The Western career of Jack Elam
Everyone loves Jack Elam. One–Reel Jack, so called because he was so often shot to death in the first reel of any oater, was a mainstay of Westerns of every kind, big-studio pictures, low-budget ones and TV. His skinny frame, outward-pointing feet, ugly mug and that squinty glare were instantly recognizable and you knew you were in for a great bad guy.
IMDb lists no fewer than 130 Westerns he was in, from 1944 to 2002. There was hardly a Western TV show of the 50s and 60s that he didn’t grace at one time or another and as his career progressed, he discovered a gift for comedy as he lampooned his own former crazed badman act.
William Scott "Jack" Elam (1920 – 2003) was born in Miami (the AZ one, not in Florida) and went to school there and in Phoenix. He lost the sight of his left eye in a childhood accident with a pencil. He attended college and became an accountant. One of his clients was Samuel Goldwyn and he also worked as controller for William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy production company.
Doctors advised him to give up accountancy or risk losing the sight of his one good eye with those small columns of figures and he drifted into acting because of that. His debut was in an (unintentionally) hilarious anti-marijuana film She Shoulda Said No in 1949 and he went on to do villains in various gangster and Western movies.
He did get a chance to play one of the four good guys in the TV series The Dakotas in 1963 as Deputy Marshal JD Smith but it ran for only nineteen episodes. Mostly he was happy doing the heavy.
And he was happy to work. If he had a micropart as a non-speaking gunman, he’d take it. Luckily for us. Elam-spotting in Westerns is a hobby of mine. But sometimes, blink and you’ll miss him. Try the Kirk Douglas western Man Without a Star, for example, where he was 'Knife murderer, uncredited'.
Jack had a great sense of humor and in an ABC documentary once classified the stages of his acting career this way:
Stage 1: "Who is Jack Elam?"Stage 2: "Get me Jack Elam."
Stage 3: "I want a Jack Elam type."
Stage 4: "I want a younger Jack Elam."
Stage 5: "Who is Jack Elam?"
Many Western stars speak affectionately of him. Take for example Clint Walker talking about him (external link) in an interview. Ernest Borgnine said in his memoirs that he tried to model himself on Jack when he did Emperor of the North in 1973. Almost every Western actor has a good Jack story and remembers him fondly.
Several commented on his gambling skills. You didn’t want to join a card game on the set if Jack was playing. You’d go home broke. There was little Mr. Elam liked better than Cutty Sark, a good cigar and a hand of poker.
There are endless clips of him on YouTube, a whole lot of fun. He’s shot down by everyone under the sun from Little Joe to Susan Hayward. Just put JACK ELAM in the search box. My all-time favorite is his ten-second Canada Dry commercial (also external link) in which Broderick Crawford is also utterly magnificent.
In 1994, Elam was deservedly inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
As for his Western movies, well, I’m not going to go through all 130, don’t worry. Let me just highlight some of the more notable ones for you.
He had small parts in two minor Westerns in the 40s, Trailin’ West (Warner Bros, 1944) and Mystery Range (Dorado/Weiss, 1947). The former was a George Templeton/Alan Lemay collaboration and he went on to appear in two others of theirs in 1950, The Sundowners and High Lonesome, both Eagle-Lion pictures. These are actually both rather good and definitely worth a watch. The Sundowners has Robert Preston doing his Whispering Smith charming rogue act, and very well too (he was still doing it in the 1970s in Junior Bonner). Fifth-billed Jack is this time shot down by Preston. In High Lonesome he almost has the part of a ghost. He is the sinister bad guy who is dead and come back to haunt. He survives into the last reel in this one (till John Archer gets him: poor Jack was shot by every Western actor in Hollywood). By the way, both pictures have a cattle theme, are filmed on Texas ranches, and both star an excellent Chill Wills and a young John Drew Barrymore, looking quite extraordinarily like Sean Penn.
But back to Jack. His first big part and still today one of his best ever was in Rawhide (Fox, 1951), a much underrated Western directed by Henry Hathaway. In a stagecoach way-station lost in the wilds of the West, run by an excellent Edgar Buchanan and the boss’s son learning the business, Tyrone Power (very good), Susan Hayward (also excellent) arrives with a toddler. Evil bandit Zimmerman (a terrific Hugh Marlowe) and his ghastly gang of hoodlums (Elam, Dean Jagger and George Tobias, all top notch) have escaped from prison and are in the neighborhood. Of course they turn up and take the stage post, preparatory to stealing the gold from the next eastbound. Jack is superb as the dumb, crazed psychopath and the sheer glee with which he shoots at the child, spitting up earth beside her, and threatens to drill the bairn, is stunningly horrible. It’s quite a long part too, for once.
Then I would cite his Mort Geary in the Fritz Lang-directed Rancho Notorious in 1952 and High Noon the same year, even though he only had a tiny part in the latter as the town drunk Charlie whom Marshal Gary Cooper releases and sends home (though actually he will of course go back to the saloon) because, well, because it’s High Noon. In Ride, Vaquero! the following year he is the eighth-billed badman we have already come to know and love.
Vera Cruz: three great heavies
Very appropriately he was Black Jack Ketchum in the episode of the same name in the TV series Stories of the Century in 1954. He had a tiny non-speaking part as a gunman in Vera Cruz that year too (with Borgnine and Charles Bronson in his first Western) and I liked him as one of John McIntire’s heavies fighting James Stewart in The Far Country, also in 1954 (he got shot to death six times that year alone). He was also great as the bad guy's chief henchman that year in Cattle Queen of Montana.
John McIntire's henchman in The Far Country
In the James Stewart 1955 Western The Man From Laramie, Jack Elam introduces his character: "I can't give you any references, but anyone can tell you Chris Boldt is not a man to be trusted." Later on, he tries to stab James Stewart in the back and winds up dead in a dark alley. That’s Jack for you.
A man not to be trusted in The Man from Laramie
He was a heavy again, Al, in Wichita in 1955. He was shot down big-time in 1957 because he was Tom McLowery, one of the Earps’ victims at the OK Corral in the John Sturges-directed Paramount movie. He also appeared in the rather regrettable Night Passage, the first serious Western that James Stewart made without Anthony Mann, and it showed. Jack said, “It was a payday but I coulda done without it.”
By now he had become a mainstay of the TV Western. He appeared in pretty well every one you can name, The Adventures of Rin Tin Tin, Tales of Wells Fargo, Wagon Train, Zane Grey Theatre, Sugarfoot, Death Valley Days and so on. Rawhide, Cheyenne, all of them. I especially liked his Deacon in The Legend of Jesse James in 1965. He out-acts everyone else on the set and his entrance is simply stunning. In 1960 he was, yes, a heavy in the moderately amusing Phil Silvers effort The Slowest Gun in the West.
He appeared in The Last Sunset and The Comancheros in 1961. In the latter he was ‘Horseface (a Comanchero)’. Poor Jack. He was the ONLY good thing about The Rare Breed in 1955. He was slithy as one of Henry Fonda’s gang in Firecreek in ’68.
He did do an Italian western, the dreadful Sartana Does Not Forgive in 1968, when he was third billed after Gilbert Roland and George Martin… But that’s all he did, despite his stating at the end of Support Your Local Sheriff (or was it Support Your Local Gunfighter? I forget) that he went on to do great things in Italian westerns. He was of course, after Garner, the highlight of those two movies. I really like them. Directed by Burt Kennedy, they had vim and zip. It’s the way Jack stands, all hunched and bent. He looks so improbable as a gunman, yet perfect.
Sergio Leone recognized Elam's life’s work by choosing him for the opening sequence in what came to be, probably, Jack’s most famous role, the gunman waiting at the train station in the long (very long) opening sequence of Once Upon A Time in the West (Paramount, 1968). So maybe you could say that he did well in Italian westerns after all. That famous scene, with extreme close-up, unshaven Jack sweating (actually, the glistening was honey on his face, to attract the fly) as his one working eye swiveled about looking for the pesky insect and then catching it in the barrel of his gun, was a comic masterpiece. It nearly didn’t happen. Leone wanted to kill off the three stars from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee van Cleef, in that opening sequence and Jack replaced an unwilling spoilsport Clint.
Once Upon a Time
By the time of Rio Lobo in 1970, Jack was doing the Walter Brennan/Arthur Hunnicutt old-timer role, although ironically he was only 50 and actually a lot younger than Wayne (63).
In 1971 he was Frank Clemens, one of the horrible rapists whom Hannie Caulder (Raquel Welch) wishes to kill for revenge in the Burt Kennedy written-and-directed Hannie Caulder. She gets Robert Culp to teach her how to be a gunfighter. Jack’s days are numbered. Again.
Jack Elam’s last great part was in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid in 1973. There, as the bearded Alamosa Bill, outlaw turned deputy, he fights the tragic duel with Billy when both parties know very well what the outcome will be. "Least I'll be remembered," he says before dying.
He sure will.