Burt Kennedy; Critically Praised Writer and Director of Western Films, TV Shows


Burt Kennedy, a prolific writer and director of Western films and television shows, including "The War Wagon" and several other movies with John Wayne, died Thursday of cancer at his Sherman Oaks home. He was 78.

He wrote more than a dozen Westerns, including "Seven Men From Now," which was released in 1956 and starred Randolph Scott. That movie, his first produced screenplay, was recently restored by the UCLA Film and Television Archives and shown at the New York, London and Telluride film festivals.

It was one of four movies he made with director Budd Boetticher, who once called Kennedy the best Western screenwriter because he was "so carefully authentic" in his depictions of life in the Old West.

When the popularity of the genre began to wane, Kennedy the director enlivened it in such spoofs as "Support Your Local Sheriff," which starred James Garner as a lawman who relied more on his wits than his gun, and "Dirty Dingus McGee," which starred Frank Sinatra as a two-bit outlaw and George Kennedy as a bungling sheriff.

On television, Kennedy directed episodes of "The Lawman" and "The Virginian" as well as the World War II drama series "Combat."

Some critics considered "Welcome to Hard Times," a 1967 release based on an E.L. Doctorow novel that starred Aldo Ray and Henry Fonda, to be Kennedy's most ambitious and best Western. It had a "snazzy visual style that suggests Sergio Leone filtered through the late John Ford," Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington wrote last year.

It had a simple but symbol-laden plot--about a decrepit Western town being controlled by an outlaw--that reviewers found intriguing.

"I always like to tell a small story against a big background," Kennedy told the Omaha World-Herald last year. "Good Westerns are that way."

Kennedy was born into a family of vaudevillians--the Dancing Kennedys--in Muskegon, Mich. He was 5 when he joined his parents' act and began to tour the country with them. During World War II he served in the Army's famed 1st Cavalry as an infantry lieutenant and helped to liberate the Philippines. He earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart.

After the war he moved to California and studied at the Pasadena Playhouse on the GI Bill. He began his career in radio, writing plays such as the Hash Knife Hartley series. He later joined John Wayne's Batjac Productions as a writer.

Among his other films are "The Rounders," "Young Billy Young," "Support Your Local Gunfighter," "Mail Order Bride," "Hannie Caulder" and "The Train Robbers." His non-Western films include "The Money Trap" and "Killer Inside Me."

Never nominated for an Oscar, Kennedy was honored by Western film aficionados. Last year he was given the Nebraskaland Days Buffalo Bill Award in North Platte, Neb., and was hailed as "Hollywood's Trail Boss."

He is survived by two daughters, Bridget Kennedy of Pacific Palisades and Susan Kennedy-McNutt of Portland, Ore.; and five grandchildren.

Donations may be made in his memory to the Motion Picture and Television Fund or the USO of Washington, D.C.

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