GEORGE KENNEDY REMEMBERS JAPAN! The Legendary Actor Recalls Making the Disaster Movie ‘Virus’ in the Far East!

A head shot of Academy Award-winning actor George Kennedy.

George Kennedy is an actor who truly needs no introduction. Movie fans instantly recognize Mr. Kennedy for his Academy Award-winning performance as Dragline in the 1967 hit Cool Hand Luke, in which he starred opposite Paul Newman. However, Mr. Kennedy has seen and done it all in the acting world, having conquered the action genre in The Dirty Dozen (1967), disaster films with Earthquake (1974), and slapstick comedy with The Naked Gun films.

In 1980, Mr. Kennedy was cast in Kinji Fukasaku’s disaster epic Virus (a.k.a. Fukkastu no hi), in which he played the part of Admiral Conway, one of the film’s most important characters. In a 2011 telephone interview, Mr. Kennedy graciously shared his memories of making Virus, as well as his love of Japan, with Brett Homenick.

Brett Homenick: How did you get cast in Virus?

George Kennedy: I can’t answer it exactly. It came from the Japanese company itself. When the thing first started, I think it was Glenn Ford … they had talked to him, and they had talked to me, and I said, as I have often said, “Yeah, I admire you. I would like to do it,” and what have you. As I recall, there were a lot of high hopes for Virus at the time we made it. The work was very professional. The Japanese are marvelous to work with and for, simply because that is the nature of the beast. They are industrious, and they are very kind and very methodical and very, very precise. But I don’t know; how did it play in Japan?

BH: It wasn’t as successful as hoped, either, but it is well regarded as a film. But it wasn’t very financially successful in Japan, either.

GK: And, you know, I regretted that because I remember — this is something I’ve never told anybody else — but when Virus was over, I was so impressed with them, and I wanted them to realize how much I appreciated what they had done with me and for me during the shooting, that I wrote a speech, and I asked one of the young-lady interpreters to help me translate it into Japanese, and then I took my language and the Japanese language, and I spoke it to them. And they sat in that chiseled, respectful silence — I know it wasn’t very good — but the Japanese were a great audience, and when I was done, they gave me — oh! — so much applause for having done it. It’s one of the humbling highlights of my life!

BH: Oh, excellent! Well, that’s great to hear! I’m very glad to hear that!

GK: And — oh, boy! — it’s a tough language! I still have a word here and a word there. The concept of the language is so different than anything — we don’t have any words that resemble what they have! The enunciations and the ends of sentences, but I tried my best, and they liked it.

BH: Well, that’s great; I’m very glad to hear that you have a very great memory associated with the movie. I’m very impressed to hear that.

GK: You know what I think about Virus: It was a time worldwide — I think mostly in America — of this sort of shock-’em-to-pieces, all of the big special effects, Earthquake sort of thing. And Virus was a little far down the line. It wasn’t that spectacularly different than any of the others – ships turning upside-down and sinking and what have you. There were a great many of them, until Titanic made them all look like they cost forty dollars to produce.

BH: I agree with you, absolutely. What was it like to work with the producer, Haruki Kadokawa?

GK: I can’t say enough good things. One of the things that people don’t understand about the Japanese is, their attitude, their consistency, their love for what they’re doing, is inborn. It isn’t something they put a face on in the morning and take it off when they get home. They are a very honest, industrious — my God, artistic people, and when you get used to going to work in the morning to that sort of excellence, you don’t want to mess it up! We had certain actors, and I’m not going to name who they are, on the picture, that they just were there for the money; they didn’t give a damn about anything. It is not my ethic to do that. And the more I was around the Japanese, and the more I was working with them and for them, the more respect I had for them. And for that reason alone I’m sorry Virus wasn’t more of a hit.

BH: And how about the director, Kinji Fukasaku? What was he like, and how did you work with him?

GK: You can’t not work with them because courtesy to the Japanese is like a prayer. They are always self-effacing. You are never wrong; they are wrong. Therefore, they must adjust by doing something. And I got to love that attitude so much that I would go out of my way to make sure that, whatever they asked for, I would try to do exactly the way they saw it. When it worked, I had a sense of completion that allowed me to then go off somewhere and sit thankfully quiet. It was a humbling honor, treasured still.

BH: Perfect, perfect! What do you recall about preproduction? How were you involved, if at all, with preproduction on the film?

GK: Not much, I don’t think. It was a matter of getting there. The costumes were meticulous. It was a little off-setting, I think, to be treated in such — I think the word is not correct, but it will come close enough — awe. In other words, I wasn’t John Wayne, however, they knew who I was that they were very affectionate, and respectful. Well, I’m a very simple fellow. We live very simply; we lived very simply then. And having somebody sort of hanging on your every whisper is scary. Suppose I had belched? I would have died right there.

BH: (laughs) Well, where were your scenes shot? Certainly I believe you did actually work in Japan for the film, but did you go to Antarctica at all for any of those scenes?

GK: We were in Japan for part of the time, we were in Canada for part of the time. I don’t remember the specific places. I’m trying to think of any spectacular … No. The locations were gorgeous. One of the things — this generalizes about movies for both Japanese and American — one of the great assets of being in the movies is that you get to be places and go places that you might never see in your lifetime under other circumstances. And Virus was one of them. I’ve always been in love with Japan, anyway, as I said earlier in the chat.

I served in Japan. I was the head of the Far East Network for a while, and I lived it there. That before any movie days. This was part of my military service near the end. It was a treat. When we talked a little while ago about learning the Japanese language, I tried!

BH: Wow, wow!

GK: That’s a difficult language to hold on to!

BH: It’s very difficult! I don’t think I’ll ever get around to mastering it; there’s just so much to it that I think I’ll just stick to a few phrases and words here and there, and that’s as far as I’ll ever go.

GK: It’s not just words. Their whole body is involved with their language that their movements: the bowing, the manners of speech, the making sure that they don’t do anything physically or verbally to offend you. It’s a remarkable nation. When the recent tsunami hit, I sat, as many millions of people did throughout the world, and just wondered at what was happening and agonizing that this lovely race of people was being swamped away by this big water puddle that just wouldn’t stop. It was dreadful.

BH: Yes, and that’s actually when I came to Japan, was two weeks after the tsunami hit, so it was also very high on my mind when it happened, as well.

GK: I’m not a fan of war, no matter who fights who. There’s got to be a better way, and that is my deep-rooted, soul-filled philosophy. But we went to war with Japan. Now forget about whose fault it was and this, that, and the other thing — “Those stinking Yankees,” or “Those dirty Japs.” I’m sorry, that is a concept that doesn’t fit well. It is very difficult to think back now. For example, when Clint Eastwood, who is one of the most brilliant and skilled artists I have known in my life, made (Letters from) Iwo Jima, I’ve seen that picture now three or four times. The devotion and humanity of the Japanese is all there. How did we ever end up at war with the people whose philosophy, whose love of country, is so much like our own? The answer is chronicled in history, I suppose, but I’ll never answer that if I live to be 550 years old!

BH: Wow, I agree with that absolutely. Also, just getting back to Virus, do you recall what the time frame was when you were shooting, like what year and what season it was at the time?

GK: No, because it’s just too long ago, and I’m too old. But I spent a great deal of my service — my time in service was all in Europe, and by the time the European war was over, I was deep, deep in Germany, near Berlin somewhere. And they said, “We’re going to ship you back to the United States, and then you’re going to go on into the Pacific,” which never happened because the time element just collapsed.

BH: On the movie, what were your living arrangements like at the time? Do you remember what hotel you stayed in? And what you did with your free time when you weren’t working on the movie?

GK: I recall everything as being as good as it could be. You know, it’s peculiar, but many times, you have to watch yourself with the Japanese because they are so considerate and so on top of everything that it’s like the old expression, “Your wish is my command.” They tried to take that to a degree that I’ve never seen before. And, as a consequence, after a very short period of time, you learn not to just simply, casually say, “Oh, God, I’m thirsty.” Because, all of a sudden, you’ll have a spring from New Hampshire right next to your chair!

BH: (laughs)

GK: They really are in tune with excellence. They are in tune with other human beings. They are a very human race of people, and I love them dearly; I could never say it any other way.

BH: What about some of your fellow cast members? What do you recall, working withsuch people as Bo Svenson, Edward James Olmos, Chuck Connors, and Olivia Hussey?

GK: Chuck was fine. Chuck went to dinner with my wife and I in Toronto to a restaurant that the three of us agreed was the best fish restaurant we’ve ever been to in our lives.

Eddie Olmos was in the dressing room next to mine; he had a fold-up piano, a very early version of the electronic pianos that they have now. I loved listening. Eddie and I were pals. He became quite famous, and something other than he was in real life. I recall him as a pleasant, convivial, polite, musical, interested, alive, generous guy. And when he achieved all of his success in movies, in films, it was as a leader, a progressive, a firebrand, all of the things that a gentle dreamer really wasn’t.

BH: Wow, that’s very interesting! What about Bo Svenson? What was he like?

GK: Bo was into Bo. He was always on, playing an actor to the hilt night and day, when nobody around really cared very much. He held the company up more than once while he “shot some pictures for National Georgraphic.” I called him on it one day in an elevator, and he admitted he didn’t actually film for the magazine, but he was planning to. He was not an easily-warm-up-to person, and I found myself uncomfortable talking to an artifact. When you’re talking about Eddie Olmos, there’s a warm human being he’s modeled after, who showed up because they wanted to make something as good as it could be, each time, every time.

BH: The Japanese lead in the film was Masao Kusakari. What was it like to work with Mr. Kusakari?

GK: He was very pleasant. We had a difficulty because his English was limited and my Japanese was limited, and it wasn’t easy for us to have the conversation that you and I are having now. He was affable, very capable, very physical, and I enjoyed working with him. It was just, we would stand there sometimes and just look at each other and smile because we enjoyed each other’s company, but we couldn’t say any words.

BH: (laughs) All right, very good! Well, one story I did hear about the film is that you had organized a poker game with many people, and I heard that folks from other films flew to Canada to take part in this poker game. Is that something that actually did happen?

GK: Not really. I found that … that didn’t surprise me, somehow. The poker game was an illusion; it was a made-up thing. There were other ways that we entertained ourselves and what have you, but I remember the poker game, but now as not a very important part of things. That’s just the way it is.

BH: Okay. Another thing I heard … it’s actually kind of a famous story about Virus is that there was the accident on the ship on the way to Antarctica. What do you remember hearing about that at the time, about the ship that had an accident and almost sank?

GK: No, I really don’t. Coincidences like that, though, are … sometimes movies are

blamed for making them happen. Not that the Antarctica thing didn’t happen, but it’s like a publicist for a movie will, if he had his way, would go out and sink a ship just so he could get the publicity for the film!

BH: Do you have any other memories from the set of Virus?

GK: No, it wasn’t a big hit here. I remember seeing it and thinking it was okay … better than that, and technically far better than that. But I think a little while ago I said to you, it was at the end of a long line of these spectacular earthquake and tornado movies, and it didn’t really catch. I think part of it may have been the title, Virus. There’s something about the word “tsunami,” which in itself is frightening. You hear “tsunami,” and your bones jangle. A virus could be a runny nose; a virus could also kill you. It doesn’t leave the impression that the word “earthquake” or “tsunami” does. It could be as simple as that.

BH: That’s very true, and I certainly never thought of it that way, but maybe people weren’t too impressed with the title, and maybe that’s why it wasn’t a hit. That’s very true. Did you attend the premiere in Japan of Virus?

GK: I went to a premiere in Japan, and again I tried speaking from the stage, by having somebody write it out phonetically, and it was very well appreciated. I think it was Proof of the Man. Again, even today though I might be billed as the oldest American being there and the working with the Japanese would be a look-forward-to treat. They’re a remarkable race of people. Everybody really tries, and the beauty of … I especially love the orange and black paintings that they have. They may be like paintings on velvet here, but the use of those two colors (and shadows) in Japan is incredible. So I admired them very much, and I would wish there were more, but there’s no more time. However, having been in those movies, I was very pleased, and they were all happy memories for it.

BH: All right, excellent! Well, my last question is, what can you tell us about your new book Trust Me?

GK: Trust Me is just out. I’ve gotten indications from everywhere that it’s fine, and I’ll believe it when I see it. I wrote about everything. I wrote about Eastwood, I wrote about everything else. I think it should be longer, oddly enough. We just got a call this morning, saying, “You finished a chapter, and then you took it back. Can we have it back again?” Apparently, there are indications that it’s going to do well, and I pray to God that it does. Thank you, Brett.

Please be sure to purchase your copy of Trust Me: A Memoir by George Kennedy. This fascinating memoir by one of Hollywood’s most popular stars is currently available at Published by Applause, its 256 pages contain some of the most intriguing anecdotes you’re likely to read about the movie business! ISBN-10: 1557837821. Current list price: $21.05.


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