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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