George Gaynes, who portrayed an irritable foster parent on the ’80s sitcom Punky Brewster, the bewildered commandant in seven Police Academy films and a soap opera star with a crush on Dorothy Michaels, whom he doesn’t know is Dustin Hoffman’s character in drag, in the hit feature comedy Tootsie, died on Monday in North Bend, Wash. He was 98.
George Gaynes was born George Jongejans on May 16, 1917 to Dutch and Russian parents in Finland, he grew up in France, England and Switzerland; after serving in the Royal Netherlands Navy during World War II, he immigrated to the United States and began his acting career on Broadway.
Gaynes’ most recognized role’s in cinema was arguably that of Commandant Eric Lassard in the Police Academy series and the comedy film Tootsie.
To television fans, he is perhaps best known as the curmudgeonly but lovable foster parent Henry Warnimont on the NBC series Punky Brewster; as high-powered theatrical producer Arthur Feldman on The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd, in which Gaynes’ real-life wife, Allyn Ann McLerie, co-starred as his love interest; and as Frank Smith, the mob boss brought down by Luke Spencer (Anthony Geary) on the soap opera General Hospital.
Gaynes was born in 1917 in Helsinki, in what was then the Grand Duchy of Finland and part of the Russian Empire (Finland became independent that year), the son of Iya Grigorievna De Gay (later known as Lady Iya Abdy), a Russian artist, and Gerrit Jongejans, a Dutch businessman. His uncle was actor Gregory Gaye. He was raised in France, England and Switzerland.
A United States citizen for most of his life, Gaynes rapidly built a reputation as a Broadway musical comedy performer in the 1940s and 1950s (his best-known appearance was in Wonderful Town, the musical version of My Sister Eileen). He had a career on the opera stages of Italy and France before World War II and in the US after the war.
He alternated between stage musicals and both comic and dramatic plays, including his role as Bob Baker in the original production of Wonderful Town (1953), Jupiter in the Cole Porter musical Out of This World, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas and as Henry Higgins in the 1964 US tour of My Fair Lady.
In television, Gaynes played the role of Henry Warnimont, the eventual foster father for Punky Brewster in the eponymous series. (He also provided the voice for Henry in the animated Ruby-Spears version of the show.) Behind the camera, he directed the very last episode of WKRP in Cincinnati. Films in which he appeared include The Way We Were, Nickelodeon and Tootsie.
In 1984, he played Commandant Lassard, the titular leader, in the first of seven Police Academy movies, and audiences of the 1980s may remember him as Frank Smith, the Mafia boss who was after Luke and Laura on the soap opera General Hospital. In 1994, he played Serybryalzov in Louis Malle’s acclaimed independent feature, Vanya on 42nd Street.
Entering films and television in the early 1960s, Gaynes was a regular on the TV daytime dramas Search for Tomorrow (replacing Robert Mandan in the role of Jo’s husband, Sam Reynolds) and General Hospital (originating the role of mobster Frank Smith), and showed up in such movies as The Group (1966), Marooned (1969) and Doctor’s Wives (1971). He also played a role in the sci-fi television series Sliders for one episode, being the aged character of the leading role Quinn Mallory, played by Jerry O’Connell.
Gaynes was married to the stage and television actress and dancer Allyn Ann McLerie from December 20, 1953; they had two children, Matthew (Matt) and Iya. After early teenage experimentation with marijuana, Matthew was sent to the Catalina Island School; there he learned ocean kayaking, and his life changed completely. He grew to be one of the most respected kayakers of his generation; he was shortlisted for the Olympic team the year that President Jimmy Carter boycotted the Olympics after the Russians invaded Afghanistan. Matt died in a car crash in India in 1989, on his way to Nepal to film a kayaking special for ESPN. He was not the driver and the car had no seatbelts. He left behind a widow whom he had married earlier that year.
Iya Gaynes Falcone, a lawyer, served as campaign director for a variety of California political candidates, and then ran for office herself in Santa Barbara. She served on the Santa Barbara City Council for two terms. During a subsequent run for mayor, her husband of many years died, and she took actions that effectively withdrew herself from the campaign. She has since remarried.
In addition to George Gaynes joining the cast of his wife’s series The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd in 1989, he and McLerie had previously worked together on Punky Brewster, when she guest starred in a first season episode as a love interest of Henry Warnimont’s.
In a 2011 interview, he stated that he had an “easy”, “open” and “cordial” relationship with his Punky Brewster co-star Soleil Moon Frye, but added that they never had any relationship outside of their work. He also added that the series’ dog, “Brandon the Wonder Dog ” was named after the NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff.
Gaynes died at his home in North Bend, Washington on February 15, 2016. He was 98. Gaynes is survived by his daughter, Iya Gaynes Falcone Brown.