelved for three years. Kennedy later admitted that the film, a fanciful biography of authors Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Bronte, “impressed neither the critics nor the movie-going public,” but he counted his role as Branwell Bronte among his favorites.
“Like the picture, Branwell was a failure,” Kennedy said. “However, the role was tremendously interesting . . . and I’d far rather play the part of an interesting failure than a so-called successful role in a successful picture that has been written strictly according to formula.”
After the traditional horse-opera Cheyenne (1947), Kennedy’s final film under his Warner’s contract, the actor appeared as a freelancer in Boomerang!, helmed by actor-turned-director, Elia Kazan, with whom Kennedy had appeared in City for Conquest. (Years later, the famed director hailed Kennedy as “an exceptionally honest, fine actor, and an exceptionally nice person.”) Kennedy then made a triumphant return to Broadway in All My Sons (1947), portraying a war veteran who discovers that his father (Ed Begley) was responsible for selling defective airplane parts to the government. For his performance, the actor was applauded by Brooks Atkinson, who wrote in the New York Times that Kennedy gave “a superb performance with great power for the climax and with insight into the progress of the character.”
Back in Hollywood, Kennedy entered his biggest year for film noir – in 1949, he appeared in a whopping four features from the era: The Window, Champion, Too Late for Tears, and Chicago Deadline.
In The Window, Kennedy played Mr. Woodry, a harried father whose son, Tommy (Bobby Driscoll), is notorious for his fanciful imagination. When Tommy witnesses a murder committed in the tenement building where the family lives, he finds that he is a victim of the boy-who-cried-wolf syndrome, as no one believes his story. Although co-stars Driscoll, Paul Stewart, and Ruth Roman had the showier roles, Kennedy was singled out in reviews for his “believable” and “altogether natural” performance.
Next, in Champion, Kennedy turned in a first-rate performance as Connie Kelly, the crippled brother of boxer Midge (Kirk Douglas), who will stop at nothing to fight his way to the top. In a film fairly brimming with outstanding performances, Kennedy was a standout, and was rewarded with an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor. He lost, however, to Dean Jagger in 12 O’Clock High.
Kennedy followed this first-rate noir with one of my favorite noirs, Too Late for Tears, appearing in the role of Alan Palmer, whose wife, Jane (Lizabeth Scott), is frustrated by her couple’s inability to “keep up with the Joneses.” When a satchel full of money is inexplicably tossed into their car, the upstanding Alan insists that they turn it in: “We’ve got as much right to that money as if we went into a bank and lifted a bag full off the counter,” he tells his spouse. Unfortunately for Alan, he woefully underestimates his spouse – and he’s not the only one.
Noted for his “smooth” portrayal in Tears, Kennedy next appeared in his final noir, Chicago Deadline, portraying Tommy Ditman, whose sister, Rosita (Donna Reed), is found dead in a dilapidated boarding house. For his small but memorable role as the dead girl’s mournful sibling, Kennedy was praised as “top-calibre” in the Los Angeles Examiner.
Between his noir appearances in 1949, Kennedy found time to accept the role of Biff in the Broadway production of Death of a Salesman, and wound up with a Tony Award for best supporting actor. (When the play was made into a film by Columbia in 1951, however, Kennedy’s role was given to newcomer Kevin McCarthy.)
During the next decade, Kennedy turned in outstanding performances in such films as Bright Victory (1951), in which he starred as a WWII veteran who was blinded in the war. His superb performance in this film earned him the Actor of the Year award from the New York Film Critics and an Academy Award nomination for Best Actor (he lost to Humphrey Bogart for The African Queen). To prepare for the difficult role, Kennedy worked with real-life blind veterans and wore opaque contact lenses over his eyes.
“You can’t see very well through them, but that, of course, was the idea, and they helped me in the part,” Kennedy said in a 1952 interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Philip K. Scheuer. “You do things instinctively with them on that you wouldn’t without them. More importantly, you think differently.”
Other top-notch vehicles in which Kennedy appeared during the 1950s were Rancho Notorious (1952), an absorbing western in which he starred opposite Marlene Dietrich; Trial (1955), which saw Kennedy nominated for his third Academy Award (this time losing to Jack Lemmon in Mister Roberts); The Desperate Hours (1955), starring Humphrey Bogart as an escaped convict who holds a family hostage in their home; The Man from Laramie (1955), where Kennedy starred as the adopted son of a megalomaniac rancher; Peyton Place (1957), in which Kennedy’s exceptional portrayal of an alcoholic who rapes his stepdaughter landed him yet another Oscar nod (he lost to Red Buttons in Sayonara); and Some Came Running (1958), where he earned his final Academy Award nomination portraying a rigid businessman who is having an affair with his assistant (he lost this time to Burl Ives in The Big Country).
Despite his numerous screen appearances, Kennedy managed to find opportunities to continue his involvement in the theater. In 1951, he formed a theatrical group known as the Theater Workshop (later renamed the Stage Society), which was designed to provide local actors with a forum for honing their craft.
“It’s not a showcase for talent, nor a professional school. We charge $20 a month, enough to rent the theater,” Kennedy told columnist Hedda Hopper. “Actors need this. Painters paint alone, musicians play or sing alone, but what can an actor do when he isn’t working?”
The quality of Kennedy’s films began to diminish with the onset of the 1960s, but he still appeared in several memorable features, including Elmer Gantry (1960), starring Burt Lancaster in the title role of the charismatic con man; Lawrence of Arabia (1962), in which Kennedy played a character based on journalist and commentator Lowell Thomas; and Barabbas (1962), where Kennedy was singled out by critics for his standout portrayal of Pontius Pilate. More often, however, Kennedy was stuck in a series of duds, including Claudelle Inglish (1961), a drama about a farm girl who goes to pieces when she is abandoned by her soldier boyfriend, and such foreign-made films as Anzio (1968), which flopped at the box office despite a first-rate cast that included Robert Mitchum, Robert Ryan, and Peter Falk.
“You have to make a dog once in a while to keep up with the economic situation,” Kennedy said once.
Having made his television debut on Ford Theater in 1954, Kennedy was infrequently seen on the small screen, but he did appear on several dramatic anthology series, served as host and narrator for 27 half-hour documentaries on the life of the Franklin D. Roosevelt, and was in several made-for-television movies. The actor also returned to Broadway in 1968 for The Price, his fourth and final play written by Arthur Miller, and in 1973 for Veronica’s Room.
On the big screen, Kennedy continued to appear almost exclusively in foreign films (he later labeled these movies “stinkers” and termed his appearance in them “a major career mistake”). After the death of his wife, Mary, in 1975, the actor’s interest in acting began to wane, and he “threw in the towel” after a series of medical maladies during the late 1970s, including thyroid cancer and corneal transplants to regain his sight after a battle with cataracts. The actor also stopped drinking during this period, following an on-again, off-again battle with alcohol that had lasted for several decades.
“The doctor told me if I didn’t stop drinking, I’d soon be dead, so I stopped,” Kennedy said in a 1989 interview in the New York Times. “My only regret is that more than a few of my brain cells have been a bit singed by alcohol.”
But after a 10-year absence from film, Kennedy returned in 1989 for Signs of Life, playing a curmudgeonly shipbuilder who fights to prevent the closing of the boatyard that bears his father’s name. Kennedy learned of the role through the agent of his daughter, Laurie, a New York-based actress.
“I didn’t give it much thought, but true to his word, [the agent] called back and set up a meeting with the producer and director,” Kennedy said. “I read the script and was mighty impressed . . . I needed a good part and here it was.”
Shortly after the release of Signs of Life, Kennedy was diagnosed with a brain tumor. He was admitted to the Connecticut Hospital in Branford, Connecticut, in October 1989, and he died three months later, on January 5, 1990. He was 75 years old.
While seldom discussed today, Arthur Kennedy was truly one of Hollywood’s finest acting talents. In his five Oscar-nominated performances, as well as numerous others, he demonstrated an brilliant ability to adapt himself to any character and make him come alive. Director Mark Robson, who helmed two of Kennedy’s finest films, once offered a fitting testament to the imagination, integrity, and perspective that Kennedy brought to his roles, as well as the esteem in which he was held by his peers.
“On Broadway they told me Arthur Kennedy was an actor’s actor,” Robson said. “There exists a certain reverence among stage people for him that is not unlike the way they consider Alfred Lunt or Laurence Olivier. After directing Art in Champion and Bright Victory, I’d say he’s a director’s actor also. He knows instinctively what you wish him to convey on the screen and has a profound sense of real-life drama.”
This post is part of the multi-week “Detectives and Dames” noir blogathon, presented by Flicker Alley in celebration of the upcoming Blu-ray and DVD releases of Too Late for Tears (1949), featuring Arthur Kennedy, and Woman on the Run (1950), starring Ann Sheridan and Dennis O’Keefe. These first-rate noirs can both be pre-ordered from Flicker Alley – click here to pre-order Too Late for Tears, and here to pre-order Woman on the Run. Do yourself a favor and check ’em out!
You only owe it to yourself.