George Gaynes, who played paternal figures in ’80s fixtures Police Academy and Punky Brewster, died on Monday at age 98, his daughter confirmed to the New York Times.
Born George Jongejans in Finland in 1917, Gaynes worked steadily for decades, making numerous guest appearances on television series in like Hawaii Five-O, Mission: Impossible, Bonanza, Hogan’s Heroes, and Columbo, and also appearing on Broadway. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that Gaynes experienced a breakout. He played a slimy soap opera actor who relentlessly pursues Dustin Hoffman in 1982’s Tootsie, and followed that classic film up with his two signature roles: Commandant Eric Lassard in the Police Academy movies, and Henry Warnimont, foster father to the title character on Punky Brewster.
“To build a character like Henry Warnimont required a few weeks and months of work,” Gaynes said of his Punky Brewster part in an interview. “It turned out he was basically a very kind and generous man, which he covered up with his surface gruffness and surface bluster. And the kind of hopeless quality that everything goes wrong, kind of thing. That was built up over the weeks and months, and we had a good time doing it. I brought what I could of myself to this thing, because between Henry Warnimont and I — not a hell of a lot of difference.”
On Twitter, Punky Brewster star Soleil Moon Frye paid tribute to her late television dad. “The universe just gained a gigantic star. You will be in my heart and soul always & forever,” she wrote, signing the tweet with “Your little Punky.”
Gaynes would play Commandant Lassard seven times on screen, and also made an appearance as the character on the 1998 television series based on Police Academy. Other work included appearances on General Hospital, and in films Vanya on 42nd Street, Wag the Dog, and The Crucible. His last role was in 2003’s Just Married, playing a priest opposite Ashton Kutcher and Brittany Murphy.