Thursday, October 4, 2012

Jack Elam

Jack Elam (1920 - 2003) is one of my favorites. (And  have a lot of favorites, as you well know by now.) Jack started in the entertainment field as a bookkeeper at Goldwyn Studios. He apparently traded some accounting work for a few small parts on the big screen, and that was the start of a movie career that spanned over 200 roles.

He was blind in one eye, the result of a childhood accident, and that made him a bit different, and quite valuable as a heavy or other character actor, especially in westerns.

Elam's early career was filled with B westerns and dramas where he could play the bad guy. He worked with many stars, such as Chill Wills, Jeff Chandler and Walter Brennan, managing 53 movies between 1944 and 1960.

In 1952, his first big movie (in my opinion) was High Noon. He was uncredited as a drunk. He worked with James Stewart five times, including The Far Country (1954), The Man from Laramie (1955) and Night Passage (1957), plus two more in the 1960s. He made two films with Barbara Stanwyk, The Moonlighter (1953) and Cattle Queen of Montana (1954). In 1955 Jack walks with the animals in Tarzan's Hidden Jungle. This was only notable as Gordon Scott's (1926 - 2007) first film. Scott was about the eleventh actor to play Tarzan.

Around this time we start to see Jack on television. He is on early episodes of "Mr. and Mrs. North," "Waterfront," "The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin," and "The Lone Ranger." Later in his career he was on almost everything western, and plenty more.

For a change of pace, pick up a copy of the Howard Keel (1919 - 2004), Ann Blyth (b. 1928) Kismet (1955) with Jack Elam in a bit part. Though he was not yet known for comedic roles, he did appear in Artists and Models (1955) starring Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and the next year with them again in Pardners.

Back to his bad guy roles, Jack played Tom McLowery in Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), and the same year he was Fatso Nagel in Baby Face Nelson with Mickey Rooney in the title role.

Most of Elam's work would soon be on television. This was the era of TV westerns and they always needed a bad guy. As far as movies, his first of two films with John Wayne was The Comancheros (1961). He also made Rio Lobo with Wayne in 1970.

In 1963 he works again with Dean Martin in 4 For Texas, but his career would change in 1969 when he is cast in a much larger comedy role in Support Your Local Sheriff! starring James Garner. He would now begin to receive offers with his funny side in mind. His previous experience as a villain would play into these roles. He had the look, and that bad eye, to counter-play against a funny role making the movie even funnier.

The funnier roles would include films called The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County and Dirty Dingus Magee, both in 1970.

Jack did star in a few, low budget films. If you can find them, and you really don't want to, look for A Knife for the Ladies (1974) and Creature from Black Lake (1976). He fared better with Don Knotts in The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979).

Look for him in a small part in The Cannonball Run (1981) and Cannonball Run II (1984). Those Burt Reynolds films had huge casts so it was easy to get bumped down in the credits.

After a few more stinkers with actors like Jimmy DeanRichard Kiel and Hulk Hogan, Elam made his final film in 1993. He starred in Uninvited...which is also a stinker, but he is the star.

It says on IMDb that he once described what a character actor is, in the stages of his career. He said, "Who's Jack Elam? Get me Jack Elam. Get me a Jack Elam type. Get me a young Jack Elam. Who's Jack Elam?" I think that sums it up.

While Elam never really starred in anything (or anything worthwhile), he brought a lot of color to his many roles. I suggest, instead of watching the movies he made, tune in to Encore Westerns on cable and see how many times you find that trick eye of Jack Elam. It doesn't matter if you watch "The Rifleman," "Gunsmoke," "Lawman," "Bonanza," "Cheyenne," "The Dakotas," or "Temple Houston"... Jack was there.


  1. Jack guested 15 times on "Gunsmoke" in a variety of roles that showcased his versatility from the comic (PS Murry Christmas) to an unrepentant drunk (The Sisters). Gunman, lawman, town drunk - he did it all.

    Do you remember "The Texas Wheelers"? For a few weeks it looked like Jack Elam would be a sitcom star. T'was not to be.

  2. Thanks, Caftan. I don't remember "The Texas Wheelers." It also had Gary Busey and Mark Hamill in the regular cast, and maybe that wasn't strong enough to carry the show.

    Elam is a perfect character actor, not a lead. He would be a great sidekick for a sheriff or a detective show. And Mark Hamill is great doing voices for animation. We won't talk about Busey's lifestyle. Together they only make a half a star.

  3. I must've first seen Jack Elam in "Gunfight at the OK Corral," the only movie I remember my father taking us to see (he liked Westerns). But Elam eventually was, indeed, all over TV back in the days when Westerns ruled.

    The last thing I'd have imagined him to be before he was an actor is - a bookkeeper!?! So glad he changed careers...

    1. Thanks, Eve. From bookkeeper to villain to comic. I'm glad he didn't try singing.

  4. Fine tribute to an actor that graced many films. I just watched SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF and SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL GUNFIGHTER recently. I had forgotten what a great comedian Jack Elam could be.

    1. Glad you liked it, Rick.

      Just when Elam's career was starting to wain, he (or someone) reinvented it for comedy. It is good that he decided to give it a go.


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