My Favorite Shifty-Eyed Bad Guy

As soon as he skulked onto the screen, you knew there was bound to be trouble.  He didn’t even have to open his mouth.  That wild-eyed look said it all.  Jack Elam’s character was bad to the bone. 

The real Jack Elam made more than fifty films, from war movies to film noir to comedy.  But it’s his Westerns that fans remember.  He was never the star.  But his presence could electrify the screen.  In 1994 he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum–an honor well earned. 

William Scott Elam was born in Arizona around 1918 (the date is uncertain because he lied about his age to get work picking cotton).  At the age of twelve, during a scuffle at a Boy Scout meeting, a pencil entered his left eye.  Not only did he lose the sight, but the blind eye kept its off-kilter look for the rest of Elam’s life. 

In the late 1940’s, Elam was working as a bookkeeper for Samuel Goldwyn Studios.  But the close work strained his one good eye.  Threatened with blindness, Elam offered to arrange financing for a movie director friend in exchange for roles in his films. 

In Elam’s early movies, his bad eye was camouflaged by make-up, lighting and camera angles.  Later, however, it was the eye—which gave him a slightly crazed look—that made Elam’s career as a character actor.  His notable westerns include Rawhide (1951), High Noon (1952), Vera Cruz (1954), The Man From Laramie (1955), Jubal (1956), Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957) and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and Rio Lobo (1970).   

With few exceptions, Elam played bad guys.  But he played them straight on.  He was quoted as saying about his roles:   “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 weirdos but I’ve never done the quiet, sick type. I never had a problem — other than the fact I was just bad.”

From the late 1960’s on, Elam gained new fans as a comedian in such films as Support Your Local Gunfighter and The Over the Hill Gang.  He also played in several TV series.  The best-known Elam quote is the one that sums up the career of a character actor, as seen by a film director:  “1. Who’s Jack Elam?  2. Get me Jack Elam.  3. Get me a Jack Elam type. 4. Get me a young Jack Elam. 5. Who’s Jack Elam?”

Jack Elam died of heart failure on Oct. 20, 2003, but he remains my favorite bad guy.  How about you?  Who’s your favorite Western bad guy and why?

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I'm an internationally published romance author, coming up on 40 novels and novellas. Most of my stories have been Westerns for Harlequin Historicals, but I set stories in other times and places as well. I'll also be writing contemporary stories for Harlequin Desire, with the first release in January 2013. You can learn more on my web site.

31 thoughts on “My Favorite Shifty-Eyed Bad Guy”

  1. Good morning everyone–first of all, here’s my apology for an “oops”. You can still enter our Sizzlin’ Summer Stampede on Monday. Please, somebody correct me if I’m wrong.
    Like the rest of you, I’m remembering what happened on this date seven years ago and how the world changed. A solemn moment.
    It’s also my son’s 15th wedding anniversary–and I hope a good day for all of you.
    Looking forward to your comments.
    Elizabeth

  2. I won’t say he was a favorite but I never liked Bruce Dern much. He always talked in that nasally tone and was a bad guy in many of his movies. I like his daughter, though–Laura Dern.

    Another guy who often plays a bad guy is that man with the odd eyes who played the really bad guy in Con Air. Remember the scene with the little girl? You just knew something bad was going to happen to her, but we were surprised.

  3. I think his name is Lee van Cleef…the ugly in The Good, Bad and Ugly…he’s always sneaky looking. In contemp movies/shows, it’s got to be Tony Goldwyn who played the bad guy in Ghost. Every time I see him he makes me sick LOL.

    Today is indeed a day of days. We visited Ground Zero this summer and it broke our hearts all over again.

  4. I missed Con Air, Vickie. But Bruce Dern was a very convincing bad guy. Sort of the same type as Jack Elam, but I think Bruce had more lines.
    🙂

    Laura Dern’s a wonderful actress, sort of angelic looking. Thanks for your comment

  5. And yes, I remember Lee van Cleef, Tanya. Wasn’t he the older, wiser gunfighter in another of those Eastwood movies? Anyway, I agree that he was sneaky looking. Sort of quietly dangerous.

    Most movie villains were very nice people in real life (Boris Karloff and Vincent Price come to mind). But playing a bad man/woman must’ve been fun.

  6. Elizabeth,

    What an interesting subject! I think my favorite bad guy was Russell Crowe in the new “3:10 to Yuma.” He was bad and made no excuses for it, but he also had a little good in him. He killed everyone on the stage but had a soft spot for Christian Bale’s character. And he treated women with respect. That says a lot.

    I always shuddered when Jack Elam walked onto the screen. He really was bad to the bone and looked the part. I also wanted the good guy to shoot him. I guess that says he played his part really well. He certainly looked scary as all get out.

  7. What a great story, Elizabeth. My favorite bad guy — gosh, I’m trying to remember his name — he was the bad guy in “Dances with Wolves” and “The Last of the Mohigans” — gosh, what’s his name? Wes Studi. Okay, and because I live here in LA, I met him once at an after party pow-wow. Nice fellow but boy, can that man act. : )

  8. I tried to find a figure on how many times Jack Elam got killed in movies, Linda. Wondering if he ever lived till the end of the film.

    And wasn’t Russell Crowe amazing? Such a complex character and so well played. Loved the ending where he gave himself up but his horse was following the train and you just knew what was going to happen.

  9. Wes Studi was a great bad guy, Karen. Neat that you met him in person.!

    The bad guys that really creep me out are the ones in the Lonesome Dove TV movies. Good grief, where do they get those characters??

  10. Wes Studi is a great bad guy in those movies, but he is an awesomely sympathetic character in Geronimo.

    I have never been able to stand Jessica Walter after Playing Misty For Me. Even when she plays a good girl, I’m expecting the worst LOL.

  11. I’m terrible at actors’ names and singers, too, but boy, I remember this guy, Elizabeth! shudder!–those eyes!

    Now I know how he got them so shifty looking.

    The things I learn on this blog!

  12. Elizabeth,
    Good morning! Every time I see Jack Elam in a western, I ask my husband, how many movies did that man make? He’s everywhere! And I did like him best in the Support Your Local Gunfighter/Sheriff movies.

    Hmmm, let’s see,who’s my favorite bad guy? I’m thinking … I guess I don’t like to see Good guys in Bad guy roles. Like Russell Crowe in 3:10 to Yuma or John Travolta in Face Off and Swordfish. I like a bad guy to always be the bad guy, but I guess I don’t have a favorite.

    I enjoyed learning about Jack Elam’s life — very entertaining stuff. I always wondered about his eye.

    Hug a Friend Today Everyone …

  13. I’ve always enjoyed watching Jack Elam movies. I think he was when I first learned what a ‘character actor’ meant.

    Right after I read the question about who my fav bad boy was, I thought of Lee Van Cleef.

    I hadn’t thought of Russell Crowe but yeah, he’d have to be right up there.

    I read this to my hubby and he said Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Butch Cassidy.

  14. Just back from lunch with friends. And I’d forgotten about Jessica Walters, Tanya. Maybe one of these times I should blog about bad women!

    And I know what you mean about the shudder, Pam. He didn’t have to say a word. You have to wonder if he’d ever have become an actor without the eye injury.
    A case of having a lemon and making lemonade.

    Russell Crowe was awsome, wasn’t he, Anita? But Newman and Redford? Come on you had to root for those guys!

    I did like John Travolta as a bad guy in Pulp Fiction, Charlene. But he was such a lame bad guy, you had to like him. And I keep waiting for somebody to mention Jack Palance in Shane. Everything else he did was almost a parody of that role. What a classic performance!

  15. I actually thought of Lee Van Cleef from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.
    But I loved Robert Duvall in True Grit and just LOVED Gene Hackman in ‘the Unforgiven’ that guy can play such complex characters, shades of evil, an extremely talented man.

  16. Jack Elam, our family called him “JM” he reminded us of an uncle we had. I love to hate him. Bruce Dern always made a good bad buy.

    Isn’t it funny how you will be watching a movie and you see an actor and think he is always a bad, mean person.

  17. Thanks for your comments, Estella, Mary and Sherry. I’d have answered sooner but I was out for the evening and just got home. (and was blind but now I see LOL Mary) I, too, thought Gene Hackman was great in Unforgiven.
    All the comments about Jack Elam got me thinking. He was kind of like an old friend. He’d show up, you knew who he was and you knew what to expect. And he never disappointed you.

  18. Hi All,

    The actor who played the villan in Con Air with the little girl is Steve Buscemi. He also played Mr.Pink in Resevoir Dogs, he was in Fargo, and Armegedon too.

    But one of my favorite villians is Alan Rickman. I absolutely love his voice, and his nasty characters all have these understated, humorous one liners. He was great in Die Hard, Robin Hood and Quigly Down Under. And I could have killed him in that Christmas movie with the four different story lines, with Hugh Grant and Liam Neeson, when his wife found the expensive piece of jewelry and she thought it he was going to give it to her. And on Christmas he gave her a Carly Simon CD and she went in the bedroom and cried, because she knew. He’s good guy in Harry Potter though.

  19. Elizabeth,
    Being a guy, I probably don’t belong in this forum, but since you were conversing about Jack Elam I have a story that you might find fastinating.
    For as long as I could remember Jack had always been my favorite bad guy. In 1993 my wife and I travelled to Mesa, AZ, to visit her uncle,Jess Bird. While we were there we looked through many family photo albums, hoping to find pictures of my wife’s father, since she had so few as he died when she was only eight years old. I picked up one of the albums and started leafing through it when I came to a page with a half dozen photos of different groups of family members. All of them had one person in them with a face that I knew I’d seen before. My wife and I had only been married for one year at that point so I knew very little about her family history. I turned and asked Uncle Jess who this man was. He looked and said, “well thats Old Jack”. “Old Jack?”, I replied. He said, “Yup, thats Old Jack”. It just started to dawn on me who “Old Jack” was when my my wife turned to me and said, “yes, Honey, thats Jack Elam. After I propped my jaw back in place it was explained to me that Jack’s sister, Mildred (Millie) and Uncle Jess had been married until her death in 1977.

  20. Hey guys and gals! Nobody mentioned Eli Wallach??? THERE is the bad guy ne plus ultra. Who can forget his snarling Tuco in “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly?” … his menacing Calvera in “The Magnificent Seven”? … his devious Don Altobello in “Godfather III”? (Talia Shire did get the last laugh with the poisoned cannolis. Ha!Ha!) Alan Rickman tickles my funny bone as the most sardonic villain ever, and of course, you’ve gotta giggle when creepy Anthony Hopkins says to Jody Foster, “People will say we’re in love.”

  21. Thanks for the great additions to our bad guy list, Richard. I’d forgotten about Eli Wallach, not only a menacing villain but a brilliant actor. On a recent TV show about the 100 top movie villains, Anthony Hopkins’ Hannibal LEcter was rated #1. He said he prepped for the role by watching snakes.
    Thanks for visiting us at P & P. You’re welcome to drop by anytime.

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