George Gaynes was born in Helsinki in May, 1917, which was then the capital of the Grand Duchy of Finland. The Grand Duchy was part of the Russian Empire, which was in a state of collapse at the time of Gaynes’ birth. The Emperor Nicholas II of Russia had abdicated the throne on March 15, two months prior to Gaynes’ birth, and the Empire was in the process of splintering.
His family left the country, and George was primarily raised in France, England, and Switzerland. Neither of his parents was Finnish. His father Gerrit Jongejans was a Dutch businessman, and his mother Iya Grigorievna de Gay was a Russian artist. George attended college in the vicinity of Lausanne, Switzerland and graduated in 1937. He then attended a music school in Milan, Italy for about a year.
In 1940, George Gaynes was living in France, during the time of the Battle of France in World War II. The Battle ended in defeat for the French Third Republic and the country was occupied by Nazi Germany. George attempted to flee the occupation authorities, by crossing the Pyrenees mountains into neutral Spain. He was arrested by the Spanish authorities for illegally crossing the border, but was soon released.
In 1943, George joined the Royal Netherlands Navy. With the Netherlands under German occupation, the headquarters of the Navy had moved to London, in the United Kingdom. George had no previous military experience, but he was noticed for multilingual skills. He fluently spoke Dutch, English, French, Italian and Russian. He was soon detached to the (British) Royal Navy to serve as a translator.
During his naval service in World War II, George took part in the Allied invasion of Sicily, the Battle of Anzio in the Italian Campaign, and the Adriatic Campaign. The War ended in 1945 and George was honorably discharged in July, 1946. His highest military rank was that of a sergeant.
In 1946, George briefly returned to living in France. He was approached by an American theater director with the offer to play a part in a musical. He took the offer and moved to New York City, where he started appearing in Broadway musicals. He applied for American citizenship and officially became a citizen in 1948.
From the late 1940s to the early 1960s, George Gaynes was primarily a theatrical actor. His roles included various musicals, dramas, and comedies. One of his better-known roles was that of Henry Higgins in the theatrical version of ”My Fair Lady”, which went on a successful tour in 1964.
In the early 1960s, George started appearing as a character actor in various television series. He was also offered a number of film roles. His career unexpectedly took off in the 1980s, with a major part in the television series Punky Brewster (1985) and another one in the then-popular film series “Police Academy” from 1984 to 1994. In Police Academy (1984), his role was that of Commandant Eric Lassard, the titular leader of the Academy. He played the role in all 7 films of the series, though he only had a featured part in the fifth film. This was probably his most memorable role and gained him celebrity recognition for the first time.
In the 1990s, his career slowed down again, with only a few film appearances. He only played in a single film through the 2000s, Just Married (2003), and then retired. He was 86-years-old and could no longer play physically demanding roles. He spend 13 years in retirement before he died of natural causes in 2016.
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