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



“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.


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.


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

Until then . . . Goodnight.


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.”