George Gaynes

Active - 1955 - 2013  |   Born - May 16, 1917 in Helsinki, Grand Duchy of Finland  |   Died - Feb 15, 2016   |   Genres - Comedy, Drama

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Finnish-born actor George Gaynes was a United States citizen for most of his life. Blessed with a superb singing voice and an amiable stage presence, Gaynes rapidly built a reputation as a Broadway musical comedy performer in the '40s and '50s (his best-known appearance was in Wonderful Town, the musical version of My Sister Eileen). Entering films and television in the early 1960s, Gaynes was a regular on the TV daytime dramas Search for Tomorrow and General Hospital, and showed up in such movies as The Group (1968), Marooned (1969) and Doctor's Wives (1971). He was terrific in Dustin Hoffman's Tootsie (1981) as the aging, libidinous soap opera actor who tries to put the make on his co-star "Dorothy Michaels," little suspecting that Dorothy is really the certifiably male Michael Dorsey (Hoffman). In 1984, Gaynes was showcased on two different series, one on TV, the other on the big screen. The TV series was Punky Brewster, wherein Gaynes played photographer Henry Warnimont, the adult guardian of the title character (a little lost girl, played by Soleil Moon Frye); when Punky Brewster was spun off into a cartoon series, Gaynes came along as one of the voice talents. The aforementioned big-screen series was launched with Police Academy (1984), a juvenile comedy that somehow spawned five sequels, all of them featuring Gaynes as long-suffering police chief Lassard. None of his subsequent appearances drew as many laughs as did George Gaynes' setpiece in the first film, in which, while trying to deliver a public speech, he was the unwitting (but increasingly ecstatic) recipient of a prostitute's services. Gaynes appeared in all seven films in the series; he also appeared in films like The Cruicible and Wag the Dog. Gaynes died in 2016, at age 98.

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  • His six-foot-tall Russian mother was a celebrated bohemian in the Paris avant-garde of the 1920s, and his Dutch father was a businessman.
  • Born in Helsinki when Finland was still an independent outpost of the Russian Empire.
  • Introduced to opera by Russian basso Feodor Chaliapin, who was a friend of his mother's.
  • Interned in Spain for three months during World War II, and, after his release, enlisted in the Royal Dutch Navy.
  • Emigrated to New York as a singer after World War II, appearing not only in Don Giovanni and in Gilbert and Sullivan operettas with the New York City Opera, but on Broadway in Cole Porter's Out of This World and in Leonard Bernstein's Wonderful Town.
  • After toiling for years in bit parts in movies, TV shows and onstage, finally came to critical attention at the age of 65 for his supporting role in Tootsie.
  • Spoke six languages fluently.
  • Retired in 2003.