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Celebrating Graham Kennedy, the king of television

Graham Kennedy was Australia's greatest breakout television star in the industry's formative years.

Commercial television had first broadcast the year before when GTV-9 in Melbourne began scouting a host for their planned weeknight show to be called In Melbourne Tonight.

Radio was king in the years before television, and Graham Kennedy was already a known personality, but being still young and the straight man to Clifford "Nicky" Nicholls on 3UZ made him a surprise choice to headline the Nine network's big-ticket evening television show on its debut in 1957.

Drawn on the successful format of the American Tonight Show, it featured live performances, sketches, and the live reading of advertisements, and it made a star of Kennedy, building a loyal audience that would follow him across a 40-year career from his early variety television shows IMT (1957-70) and The Graham Kennedy Show (mid-1970s), the saucy 1970s game show Blankety Blanks (1977-78), work in a number of feature films, and even his later success with news current affairs such as Coast to Coast (1989).

The career and inescapable charm of Graham Kennedy is being celebrated at a number of events across the country in coming weeks, beginning with Graham Kennedy: The King of TV at the St Kilda Film Festival 11am tomorrow, 21 May, at the St Kilda Town Hall.

Acknowledging the 60th anniversary of In Melbourne Tonight's debut, the event begins with a package of career highlights from Kennedy's television and film work, followed by a panel discussion with friends and colleagues, including Kennedy's long-time IMT writer Mike McColl Jones, Philip Brady, and Patti Newton, whose husband Bert was Kennedy's on-air sidekick and comedic punching bag for decades, but who herself also worked as a performer on In Melbourne Tonight.

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"IMT was a wonderful start to my adult working life," Patti Newton says.

"Graham was such a perfectionist, but everyone saw the genius in him," she says, "and Bert always said he was the best editor of a script he'd ever known."

Also speaking will be Nine's voiceover legend Pete Smith, who tells me that Kennedy "had a magic spark and those of us privileged to work with him benefited from the warmth of his amazing talent".

The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) continues the celebration with Graham Kennedy: The Online Exhibition launching this week, featuring memorable, rare and personal clips, tributes and artefacts that span his more than four-decade long career across radio, television and film.

The work of hundreds of hours from NFSA curators and Kennedy's friends and colleagues, the exhibition (now online at nfsa.gov.au) includes clips of fan-favourite moments, including some of Bert Newton and Kennedy's funnier live advertisements, and Kennedy singing a self-penned ditty "500 Times, 5 Nights A Week" commemorating the 500th edition of IMT from 2 April 1959.

It also includes controversial moments, one from The Mike Walsh Show from 1970 with a fired-up Kennedy casting doubt as to the legitimacy of some recent Logie Award wins (he had already won a number of them, and himself named the award).

The exhibition includes high-resolution 360-degree photography of some of Kennedy's memorabilia from the vaults of the NFSA, including the crown and throne made for his television series (and in reference to his title of "King" of Australian television), and his TV ad for the 1981 Census for the Australian Government, where he jokingly muses aloud how to answer the "occupation" section – he was between TV gigs at the time.

In one clip from Blankety Blanks, Kennedy and his coterie of funny pals enjoy disparaging the Network Ten (then the 0-Ten Network) station owner, promote shows from other networks, and generally laugh at themselves, all for which Kennedy was Australian television's highest paid celebrity of the time – earning a million dollar annual paycheck for each of his two years on the show.

Being a child of the 1970s, Graham Kennedy was often on the television screen in our house. I wasn't old enough to know what a double entendre was, but that didn't stop me laughing at characters such as "Peter the Phantom Puller", or the camp innuendo on Blankety Blanks, which would enjoy repeats for decades.

Timed to coincide with the launch of the Kennedy online exhibition, I have curated a short season looking at some of Kennedy's finer roles on the big screen for NFSA's beautiful art deco Arc Cinema in Canberra.

Always looking to extend his work outside of the small screen, Kennedy began his big screen career easily, playing himself in Michael Powell's 1966 film They're a Weird Mob.

"It plagued Graham that he was characterised as a television clown, a TV funny man [when] he had more strings to his bow," Mike McColl Jones wrote in his 2008 book Graham Kennedy Treasures – Friends Remember the King (co-authored with comedian Steve Vizard).

Kennedy showed real acting chops in Bruce Beresford's Don's Party, (1976), from the David Williamson play, as the deserted husband, his performance singled out by critics for praise. He would go on to act in two more Williamson adaptations, The Club (1980) and Travelling North (1987), but his most fondly remembered big screen role came with Tom Jeffrey's Vietnam war movie The Odd Angry Shot (1979) where Kennedy's troop leader Harry best captures the larrikin spirit paired with dedication to job and mateship that Australia likes to picture of its fighting servicemen.

Jeffrey cast Kennedy based on his performance in Don's Party, calling his comic timing "superlative", but not much of Kennedy's performance in Roland Joffe's Oscar-winning The Killing Fields (1984) found its way past the editing room – "Only eighteen frames", he is quoted as joking.

The Killing Fields (R18+) and The Odd Angry Shot (M) screen as a double feature at Arc Cinema, Canberra, 6pm, Wednesday, May 24, and a double feature of Don's Party (R18+) and The Club (PG) screens 6.30pm Friday, May 26.

Session information for the St Kilda Film Festival available at www.stkildafilmfestival.com.au. The National Film and Sound Archive's Graham Kennedy Online Exhibition available at www.nfsa.gov.au/collection/online-exhibitions

Cris Kennedy is Manager of Engagement at the National Film and Sound Archive and no relation to Graham Kennedy.