Crooked Cowboys & a Mad Medic – Remembering Jack Elam (1920 – 2003)

Posted in Remember by - October 03, 2015
Crooked Cowboys & a Mad Medic – Remembering Jack Elam (1920 – 2003)

A marvellous character actor who was largely seen in cowboy pictures, the tall, lanky and often bearded Jack Elam also popped up in just about every western television series ever made. His characters were largely villainous, somewhat lazy, and often revelled in their sadism. But he could also play the comic relief in more family-orientated fare, while occasionally still retaining a wonderfully evil streak.

Born William Scott Elam in Arizona, on November 13th 1920, the one-time accountant was blinded in his left eye during a childhood scuffle, and would use this ‘lazy eye’ to great effect as his career progressed. After early bits in the noir features ‘Quicksand’, ‘One Way Street’ (both ’50) and especially ‘Kansas City Confidential’ (’52), Elam had a more notable part in the classic western ‘High Noon’ (’52) as a drunken prisoner. Following cult cowboy pictures ‘Vera Cruz’ (’54) and ‘The Man from Laramie’ (’55), Jack played a slimy hood in Robert Aldrich’s superb doomsday noir ‘Kiss Me Deadly’, and then a crooning Arab in Vincent Minnelli’s musical ‘Kismet’ (both ’55).

Back in gunslinger territory, Jack was an outlaw getting caught up in the famous shootout at the end of ‘Gunfight at the OK Corral’, before venturing into gangster land for ‘Baby Face Nelson’ (both ’57) opposite Mickey Rooney. After a supporting role in Frank Capra’s swansong ‘A Pocketful of Miracles’ (’61), he was excellent on television as an outlaw-turned lawman in the short-lived series ‘The Dakotas’ (’62-63). A rare nice guy role came in the Clint Walker adventure ‘Night of the Grizzly’ (’66), playing a town fool with a big heart, before being one of Henry Fonda’s vicious gang members in the forgettable B-western ‘Firecreek’ (’68), which also starred James Stewart.

That same year, and siding with Fonda once again, Elam had the small but memorable part of snaky, a fly-catching gunslinger, in Sergio Leone’s cult epic ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (’68). The following year he was on fine comic form in Burt Kennedy’s very funny spoof ‘Support Your Local Sheriff’ (’69), as a town derelict turned deputy sidekick to James Garner’s laidback Sheriff. After playing real-life outlaw John Wesley Hardin in the diverting Frank Sinatra picture ‘Dirty Dingus Magee’, Jack was riding with John Wayne’s cavalry officer in Howard Hawks’ enjoyable adventure ‘Rio Lobo’ (both ’70). Next he was back with James Garner and Burt Kennedy for ‘Support Your Local Gunfighter’ (’71), playing a town chump who reluctantly poses as notorious gunslinger Swifty Morgan, as part of Garner’s con game. While it’s not as good as ‘Sheriff’, it’s still very enjoyable, with Elam in one his most memorable comic roles.

Back in villain mode, Elam was positively evil in the terrific sleeper ‘Hannie Caulder’ (’71), playing a sleazy sociopath raping Raquel Welch alongside bickering brothers Strother Martin and Ernest Borgnine. He met a suitably nasty end, as he did in Sam Pekinpah’s allegorical western ‘Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid’ (’73), as a deputy killed by Kris Kristofferson’s ‘Kid’. In between countless more TV fare, Elam popped up in the Drive-in Bigfoot drama ‘Creature from Black Lake’ (’76), and the minor comedy-westerns ‘Cactus Jack’ and ‘The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again’ (both ’79). To me though, Jack’s last memorable screen role was as the mad doctor; Van Helsing, in the hugely popular road race comedy ‘The Cannonball Run’ (’81), a role he reprised in 1984’s terrible sequel. It was a fun part for Elam, and he just about stole the picture as the creepy doctor who never goes anywhere without his trusty hypodermic. After playing a Hillbilly in the short-lived Loni Anderson sitcom ‘Easy Street’, Jack’s final movie was (fittingly) another western; ‘The Uninvited’ (’93), this time with a horror element. It was a dire flick but thankfully Elam’s part of a creepy old cowboy only lasted until the end of the opening credits.

After a career lasting fifty years and with over 200 screen credits, Jack Elam died aged 82, in Oregon, on October 20th 2003. Married twice with 3 children, he may have been typecast but he used it to full effect, and was always worth watching out for, enlivening even in the most mundane productions.

Favourite Movie: Gunfight at the OK Corral
Favourite Performance: Support Your Local Gunfighter

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