Variety is reporting that George Gaynes, an actor best known for his roles as stern-but-loving father figure Henry on Punky Brewster, and as the affably goofy commandant of the Police Academy franchise, has died. Gaynes was 98.
A long-time stage actor and singer—whose early career included a stint in the cast of the New York City Opera—Gaynes made his first TV performance in 1955, on NBC’s Television Opera Theater. From there, he worked steadily for the next 48 years, building up credits on shows like Bonanza, Columbo, and The Defenders. It wasn’t until the 1980s, though—when Gaynes was already in his mid-to-late 60s—that he fully entered the public consciousness with his iconically deep-voiced performances. First, he secured a small-but-memorable role in Dustin Hoffman’s 1982 hit Tootsie, as a male co-worker smitten with Hoffman’s cross-dressing creation. Then, two years later, he was cast as Commandant Lassard, Police Academy’s answer to the comedically stern elder statesman role Leslie Nielsen played in the Airplane and Naked Gun films.
Adept at delivering the series’ ridiculous dialogue in a boisterously resonant baritone, Gaynes appeared in the role seven times across a decade’s worth of films. And while the series’ struggle with the problem of diminishing returns affected Lassard as much as the rest of the cast across the years, it couldn’t diminish Gaynes’ gift for physical and vocal comedy, best exemplifed in a memorable scene from the first movie, when Lassard attempts to give a speech under considerable duress:
On a less ribald note, 1984 was also when Gaynes was cast in the role of Henry Warnimont, the building maintenance man who eventually comes to adopt plucky abandoned kid Punky Brewster. Gaynes starred for four seasons alongside Soleil Moon Frye, doling out cantankerous wisdom, one-liners, and reserved affection on a weekly basis. (He also voiced his character on the 1985 animated version of the show.)
Gaynes continued to work through the ’90s, co-starring on the one-season Markie Post and John Ritter vehicle Hearts Afire, and playing a small role in Barry Levinson’s Wag The Dog. He retired in 2003; his final film appearance was in Ashton Kutcher’s Just Married. He is survived by actress Allyn Ann McLerie, his wife of 63 years, who he appeared with in numerous roles (including the Punky Brewster clip above).