Jack Elam in the TV series Stories of the Century (1954)
William Scott Elam
November 13, 1920
Miami, Arizona, U.S.
|Died||October 20, 2003 (aged 82)|
Ashland, Oregon, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Jean L Hodgert|
(1937–1961; her death) 1 daughter, 1 son
(1961–2003; his death) 1 daughter
William Scott "Jack" Elam (November 13, 1920 – October 20, 2003), was an American film and television actor best known for his numerous roles as villains in Western films and, later in his career, comedies (sometimes spoofing his villainous image). His most distinguishing physical quality was his lazy eye. Before his career in acting, he took several jobs in finance and served two years in the United States Navy during World War II.
Elam played in 73 movies and made appearances in 41 television series. Some of his more memorable performances were in Once Upon a Time in the West, High Noon, Support Your Local Sheriff!, and on the anthology series The Twilight Zone.
Elam was born in Miami in Gila County in south central Arizona, to Millard Elam and Alice Amelia Kirby. His mother died in 1922 when Jack was two years old. By 1930, he was living with his father, older sister Mildred, and their stepmother, Flossie Varney Elam. He grew up picking cotton. Elam lost the sight in his left eye when he was stabbed with a pencil during a boyhood altercation with a fellow Boy Scout  He was a student at both Miami High School in Gila County and Phoenix Union High School in Maricopa County, graduating from there in the late 1930s, also attending Santa Monica Junior College in California.
Elam worked as a bookkeeper at the Bank of America in Los Angeles and as an auditor for the Standard Oil Company. In World War II, he served two years in the United States Navy and subsequently became an independent accountant in Hollywood; one of his clients was movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. For a time, he was the manager of the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.
Elam made his screen debut in 1949 in She Shoulda Said No!, an exploitation film in which a chorus girl's habitual marijuana smoking ruins her career and then drives her brother to suicide. During this period, however, Elam appeared most often in Westerns and gangster films, usually in roles as a villain.
On television in the 1950s and 1960s, he made multiple guest-star appearances on many popular Western series, including Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Lawman, Bonanza, Cheyenne, Have Gun – Will Travel, Zorro, The Lone Ranger, The Rebel, F Troop, Tales of Wells Fargo and Rawhide. In 1961, he played a slightly crazed bus passenger on The Twilight Zone episode "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?". That same year he also portrayed the Mexican historical figure Juan Cortina in "The General Without a Cause", an episode of the anthology series Death Valley Days.
In 1963, Elam received a rare chance to play the good guy, Deputy U.S. Marshal and reformed gunfighter J. D. Smith, in the ABC/Warner Brothers series The Dakotas, a Western intended as the successor of Cheyenne, but The Dakotas was telecast for only 19 episodes. He played George Taggart, a gunslinger-turned-marshal, in the NBC/WB series Temple Houston, with Jeffrey Hunter in the title role. Elam got this part after James Coburn declined the role. Unfortunately for him, that series ran for only 26 weeks.
In 1966, Jack Elam co-starred with Clint Walker in the western film The Night of the Grizzly. In 1968, Elam had a cameo in Sergio Leone's celebrated spaghetti western Once Upon a Time in the West. In that film he played one of a trio of gunslingers who were sent to kill Charles Bronson's character. Elam spent a good part of the scene trying to trap an annoying fly in his gun barrel. In 1967 Elam appeared in The Way West with Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark and Kirk Douglas as the light hearted Preacher Weatherby taking part in a wagon train on the Oregon Trail. In 1969, he was given his first comedic role in Support Your Local Sheriff!, which was followed two years later by Support Your Local Gunfighter, both opposite James Garner. After his performances in those two films, Elam found his villainous parts dwindling and his comic roles increasing. (Both films were also directed by Burt Kennedy, who had seen Elam's potential as a comedian and would direct him a total of 15 times in features and television.) In between those two films, he also played a comically cranky old coot opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks's Rio Lobo (1970). In 1979 he was cast as the Frankenstein monster in the CBS sitcom Struck by Lightning, but the show was cancelled after only three episodes (the remaining eight were unaired (and remain so to this day) in the U.S., though all 11 were aired in the U.K. in 1980). He then appeared in the role of "Hick Peterson" in a first-season episode of Home Improvement alongside Ernest Borgnine (Season 1, episode 20 "Birds of a Feather Flock to Tim").
In 1985, Elam played Charlie in The Aurora Encounter. During production, Elam developed what would become a lifelong relationship with an 11-year-old boy named Mickey Hays, who suffered from progeria. The documentary I Am Not a Freak shows the closeness of Elam and Hays. Elam said, "You know I've met a lot of people, but I've never met anybody that got next to me like Mickey."
In 1986, Elam also co-starred on the short-lived comedy series Easy Street as Alvin "Bully" Stevenson, the down-on-his-luck uncle of Loni Anderson's character, L. K. McGuire. In 1988, Elam co-starred with Willie Nelson in the movie Where The Hell's That Gold?
In 1994, Elam was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
In a wry and oft-repeated comment on Hollywood superficiality (attributed first to Hugh O'Brian), Elam classified the stages of a moderately successful actor's life, as defined by the way a film director refers to the actor suggested for a part. (He said this on a George Plimpton ABC documentary about the making of Rio Lobo; Ricardo Montalbán would later use the recitation numerous times in speeches with his own name.)
- 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?"
Personal life and death
Jack Elam was married twice, first to Jean Hodgert from 1937 to her death in 1961, and then to Margaret Jennison from 1961 until his own death.
Elam died of congestive heart failure in Ashland, Oregon in 2003, just a month before his 83rd birthday. He was survived by his wife Margaret; their daughter, Jacqueline; and his daughter and son from his previous marriage, Jeri and Scott.
|Mystery Range||1947||Burvel Lambert|
|Wild Weed||1949||Raymond - Henchman|
|The Sundowners||1950||Earl Boyce|
|Key to the City||1950||Councilman||Uncredtted|
|Quicksand||1950||Man at Bar||Uncredited|
|One Way Street||1950||Arnie||Uncredited|
|A Ticket to Tomahawk||1950||Fargo||Uncredited|
|Love That Brute||1950||Henchman #2 in Cigar Store||Uncredited|
|High Lonesome||1950||Smiling Man|
|American Guerrilla in the Philippines||1951||The Speaker|
|The Texan Meets Calamity Jane||1951||Henchman||Uncredited|
|Bird of Paradise||1951||The Trader|
|Rancho Notorious||1952||Mort Geary|
|The Battle at Apache Pass||1952||Mescal Jack|
|High Noon||1952||Charlie - Drunk in Jail||Uncredited|
|Lure of the Wilderness||1952||Dave Longden|
|My Man and I||1952||Celestino Garcia|
|The Ring||1952||Harry Jackson|
|Kansas City Confidential||1952||Pete Harris|
|Count the Hours||1953||Max Verne|
|Gun Belt||1953||Rusty Kolloway|
|Appointment in Honduras||1953||Castro|
|Ride Clear of Diablo||1954||Tim Lowerie|
|Princess of the Nile||1954||Basra|
|The Far Country||1954||Frank Newberry|
|Cattle Queen of Montana||1954||Yost|
|Tarzan's Hidden Jungle||1955||Burger|
|The Man from Laramie||1955||Chris Boldt|
|Man Without a Star||1955||Knife Murderer||Uncredited|
|Kiss Me Deadly||1955||Charlie Max|
|Artists and Models||1955||Ivan|
|Jubal||1956||McCoy - Bar 8 Rider|
|Thunder Over Arizona||1956||Deputy Slats Callahan|
|Dragoon Wells Massacre||1957||Tioga|
|Gunfight at the O.K. Corral||1957||Tom McLowery|
|Lure of the Swamp||1957||Henry Bliss|
|Baby Face Nelson||1957||Fatso Nagel|
|The Gun Runners||1958||Arnold|
|Edge of Eternity||1959||Bill Ward|
|The Girl in Lovers Lane||1960||Jesse|
|The Last Sunset||1961||Ed Hobbs|
|The Comancheros||1961||Horseface (Comanchero)|
|Pocketful of Miracles||1961||Cheesecake|
|4 for Texas||1963||Dobie|
|The Rare Breed||1966||Simons|
|The Night of the Grizzly||1966||Hank|
|The Way West||1967||Preacher Weatherby|
|The Last Challenge||1967||Ernest Scarnes|
|Never a Dull Moment||1968||Ace Williams|
|Once Upon a Time in the West||1968||Snaky - Member of Frank's Gang|
|Support Your Local Sheriff!||1969||Jake|
|The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County||1970||Kittrick|
|Dirty Dingus Magee||1970||John Wesley Hardin|
|The Wild Country||1970||Thompson|
|Rio Lobo||1970||Mr Phillips|
|Support Your Local Gunfighter||1971||Jug May|
|The Last Rebel||1971||Matt|
|Hannie Caulder||1971||Frank Clemens|
|Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid||1973||Alamosa Bill|
|Knife for the Ladies||1974||Jarrod (Sheriff)|
|Creature from Black Lake||1976||Joe Canton|
|Hawmps!||1976||Bad Jack Cutter|
|The Winds of Autumn||1976||J. Pete Hankins|
|Pony Express Rider||1976||Crazy Charlie|
|Hot Lead and Cold Feet||1978||Rattlesnake|
|The Norseman||1978||Death Dreamer|
|The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again||1979||Big Mac|
|The Villain||1979||Avery Simpson|
|The Cannonball Run||1981||Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing|
|Soggy Bottom, U.S.A.||1981||Troscliar Boudreaux|
|Sacred Ground||1983||Lum Witcher|
|Cannonball Run II||1984||Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing|
|The Aurora Encounter||1986||Charlie|
|Once Upon A Texas Train||1988||Jason Fitch|
|Big Bad John||1990||Jake Calhoun|
|The Giant of Thunder Mountain||1991||Hezekiah Crow|
|Suburban Commando||1991||Col. Dustin 'Dusty' McHowell|
|Have Gun Will Travel||1958||Joe Gage||Written by Ida Lupino|
|The Rifleman||1959||Gavin Martin||"Tension"|
|The Twilight Zone||1961||Crazy Man||"Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?"|
|Bonanza||1966||Buford||"A Bride for Buford"|
|Bonanza||1970||Honest John||Season 12 Episode 13|
|Easy Street||1986||Alvin "Bully" Stevenson||22 episodes|
|Home Improvement||1992||Hick Peterson||"Birds of a Feather Flock to Taylor"|
|Bonanza: The Return||1993||Buckshot|
|Bonanza: Under Attack||1995||Buckshot|
References and notes
- Other sources cite 1916 and 1918. The year 1920 is stated on both his birth and death certificates. Arizona Certificate of Live Birth for William Scott Elam
- Magers, Boyd. "Characters and Heavies: Jack Elam", Western Clippings, Albuquerque, New Mexico. Retrieved July 27, 2014.
- Martin, Douglas (2003). "Jack Elam, Lazy-Eyed Movie Villain, Is Dead", digital archives of The New York Times, October 23, 2003. Retrieved November 27, 2009.
- Wadey, Paul (October 23, 2003). "Jack Elam Archetypal villain in film and TV westerns". The Independent. Retrieved 2009-11-27.
- Hathorn, Billy (2013). "Roy Bean, Temple Houston, Bill Longley, Ranald Mackenzie, Buffalo Bill, Jr., and the Texas Rangers: Depictions of West Texans in Series Television, 1955 to 1967". West Texas Historical Review. Abilene, Texas: West Texas Historical Association. Texas Tech University. 89: 106. Retrieved 7 April 2019.
- "The Five Stages of an Actor's Career - Hugh O'Brian". Quote Investigator. 12 March 2012. Retrieved 7 April 2019.
- "Crowds Gather to Inaugurate Montalbán Theatre". startrek.com. CBS Studios Inc. 5 November 2004. Archived from the original on 9 December 2009. Retrieved 14 January 2009.
- McCormack, Tiffany. "Jack Elam". The Oregon Encyclopedia.
- Mahar, Ted (October 4, 1998). "A Sampling of Elam's Movies". The Oregonian. p. L10.
- 1920 United States Census, Arizona, Gila County, Miami
- 1924 September 7; Arizona Original Certificate of Death for Alice Amelia Kerby Elam
- 1930 United States Census, Arizona, Gila County, Miami
- 2003 October 20; Oregon Certificate of Death for Jack Elam