Western Profiles: A Steely Eyed Gent . . . Jack Elam

 

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“The heavy today is usually not my kind of guy. In the old days, Rory Calhoun was the hero because he was the hero and I was the heavy because I was the heavy–and nobody cared what my problem was. And I didn’t either. I robbed the bank because I wanted the money. I’ve played all kinds of weirdoes but I’ve never done the quiet, sick type. I never had a problem–other that the fact I was just bad.”

He was bad all right–and just plain bad most of the time. That was when he wasn’t playing heroes and sweet gentle souls. Those roles came mostly later in his career. But for sure, the late great character actor Jack Elam would be remembered for being a villain. A villain on  steroids so to speak.

And all from a guy that was known to everyone as one of the nicest men to ever step onto a soundstage.

He was born William Scott Elam, in Miami. Not Florida, but way out west in Miami, Arizona, on November 13, 1920. He grew up in Phoenix. He died of congestive heart failure on October 20, 2003, in Ashland Oregon, where he had lived since 1990. He ended up playing in one hundred and nineteen movies, two hundred and sixty television shows and heaven only knows how many cameo and uncredited appearances.  He was gunned down at the end of most of them by the hero.

James Arness, playing Matt Dillion, may hold the world’s record for highest number of “Elam” kills. It’s really kind of hard to tell. Arness paid Jack a grand compliment–saying that he could play anything, from heavies to heroes, and everything in between–because he just had a “marvelous face.”

Elam played his shortest, and perhaps most memorable role, in Once Upon A Time In The West. He was a baddie of course, and somehow had a fly trapped in the barrel of his six-shooter–causing him no end of amusement. It was a true celluloid classic moment–and worth a view any day of the week.

Jack was a hero in real life–serving two years in the Navy during World War II, in Culver City. He was exempted from active-duty because of his poor eyesight, but didn’t let that stop him from finding a way to pitch-in with the war effort.

Jack Elam was a patriot.

In 1985, Elam played Charlie in The Aurora Encounter. During the making of this film, Elam began a lifelong friendship with an eleven-year-old-boy named Mickey Hays, who suffered from the fatal disease of progeria. In the documentary I Am Not A Freak, viewers got to see how close Elam and Hays were. Elam said, “You know I’ve met a lot of people, but I’ve never met anybody that got to me like Mickey.”

Some tough guy.

Gunsmoke”,The Rifleman”, “Lawman”, “Bonanza”, “Cheyenne”,Have Gun Will Travel”, “Zorro”, “The Lone Ranger”, and “Rawhide”, just to name a few, were all graced with the presence of, and the talent of Mr. Elam.

I was a kid that grew up on this stuff.  Jack began his acting career in 1949–the year I was born. He was the man we all loved to hate. We used to wait for him to “bite the dust” at the end of the program with great delight and anticipation. We were rarely ever let down. He was always just a tad bit slower on the draw than the good-guy. He paid for his slowness with his life–over, and over, and over again.

In 1963, Jack got a rare chance to play a hero in a television series called “The Dakotas”. Apparently playing good-guys wasn’t exactly his forte. The series lasted only nineteen weeks.

By the time the nineteen seventies hit, Jack’s aging face was beginning to lend itself more to comedic roles, or those of loveable eccentrics.

When he was twelve, he suffered the loss of his left eye when he was involved in a fight at a Boy Scout meeting and was jabbed in the eye with a pencil by another boy. He had no control over his wandering eye. “It does whatever the hell it wants,” Jack often said.

In the classic tradition of turning lemons into lemonade, he turned it into an asset–and a trademark. It would produce a lifetime income stream for the man.

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According to western filmsite “Western Clippings,” (www.westernclippings.com) when, as Jack put it, “I grew too old and fat to jump on a horse,” he grew a long beard and settled into loveable old coot characterizations on such shows as “Father Murphy”, “Alias Smith and Jones”, “Paradise”, and “Big Bad John”.

It seemed to be a comfortable shift for the old actor–going from a black hat to white. Either way, it was still a well-rumpled hat, befitting the stone-quarry face residing just beneath it.

Jack was married just twice in his life, and stalwart to the end. His first marriage ended with the death of his wife. His second ended with his.

Will Hutchins (Sugarfoot) summed up the Jack Elam he knew, “He was the brother I’d never had; my long-lost uncle who once blew into town with gifts and wild tales; my dad who died too soon. I liked Jack straight off, the way I liked his acting. The abiding intelligence and humanity of the man overwhelmed me. Today I see a lot of sensational actors on screen showing off, but where’s the humanity? Jack Elam doesn’t show off. He doesn’t show you anything. He lets you discover it for yourself. Whether he plays the good bad guy or the bad good guy, he has the ability to take us along with him, so we seem to be working things out together.”

Cards were one of Jack’s passions. He was good at them too. Often his co-stars on the set would remark that he had won their lunch money a time or two. Another heavy, Gregg Palmer, remembers that “I kept bills in my wallet just for Jack Elam.”

Mr. Elam had a passion for his craft, and a passion for life as well. His type of character-actor is long gone and much missed. We won’t see his like again for a long, long time. Thanks for all the great–and classic, entertainment, Jack.

Jack always said that he wanted his tombstone to read, “I drank scotch and played poker.”

He didn’t get it. His body was cremated, and according to Find A Grave, the location of the remains are unknown.

Which leads me to wonder, if by chance, he might be out there still . . . somewhere . . . forever, a steely-eyed gent.

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Thanks for reading. Next up–something a little different. Unsolved Mysteries . . . The 1975 Disappearance of Jimmy Hoffa.

Until then . . . Goodnight.

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Dumb joke of the day:  A vulture boards a plan carrying two dead raccoons. The stewardess says, “I’m sorry, but we only allow each passenger one carrion.”

 

 

John Wayne, America . . . and The Shootist

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It was 1976. The year of the bi-centennial. The year America celebrated two-hundred years of independence. Tall ships were in New York Harbor.  Fireworks were in the sky. There was a good feel in the air. Vietnam was a year in the rear-view mirror. The boys were home. Our spirits were lighter that year, as I recall it.

All was not what it seemed however.

Three things were dying that summer. The much loved actor John Wayne (lung cancer) J. B. Books, his character in The Shootist . . . and America . . . at least America as we had always known her.

Every great actor or actress finally reaches the end of the line. Each and every one has a final film. Sometimes, even most times, they are not exactly epic. Generally speaking, the careers of some of the very best leading men and leading ladies, have gone literally into the ditch in their final years. It is a sad story, and repeated over and over again.

Not so with The Duke.

He went out in style. With what was arguably one of his best outings ever on the big screen. He brought along a few others with him, on his rather broad coat-tails. Lauren Bacall, Ron Howard, Richard Boone, Hugh O’Brien, Harry Morgan, John Carradine, Scatman Crothers, and the legendary James Stewart.

It was a dream cast–to say the very least.

Everyone fit their part perfectly . . . each and every one giving a flawless and seamless performance. It was almost as though they each, in their own way, knew that they were ushering out an entire genre.

They took it out in style too.

The final shootout is memorable, as are the opening sequences, showing clips from some of the Duke’s best westerns, and demonstrating, beyond any question, that J. B. Books was a “Shootist” indeed.

A “Shootist,” referred to a person that knew how to handle an iron. And not the kind you pressed clothes with either. Irons as handled by Wild Bill Hickok, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Wyatt Earp and Frank Butler. The kind of men that could make you dead . . . real quick.

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When Books lies dead and covered at the end of the movie, I felt as though it was more than just a fictional character lying there. I felt the passing of Wayne as well, although he would linger on the planet for another three years.

But I knew he was gone in that final scene. And I knew that high quality western films were pretty much over as well.

It was as valedictory an ending as perhaps a film, and a legendary thespian ever had.

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The movie was based on a novel written by Glendon Swarthout in 1975. Oddly, the screenplay was written by Miles Swarthout, the son of the author.

J. B. Books has come to town to make an ending. And he’s going to make it a good one too. Three bullies are badly in need of a good butt-thumping, and Books is about ready to dish one out. There’s also a young man to save from a wayward life, and oh yeah . . . a still beautiful widow-lady to romance as well.

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In short, the book and the film follow the last days of a dying gunfighter (colon cancer) in what would also prove to be the final days of the frontier–and the old west of the storybooks. It’s 1901, and by golly, not only are there rail trollies and steam cars, but telephones and dry process cleaning as well.

And no room for men like John Bernard Books anymore.

Fact of the matter was, that there wasn’t anyplace for men like John Wayne in America anymore either. The great American western, and the vanishing culture it embodied, in forms both book and movie, were a dying art as well. And the values–the good old-fashioned conservative, self-reliant American values that men like the Duke exemplified was well on their way out too.

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You see . . . Books had a Credo. A statement of the beliefs or aims that guide someone’s actions. Back in the day, a lot of special people had them. Sometimes these people were referred to as heroes.

This was J. B. Book’s.

Creed

I think maybe John Wayne had the same one. Surely America had it too. It was a statement of belief that was born out of the fire, blood, death and destruction that was  two World Wars. Oh, it was unspoken–but it was there.

It died in the rice-paddies of Southeast Asia.

And it never came back. Through the decades since–through troubles, trials and travails. Through conflict after conflict, and crisis after crisis, American has proven itself to be without a Credo . . . rudderless–and adrift.

And fading . . . fast.

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We miss you Duke. Thanks for all the great films you gave us.

We sure could use some men like you today.

Heroes . . . with Credos.

John Wayne

 

Next up–A Western Profile. “A Steely-Eyed Gent”. . . Jack Elam.

Until then . . . Good Day!

Dumb joke of the day–Question: Why do Dalmatians never get lost in the woods?  Answer: Because they’re always spotted.