Best known as Punky Brewster’s cantankerous foster father and the comically clueless Commandant Eric Lassard in the Police Academy movie series, George Gaynes had a personal military history that could easily have been classified as “too crazy to be true.” Born as George Jongejans to a Dutch father and Russian mother in Finland, Gaynes was a classically trained opera singer making a living in in France when the Germans invaded in 1940. Upon escaping the occupying German forces, he was arrested by the Francoist Spain police in the Pyrennes. After being released in 1942, Gaynes made his way to Britain, where he enlisted in the Royal Netherlands Navy. Because of his skills with languages (he spoke Dutch, English, French, Italian and Russian), he was detached to the Royal Navy in 1943 as a translator assigned to the convoy commodore HMS Hilary, which eventually took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily later that year. Later Gaynes was assigned to the destroyer HMS Wilton, which participated in the Battle of Anzio in 1944, and was promoted to Sergeant (Petty officer, 1st class).
After he was honorably discharged from the Royal Netherlands Navy in 1946, he returned to France, where a chance encounter with a Broadway director led him to the US. He became an American citizen and carved out a steady career as a theater and TV actor, becoming a regular on such enduring soap operas as Search for Tomorrow and General Hospital. (His naval experience came in handy for his first film role, a bit part in the movie about John F. Kennedy’s naval career, PT 109.) His acting resume received a shot in the arm when he played the lecherous soap opera actor in the Oscar-winning Dustin Hoffman comedy Tootsie in 1982, opening the door to his well-known roles in Police Academy and Punky Brewster.
Gaynes passed away at his home in North Bend, Washington early this year at the ripe old age of 98. Said his agent Jonathan Howard, “The last couple times I got in touch with him, even in his 90s, he was always happy to take the call and consider something… He was really one of the true gentlemen in this business and was working steadily for 50 years or more. A sad, sad loss. But he had a really long, great life.”
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