‘Police Academy’ and ‘Punky Brewster’ Actor George Gaynes Dies at 98
The lot of a character actor is a noble but thankless one. Being able to vanish into a colorful supporting role acts as a gift and a curse; a good character actor can consistently deliver fully-formed and transformative performances, but to the point where immediate recognition and the uppermost echelon of fame continues to elude them. Condemned to a life of being That Guy Who Was In That Thing, the lowly character actor labors in obscurity often for decades on end, leavening the film in which they appear through their mere presence. George Gaynes was one such actor, earning a fair measure of notability with key roles in the Police Academy franchise as well as the program Punky Brewster, but never attaining true celebrity ubiquity.
Surrounded by family at his daughter’s home in North Bend, Washington, Gaynes died on Monday. He was 98 years old.
Born in 1917 to a Dutch businessman and Russian artist living in Helsinki, young Gaynes bopped around Europe for most of his boyhood years, spending time in France, England, and Switzerland before permanently relocating to the United States. In the ‘40s and ‘50s, Gaynes would rise to prominence as a treader of the Broadway boards, leading in musical comedies and even cultivating a career in opera, singing in Europe prior to World War II and the U.S. afterward. Gaynes made the jump to the screen in the early ‘60s, steadily alternating between TV and film projects over the course of a long and varied career. He found the most success (and the steadiest paycheck) as Commandant Eric Lassard in the seven installments of the cop comedy Police Academy series. Gaynes scored another hit in the ‘80s as Henry Warnimont, the cantankerous coot who would warm to Punky Brewster and eventually become the precocious tot’s foster father. The ‘80s were Gaynes’ high point for sure, as the decade also put him opposite Dustin Hoffman in the unexpected hit and awards-season smash Tootsie.
Gaynes won’t go down in the history books, but he did what he did well, and what’s more, he was able to do it often, which is all an actor can really ask for in this life. He had range, and he exuded a warmth beneath the gruffness that often characterized his roles that made audiences come back again and again.