Jack Elam was born today in 1920. He died in 2003.
He was, in my opinion, the greatest villain in western movies and, in later years, proved himself adept at comedy. Here's my take on him.
Jack Elam was born William Scott Elam on 13 November somewhere between 1916 and 1920 (the exact year is disputed because Elam is said to have lied about his age to get work as a young man. But 1920 seems to be the favoured date.) in Miami, Gila County, Arizona, a former copper mining town. His father, Millard Elam, was an accountant. His mother, Amelia Kirby, died when Jack was around four years old. Young Jack lived with relatives after his mother’s death but returned, aged about nine, to live with his father in California.
In a freak incident at a boy scout event, he lost the sight of an eye when another boy accidentally stabbed him with a pencil. Initially, the loss of half his sight was a tragedy but as history would show, bizarrely, the remaining good eye and the bad one would become something of a beneficial trademark later in life.
Following in his father’s footsteps, Jack studied accountancy and other business-related subjects and gained useful practice by helping his increasingly ailing Dad with form-filling and other administrative chores. But as a partially-sighted young man, the strain of studying journals of figures and statistics became a burden and Jack began to think of other ways to earn a living.
In his early working life, he spent time in the US Navy and managed a hotel but always found steady work back in business finances. While looking for an alternative career that was not dependent on two good eyes, luck played a part because some of his clients were Hollywood movie people and, occasionally, Elam traded his auditing and financial skills for small parts in pictures. One thing led to another and acting work began to emerge.
This was in the mid-1940s, the beginning of a golden age of western films, at first on the big screen and then, increasingly, on television. Most western features were simplistic good-versus-bad yarns, and Jack Elam, tall, skinny and not handsome by any stretch was ideal casting in villainous roles. He was to find out very quickly that losing the sight of an eye was going be advantageous rather than a drawback.
He was soon in demand for gangster films, thrillers and, of course, cowboy pictures. He was willing to take both credited and uncredited work as his new career progressed. A study of his movie CV tells us what we already know. His working life as an actor was dominated by westerns. For nearly thirty years, he was a bad guy mostly, until 1969 when he demonstrated a gift for comedy that no one had really noticed. His turn as Jake, alongside James Garner, in Support Your Local Sheriff is a joy to behold. His follow-up film with Garner, Support Your Local Gunfighter, with Elam as Jug, was equally superb.
In all, Jack Elam appeared in about 350 cinema features and television episodes. In 1983, he was awarded the Golden Boot in recognition of his contribution to westerns. In 1994, he was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame.
He was married twice and was the father of two daughters and a son. He died on 20 October 2003. Western fans all over the world tipped their hats at the passing of this much-loved stalwart and oh-so familiar face.
The Guardian obituary said:
“With his bony, stubbled face, beetle-brows looming over a dead left eye, and gravelly voice, he was the very embodiment of a skulking, no-account, two-bit varmint, and the relish with which he played his parts made every appearance, however fleeting, a pleasure.”
The New York Times said:
“His leer, bulging eye and precise acting skills transformed him from an accountant into one of the movies' most identifiable villains.”
The Daily Telegraph said:
“He was always better-known as a face than as a name. Tall, weatherbeaten and effortlessly sinister, his grinning, wild appearance was enhanced by a wandering left eye. In Hollywood circles he was known as the good, the bad and the ugly.”
The Radio Times said:
“His hangdog features, coupled with a dead left eye and wicked charisma, made him an unforgettable figure in westerns.”
Clint Walker said:
“Well, I’ll tell you, there was nobody like Jack but Jack. When you got to know him, he was a sweetheart.”
Ty Hardin said:
“He could take a joke. He could go with the best and, believe me, the industry misses a man like this.”
Jack Elam was, indeed, one of a kind.
JACK ELAM ON JACK ELAM
“I never presumed to be pretty.”
“The toughest part of all, after you’ve worked out being an actor, is getting a job.”
“In Rawhide, I was bad. I shot at a baby to make it dance, and I killed everybody in the picture except Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. That’s bad.”
“It (his eye) does whatever the hell it wants.”
“I was playing rotten, worthless guys in 95% of my pictures until that movie (Support Your Local Sheriff) came along. Since then (1969) I’ve played 95% comedy relief and plain, dull nice guys.”
"The heavy today (late 1970s) 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 weirdos, but I've never done the quiet, sick type. I never had a problem, other than the fact I was just bad."