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Actor Edd Byrnes, Who Made the T-Bucket an Icon, Dies at 87

Words & color photos: John Gunnell

Famous for his hot rod, his jive talk and his hair-combing, Gerald “Kookie” Kookson III was a popular ‘50s and ‘60s TV character who turned the Ford “T-Bucket” into an American icon. Actor Edd Byrnes, who played Kookie, also played Vince Fontaine in the movie version of the Broadway hit “Grease.” Byrnes passed away at age 87 on Jan. 8, 2020.

Byrnes’ son Logan, a California TV newsman, confirmed the news that Byrnes had died with a Facebook posting. The Kookie character was a huge hit on the TV detective show “77 Sunset Strip.”

Byrnes had first been cast as contract killer Kenneth Smiley in a pilot called “Girl on the Run.” Smiley spent a lot of time combing his hair. After the pilot got a big reaction from viewers, it was turned into the “77 Sunset Strip” series. The director kept the character and Byrnes, with his mop of hair, comb, windbreaker and jive-talking slang, became a parking lot attendant named Kookie who worked at Dino’s restaurant near the detective agency and helped co-stars Efrem Zimbalist Jr and Roger Smith solve cases.

Kookie drove a Ford T-bucket hot rod. It was a car - originally a Model A - that famed hot rodder Norm Grabowski purchased in 1952 for $100. Grabowski then bolted a ’22 Model T body to the Model A frame. His T-bucket started its film career in 1955, but the 1958-1963 Sunset Strip show made it nationally known.

The old Ford became known as the “Kookie Kar” or “Kookie Kart” and LIFE featured it in a story focused on hot rods. LIFE’s readership was massive back then and the story showed Americans how cool it could be to drive a hot rod.

The original Kookie Kar is still in existence and was recently featured in Mecum Auction Co.’s Mecum Magazine. Over the years, it had been extensively modified and changed from the way it looked on TV. In 2018, it was sold at Mecum’s Indianapolis sale. Hot Rod collector Ross Myers of the 3 Dog Garage in Boyertown, Pa., bought it and sent it to Roy Brizio Street Rods for a complete restoration to its television format. In the color photos included in this article, you can see an exact replica of the Kookie Kar which was at SEMA about a decade back. Built by Johnny Overbay at Reno Rods & Customs of Oklahoma City, it looks exactly like the restored car.

Mecum Magazine included vintage publicity stills of Edd Byrnes with the car, photos of how it looked when sold at Indy and photos of the restored car today. It’s of some interest that the Kookie Kar showed up in a magazine dated the same month that the actor died. Byrnes may be gone, but he certainly did his part to shape mainstream American culture, as well as making the Ford T-Bucket an American hot rodding legend.