George Gaynes, the funniest white-haired comedy actor of the 80s this side of Leslie Nielsen, passed away Monday, February 15, at age 98.
A veteran of stage, television, and the big screen, his career in entertainment spanned six decades. His very first television role was a comedy called One Touch of Venus in 1955 with Janet Blair, and throughout the next two decades he had bit parts in shows from Mission: Impossible to Bonanza, The Six-Million Dollar Man, and WKRP in Cincinnati.
His big-screen break came at age 65 as the randy, dim-witted Dr. John Van Horn in Sydney Pollack’s 1982 comedy Tootsie. Referred to as “The Tongue” by his female costars on the soap-opera set of Southwest General, Van Horn develops a crush (both on- and off-screen) on the new hospital administrator, Emily Kimberly, played by Dustin Hoffman. All of his scenes were hysterical, such as when the bumbling but aggressive Van Horn sneaks an open-mouth kiss with a stunned Hoffman in full makeup, or when he professes his love to Emily by warbling under her window until she lets him inside.
His other memorable film character was the caring but inept Commandant Eric Lassard in the Police Academy series beginning in 1984 (and even one episode in the short-lived 1997-98 television adaptation), presiding over his gaggle of misfit cops with a fondness for long-winded speeches. His character appeared in all seven of the gradually less successful movies.
Also in 1984, Gaynes joined Punky Brewster as Henry Warnimont, the kind adoptive father to Soleil Moon Frye’s scrappy orphan, and appeared in all but two of the show’s eighty-eight episodes over four seasons.
His last film role was as Father Robert in 2003’s Just Married with Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy, after which he retired from acting. He is survived by his wife of sixty-three years, actress Allyn Ann McLerie, and a daughter, Iya. His son, Matthew, died in 1989 in a car accident in India.