Sunday, 21 February 2016

George Gaynes: Police Academy star dies aged 98

Veteran actor George Gaynes, best known for his work in the Police Academy series as Commandant Eric Lassard, has died at his family home in Washington State, aged 98. A prolific character actor, his work in film, television and theatre spanned six decades.

Born in 1917 in Helsinki, named George Jongejans at birth, Gaynes was raised in France, Switzerland, and England. After serving in the Royal Navy during World War II, he moved the US, where he earned American citizenship, and remained there for the rest of his life.

During the 1940s and 1950s, he enjoyed a healthy career on Broadway, becoming well known to audiences for comedies and musicals, including a large national tour of My Fair Lady. He became a hard working character actor on television in the 1960s and 1970s, appearing on Mission: Impossible, Hawaii Five-O, Hogan's Heroes, The Six Million Dollar Man, and Columbo, among many others.

In the 1980s, American audiences came to know him as grouchy foster parent Henry Warnimont in TV sitcom Punky Brewster. Smaller film roles materialised too, including a role opposite Dustin Hoffman in the cross-dressing comedy Tootsie (1982).

But it was not until 1984 that Gaynes, aged 67, earned the role of his lifetime, as the bumbling Commandant Lassard in Police Academy. He was the centrepiece of arguably the movie's funniest scene, in which, for reasons too complicated to explain, he is called upon to deliver a speech while receiving the attentions of a prostitute concealed inside the podium. That was typical of the sort of crude humour that pushed the $4.5m movie towards a box office gross of more than $80m.

Even if the fun waned during the six sequels churned out over the next decade, beginning with Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment (1985) and ending with Police Academy: Mission To Moscow (1994), Gaynes was always a delight. He also played Lassard in one 1998 episode of Police Academy: The Series, a short lived television spin-off.

Married to actress and singer Allyn Ann McLerie since 1953, he was, according to longtime agent Jonathan Howard, "one of the true gentlemen in this business".

He never reached leading man status, seemingly happy to work on the sidelines. When asked in 1984 by the New York Times about his brush with Police Academy generated fame, Gaynes remained philosophical.

"Of course, I'm happy about it," he told the paper. "But knowing the vagaries of the entertainment business, I can't take it too seriously."

Our thoughts are with his friends and family.

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