November 13, 1920
On this day actor, actor Jack Elam who turned Western film villany into an art form, was born into an unhappy lot in the copper boom town of Miami, Arizona.*
Boomtown Miami, Arizona, circa 1920
Not blessed with a happy childhood, his mother died when he was a toddler. Passed around among an assortment of relatives with varying degrees of compassion, at age six he was sent out to pick cotton to earn his keep. Luckily, Elam’s father reclaimed his 10-year-old son after remarrying in 1930.
At 12, what would have spelled curtains for a film career, he was stabbed in the eye with a pencil at a Boy Scout gathering. It cost him the sight in his left eye but created a trademark that would propel him into an elite class of Hollywood character actors.
Despite his eye injury, he was inducted into the Navy and served two years during WWII. Following the military, his past life as a bookkeeper at Bank of America and auditor for Standard Oil led to a successful career as an independent accountant in a town where big money mattered. Several important Hollywood clients including movie mogul Sam Goldwyn and the Hopalong Cassidy Production Company were among his clients.
The old injury spelled a change in careers, however, when doctors advised him to find another line of work. Squinting over ledgers would eventually lead to a total loss of his vision. Faced with a choice between being blind or broke, Elam engineered his entry into acting using his background as a studio money guy.
It started with just one producer looking for just that – money! He’d find him some backers for films, Elam promised, if he could play the villain in at least three of his movies. Elam’s quirky left eye turned in to manna from heaven on the screen.
Making his Western debut in “The Sundowners” in 1950, Elam found constant work portraying black sheep brothers, gunslingers and the occasional town drunk. After 64 movies, he may hold the record for the most often shot by celluloid heroes.
He had memorable roles opposite a number of Western A-listers including Charles Bronson in Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time in the West,” Clint Walker in the 1966 “Night of the Grizzly” and John Wayne in Howard Hawk’s 1970 “Rio Lobo.”
Elam and John Wayne together in “Rio Lobo
As television began to replace movies as the cowboy medium, Elam appeared in literally hundreds of small screen Westerns including “Rawhide,” “Bonanza,” “Have Gun, Will Travel and “The Rifleman.” He made 20 appearances on top-rated “Gunsmoke” alone. Major roles in five television mini-series, including “The Dakotas” won him overdue critical acclaim.
Elam with James Garner in “Support Your Local Sheriff”
A new era of tongue-in-cheek frontier dramas were first popularized by the Maverick brothers, Bret and Bart along with a bevy of long-lost cousins and nephews. James Garner moved his Maverick persona to the big screen in 1960. Elam, cast in “Support Your Local Sheriff,” went from crazed heavy to harmless goofball. His comedic roles with Garner and films like “The Cannonball Run,” and “The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County” provided a whole new fan base.
Married twice and widowed once, Elam married Jean Hodgert (left) in 1939, a 22-year marriage that lasted until Jean’s death in 1961. The couple had two daughters, Jeri and Jacqueline.
Elam was married to his second wife, Margaret Dennison, until his death. The couple’s son, Scott, (right) went into the family business, also becoming an actor.
In 1983, he was awarded the “Golden Boot,” sponsored by the Motion Picture and Television Fund, for his work in Western genre and in 1994 was inducted into the Great Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City.
His last screen credit was the 1995 “Bonanza: Under Fire.” He died of heart failure in 2003 in Ashland, Oregon. Once asked by a reporter about his age he responded, “Put me down as old.”
*Sources are divided as to the year of his birth, some claiming Elam lied about his age to get a job.
The Hall of Great Western Performers is part of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum, Northeast 63rd Street, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, is dedicated to those who have provided outstanding career performances in movies, television, radio and theatre. It includes nearly 100 stars of stage and screen. Founded in 1955, he museum itself is one of the premier conservators of Western legend and lore.
Open Monday through Saturday 10 to 5 and Sunday noon to five, the museum is closed Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years. The Museum Grill is open Monday through Saturday 11 to 2:30. Admission is $12.50 for adults, $9.50 for seniors and students with IDs, $5.50 for kids 6 to 12 and under 6, free. For more information go to nationalcowboymuseum.org, call (405) 478-2250 or write 1700 NE 63rd St., Oklahoma, OK 73111.
© Text Only – 2019 – Headin’ West LLC – All photos – public domain or fair use.
*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable. When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.