Graham Cyril Kennedy, AO (15 February 1934 – 25 May 2005) was an Australian radio, television and film performer, often called "Gra Gra" (pronounced "grah-grah") and "The King" of Australian television.
When Kennedy was two years old, his parents moved to Carlisle Street, St Kilda for two years. His parents divorced shortly before World War II, and Kennedy was largely raised by his grandparents, "Pop" Kennedy (who had been an electrician at Melbourne's Tivoli, Royal and Bijou theatres) and "Grandma Scott", to whom he remained particularly close until her death. Kennedy later said that he had:
"often wished his mother and father had never married. 'I wasn't enamoured of either of them [...] they betrayed me [...] divorce is not too much fun for a little nine-year-old [...]After Kennedy's death, an article in The Bulletin by his friend and colleague John Mangos recorded that:
... he would sometimes talk about the violent arguments between his parents, how he gravitated to his grandmother's bosom, his two uncles ("one fought the Germans, the other fought the Japs") and how one of them took liberties with the boy. Graham never resented him, claiming he equated it with affection.
In 1977, Kennedy chaired a project to raise funds for improvements at Melbourne High which raised more than $100,000 in its first year.
In an era when Australian radio announcers routinely adopted false British accents and a "hard sell" approach to advertisements, his authentic Australian voice and irreverent attitude towards his sponsors made him the idol of his audience. By the early 1950s a newspaper survey found that more than 70% of Melbourne housewives tuned in to his show.
In his foreword to Nancy Lee's book Being a Chum Was Fun (1979) Kennedy wrote:
About forty years ago, when I was a snow haired six year old, I can remember being totally captivated by a grown man pretending to be a naughty little boy on 3AW's children session called "Chatterbox Corner". His name was Clifford Whitta, and he was to become the most important man in my life. Years later I was even more fascinated with this man when he conducted a breakfast program and let the boy who played his records actually talk on the air with him.
Nicholls moved from 3KZ to 3UZ (where Kennedy was working), bringing with him his teenage panel operators Alf "Alfie Boy" Thesinger and Russell Archer. However, eighteen-year-olds, Thesinger and Archer were "called up" (conscripted) for National Service. Nancy Lee's book records:
I asked Nicky, "Have you decided on anyone to help you in the session yet?" When I heard the chosen one was to be young Graham, I was surprised. "Oh, no, not Graham! [...] he's a nice boy, but he can't talk." Nick said, "Mum, leave him to me."
Nicky became father-figure, personal friend and mentor to Kennedy, and the two built an extraordinary on-air rapport. Kennedy wrote:
Being straight man to one of the greatest entertainers of our time was not all that easy. We were not always chums. He would spend weeks not talking to me (except on air) for something I had unknowingly said or done. Once he even suspended me from the programme for some trivial matter. [...] I worked with him until his sudden death in 1956. I never stopped being a fan. I did not realize then that I had been prepared for another career on another electrical medium: the most potent communication device of the century.
In 1970 he worked at 3XY; from June to December 1975 he appeared on a 3LO drivetime program with Richard Combe; from September to November 1976 was on 3DB with Denis Scanlan; in 1977 he returned to DB to cover the Silver Jubilee of Elizabeth II live from London.
The episode titles were:
Sattler and his wife (actress Noeline Brown) were two of Kennedy's closest friends.
Kennedy's first television appearance was in March 1957, representing 3UZ on a GTV-9 Red Cross telethon. Viewing his performance on the monitors, GTV-9's general manager Colin Bednall and producer Norman Spencer "... turned to one another without exchanging a word and shook hands."
Bednall and Spencer defied both the GTV-9 boardroom and the first sponsor (Philips) by choosing Kennedy, who began on a salary of 30 pounds for five one-hour evening shows per week to be called In Melbourne Tonight (or IMT) which began on 6 May 1957. Thus the 23-year old Kennedy began a career of which he was later to say that he was "terrified for forty years". The show's theme song, "Gee, But You're Swell", was written by Abel Baer and Thomas Tobias in 1936.
Kennedy was not GTV-9's first choice — they had planned to use either 3UZ personality John McMahon or 3DB's Dick Cranbourne. The programme's name had been intended to be The Late Show, but rival station HSV-7 beat them to that title by one week. The program became extremely popular, although Kennedy had his detractors. Kennedy was quoted as saying:
IMT was devised as a copy of the American 'Tonight Show' format, with the host presiding over sketches, introducing star artists and reading advertisements live. His colleague Bert Newton records in his autobiography:
Spencer wielded other influence too. According to Hugh Stuckey, a writer on the show, the producer placed Kennedy with a series of attractive young women to displace rumours of Kennedy's homosexuality.
By July 1959 the program was still popular in Melbourne. Recurring comedy players Joff Ellen and Rosie Sturgess became regulars. Singer Toni Lamond joined the cast. Attempts were made at this time to launch Kennedy as a national personality. Special Friday night editions of IMT were produced under the title of The Graham Kennedy Show and recorded on videotape which had just come into use. After being transmitted live in Melbourne taped copies of the show would be shipped to Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney for transmission there on subsequent evenings. Producer Spencer observed there was critical and popular resistance to Kennedy in Sydney. Queensland too had shown suspicion to imports from down south trumpeted to Queenslanders as the best in Australia while Queensland itself had apparently been left out of this judgement.
The Graham Kennedy Show began in February 1960 but was not popular in Sydney. The program was judged stilted compared to IMT itself; Kennedy seemed much more subdued than usual, was tense, and the comedy was not working. Critics in Sydney and Queensland disliked key components of the show. Judged as a flop, The Graham Kennedy Show in Sydney was dropped by ATN7 after 13 weeks. The program however was immediately picked up by TCN9 - its general manager Ken G. Hall saw potential in the program. After continued bad reviews its popularity increased in Sydney. By July 1960 it had reached its twenty-fifth episode and had the highest ratings in Australia.
Later in 1960 Kennedy faced opposition when Sir Frank Packer bought GTV-9. Unlike the previous owner, Packer interfered directly with the station's activities. GTV-9 executive Colin Bednall reported that Packer hated Kennedy and forcefully articulated his desire to have him removed from the IMT.
Packer's arrival prompted the departure of IMT producer Norman Spencer. IMT continued its run. Other regular performers on IMT were Patti Newton, Philip Brady. In 1961 Kennedy described his presentation of the program.
By March 1961 the national show had been renamed Graham Kennedy's Channel 9 Show and was finding quiet acceptance nationally. Even at this time Kennedy admitted there were problems in the weekly national show.
Kennedy by this stage did not always host IMT. Bert Newton hosted on Monday nights. Then a September 1961 reshuffle had Toni Lamond host Monday nights and Newton hosted only on Thursday nights. Kennedy took occasional nights off to be replaced by Frederick Parslow, Jimmy Hannan, and Philip Brady. Despite resistance from network executives to the varied hosting line-up, the ratings remained strong.
In January 1962 the national Graham Kennedy's Channel 9 Show was cancelled and replaced by The Channel 9 Show hosted by Bert Newton. Kennedy continued to fine-tune his IMT performances. Kennedy had a strong understanding of key technical elements of television and perfected his comic timing, and watched the lenses on the TV cameras, adjusting his performance depending on whether he was in a wide shot or a close up. Compilation highlight programs of IMT segments were screened in Sydney, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide in May 1963 under the title The Best of Kennedy. The Best of Kennedy continued until December 1963. On IMT, Noel Ferrier was appointed the new Friday night host. Also in 1963 writer Mike McColl-Jones joined. Kennedy had often disliked having writers on the program, was reluctant for them to be publicly acknowledged, and often ignored all their material. In the case of McColl-Jones, Kennedy seemed to like him and his comedy material, which was apparently the key requirement by which Kennedy would use a writer's material. McColl-Jones continued as a writer on the series for several years. Also in 1963 Ernie Carroll joined the writing team. Kennedy had apparently relaxed his attitude towards writers by this stage and seemed happy to use their material with few complaints.
In 1964 Bert Newton abruptly disappeared from the program. It was not publicly acknowledged at the time but he had suffered a nervous breakdown. After a long absence he returned to appear on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday evening episodes. On 14 June 1965 IMT reached its two-thousandth installment and more people watched the show per capita then any other television program in the world.
By this stage Frederick Parslow was well established on the program's writing team and was a confidante of Kennedy's.
On July 7 1965 Kennedy appeared on a then-innovative live split-screen link with Don Lane, the American-born host of Sydney Tonight, via the recently completed co-axial cable linking Melbourne and Sydney. Starting late September 1966, IMT itself would be transmitted in Sydney via the co-axial cable. This coincided with a cameo in the film They're a Weird Mob in which Kennedy plays himself. Like the film's protagonist, Kennedy in the film finds Sydney to be a city somewhat unwelcoming towards migrants from anywhere. By early December 1966 ratings for Kennedy's show were strong in Sydney. There was an increase from one IMT episode a week in Sydney, to two, with a Monday night broadcast added that month.
By 1968 there was a regular roster of IMT guest hosts, including Bert Newton, Tony Charlton, Tim Evans, Bobby Limb, Don Lane, Kevin Sanders, and Michael Preston. The announcement of Kennedy's intention to leave IMT was made in October 1969 and he left the show on the expiration of his contract December 23 1969. His final episode features newsreader Sir Eric Pearce placing on his head a crown made by the Channel Nine prop department in the style of that worn by Henry IV, symbolising Kennedy's reign as King of Australian television.
In 2007, the crown (which a private collector had recognised at a junk store, and purchased for $5) was auctioned for more than $17,000 to a producer of the Seven Network's Sunrise programme.
Journalist Megan Gressor described Kennedy's style as having "... mongrel roots — a hybrid of vaudeville, slapstick and endless suggestiveness, plus a subliminal subversiveness all his own. It seems almost pantomimic to modern eyes, but Kennedy was a product of simpler times. And more complex. His was an act predicated upon repression; naughtiness loses its point in a world without taboos, where anything goes. It wouldn't work today, when people don't just say "fuck" on television, they do it."
Newton has written:
Rover was sometimes brought into the studio to assist with advertisements for Pal dog food. One night the dog showed no interest whatsoever in the product, which Kennedy then himself proceeded to eat with apparent relish, straight from the can - or so it seemed.
Rover also achieved television immortality by relieving himself - live to air - upon one of the huge cameras. The studio audience collapsed in hysterics, but the duration and urgency of Rover's impressively hydraulic performance might have led some cynics to question just how impromptu the event really was.
Biographer Blundell quotes Ernie Carroll:
Pal dog food, with Rover [...] was time consuming [...] once we fed him all afternoon so that when he came out to do the commercial he didn't want to touch the Pal dog food. He was already full of it. [...] on another occasion they had him drink before the show, big drinks. So when he came out, he peed all over the camera and all around the set [...] Even those seemingly innocent dog manouevres were carefully planned.
Kennedy was exasperated for decades by questions about "whatever happened to Rover". As late as 1989, on Graham Kennedy's News Hour (see below), he answered a viewer's question couched in exactly those words with the withering reply "... he was a dog. What do you think happened?"
In early June 2005, on the 3AW programme Nightline with Philip Brady and Bruce Mansfield, Patti (McGrath) Newton stated that her father had often looked after Rover when he appeared at GTV-9. It seems that Kennedy had become increasingly irritated with retrieving Rover from the pound and so, when Patti's father's dog died, Rover went on to a long and happy life at the McGrath (senior) household.
Memorable, and controversial, moments, included the "crow call" controversy where, on March 5, 1975, Kennedy imitated a crow call ("faaaaaark") highly reminiscent of the word "fuck". This incident led the Australian Broadcasting Tribunal to ban Kennedy from live television, forcing him to pre-record the show on videotape.
Another notable moment was from 17 April 1975, when Kennedy attacked Senator Doug McClelland, the then Minister for the Media, over local content issues. His comments were edited, and a voiceover recorded by the general manager was inserted saying that Kennedy had made a "cowardly attack on a Labor Minister who was unable to defend himself."
Following the McClelland incident, Kennedy parted company with the Nine Network, but later returned (see below).
In 1979, "The King" became King of Moomba complete with his famous motorised desk, the second Melbourne-born recipient after Newton.
Nearly 60, Kennedy accepted an offer from the Nine Network's managing director Sam Chisholm to present Graham Kennedy's News Show from Sydney, to air five nights a week at 10:30 p.m. against Clive Robertson's Newsworld on the Seven Network. Five trial programmes were recorded but never broadcast.
Kennedy initially "pulled the plug" and withdrew from the show but returned (see Harry M. Miller, below). Kennedy's contract stipulated that his co-presenter would be sports commentator Ken Sutcliffe.
Kennedy's writers, who worked from a production cottage at the corner of Scott Street and Artarmon Road included Jim Pike, Tim Evans, Larry Burns, and Ken Stirling. Blundell records:
"They worked in the back room shooting out gags over typewriters and word processors, united in their hatred of the 'The Little Guy' as they also called him."
The writers also referred to Kennedy as "the little buggle-eyed bastard",. However, they admired his talent. Jim Pike said, ".. I hate him, but he is the best there is".
Kennedy defied convention with remarks which were tasteless, and yet hilarious. Pointing out the irony of how a news show gets good ratings he said it would be helpful for his show's ratings if the Pope's aircraft were to fly into a mountain while it was full of orphans. He also remarked that Queen Elizabeth II "didn't have bad breasts ... for a woman of her age" and mocked the October 17, 1989, San Francisco Loma Prieta earthquake with a re-creation on the set.
After a slightly heavy woman was caught for streaking at a cricket match, Graham explained on air that they would run the footage but had to cover certain offending parts of her body with black. The clip he played was all black, except for a single spot that revealed her pubic hair.
He also reprised the "Chum Song" from Melbourne radio days, saying that it originated in a 1920s children's newspaper column in Scotland. In Nancy Lee's book Being a Chum Was Fun she writes:
The Chum Song, I believe, was written and recorded originally by Jack Hilton for a Scottish Newsboys Club.
The lyrics of the chorus are:
- Being a chum is fun,
- That is why I'm one;
- Always smiling, always gay,
- Chummy at work,
- (and) chummy at play -
- Laugh away your worries,
- Don't be sad or glum;
- And everyone will know that you're a
- Chum, chum, chum!
Sutcliffe would "corpse", with tears in his eyes, unable to continue; this became so frequent that Kennedy managed to coin a catchphrase, "I love it when he cries".
Kennedy called Sutcliffe "Two Dogs" after delivering a joke ending with the tag "Why do you ask, Two Dogs Rooting?"
Graham Kennedy's News Show was a rarity in that it was a live news show that had a studio audience. Five nights a week for most of the year, audiences lined up at 10:30 at night just to see Kennedy do his magic in the flesh. Often the funniest parts of the show were in the commercial breaks when Kennedy would come down and join the audience for a chat. He always made a point of telling them a particularly crude joke that was timed so they got the punchline just a second before the show was back on air.
Miller later sued Kennedy for "wrongful termination and for a 20 per cent commission on his 1989 gross earnings." During the court case Miller "painted a picture of his client of twenty years as a late-night drunk in the habit of sending demanding faxes while under the influence." Justice Brownie found against Miller, and ordered him to pay $75,699 and costs.
In 2005 John Mangos wrote:
"He (Kennedy) later explained the experience in a piece for TV Week in an article called 'In his own words'.
Ray Martin and I had worked together before, and he well knows that if I have the questions in advance, he'll get a better interview. Everyone knows this – politicians in particular. Ray duly faxed the questions to me, but on the morning of the recording changed them. I was bewildered by this (I think a researcher let him down). I terminated the interview when I didn't know what he was talking about and went upstairs to lunch.
It was a critical turning point in his career. He vowed never to do television again.
Ray Martin denied any ill intent, saying "We faxed a series of general topics, but it was clear at the outset that much would depend on the general run of the interview [...] An ambush was not on the agenda [...] He had no complaints. There was never a suggestion that he was unhappy.
Kennedy received many Logies, including:
He also had a cameo in On the Beach (1959) which was not used.
Many years later, Kennedy wrote to a newspaper that a photographer, taking pictures of Ms. Cantrell and him leaving a restaurant together asked if he could "hint at a romance". The following Sunday a poster proclaimed "GRAHAM AND LANA TO WED".
On 18 December 2001 his housekeeper found him unconscious and dehydrated. Sattler said "Between the diabetes and the booze, there's not much left of him", adding that the death of Kennedy's dog Henry was "the final trigger".
His Canyonleigh property was sold, and he moved into a townhouse and later a nursing home.
According to Graeme Blundell's biography, Tony Sattler:
However, Kennedy's will reportedly left a seven-figure sum to the Sydney City Mission.
The king of Australian TV Graham Kennedy will celebrate his 70th birthday next weekend with a few close friends. The low-key affair is expected to be at the Kenilworth Nursing Home at Bowral where Kennedy has lived since taking a nasty tumble a few years ago. Physically he's not in terrific shape. He can't walk any more and gets around in a wheelchair as a result of the diabetes and the years of heavy smoking.
Actor Graeme Blundell, who had worked with Kennedy on the movie The Odd Angry Shot, published a biography of Kennedy, King: The Life and Comedy of Graham Kennedy (McMillan, 2003). A newspaper report stated that Kennedy "passed on his best wishes but declined to be involved 'for no particular reason [...] other than he believes he has a limited memory of many of the facts of his life'." The book, which was completed before Kennedy's death, ends with "Graham read them [chapters of an early draft] ... asked if he wished to read any more, 'No', Graham Kennedy said. 'I know how it ends.'"
In 2001 Kennedy's friend and Coast to Coast colleague, John Mangos, was reported as saying:
I can say to his beloved fans that they won't see Graham again. He won't appear publicly again; he is in his twilight. He has made a personal decision to disappear quietly into the sunset.
John Mangos wrote in The Bulletin:
He also wrote:
Wagstaff's eulogy alluded to the claims made by Derryn Hinch about the cause of Kennedy's death:
Delivering a eulogy for a close friend and for someone who was so much admired is never a happy occasion. Though I must confess I would be quite happy to deliver a eulogy for a certain media personality who's tried the second Kennedy assassination of our time... and failed.
Kennedy had never explicitly stated that he was homosexual, but at his funeral, his friends were at last free to make jokes, in a friendly way.
The Age of June 26, 2005 reported John Mangos as saying that he "knew Kennedy wanted his ashes scattered at sea. And that wish was carried out." This was confirmed in a report in The Sydney Morning Herald on August 2, 2005 which stated that Kennedy's ashes were scattered in the sea at Kiama attended by a group which included "Noelene Brown, Tony Sattler, John Mangos, Stuart Wagstaff, Kennedy's former housekeeper Sally Baker-Beall and her husband John, and old friends Christine and Nicholas Deeprose."
In the Australia Day honours of 26 January, 2006, Kennedy was posthumously appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), for "service to the entertainment industry as an actor, comedian and presenter significantly influencing the development of the radio, television and film industries in Australia, and to the community" . The award was made effective from 5 May 2005.
The project, which cost $AUD2.1 million, premiered on May 20, 2007 on TV1 (becoming the highest-rating drama to be shown on pay-TV) to heavy criticism by Kennedy's friends. Tony Sattler and his wife, actor Noeline Brown, Kennedy's closest friends, said they were mortified by the movie. "The film was obsessed with his homosexuality. I don't think people cared about that....He was Australia's most famous, successful entertainer but how much do we see of that in the film? We see f--- all of it. The Nine Network screened the film on August 27, 2007 .