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William Scott "Jack" Elam didn't set out to become an actor, but when he did it seemed likely he would always play villains. He had that kind of face. And there was something weird about his eyes. He played characters you knew would be gunned down, sometimes within minutes.

In 1963 ABC-TV went ahead with a Western series that dared to do what no movie or television program had ever done before — turn Jack Elam into a good guy, a lawman on a series called "The Dakotas."

That was the reason I talked to Elam in a phone interview that was conducted in May, a few days before it was announced that "The Dakotas" would not return in the fall. Little did anyone suspect that six years later, Elam's career would take a completely unexpected turn toward comedy when he worked with James Garner in "Support Your Local Sheriff." Two years after that, in 1971, Elam and Garner teamed again in "Support Your Local Gunfighter," and the dye was cast.

Part of the reason is that, as he aged, Elam (above) looked less like a villain and more like the town character, the way he was perceived at the start of "Support Your Local Sheriff." And the older he got, the goofier he became.

But this was not apparent when we talked in 1963 and he described his first 15 years or so as an actor who specialized in playing characters that audiences loved to hate:

Akron Beacon Journal, May 19, 1963
Actors and actresses have been telling me they haven't go it made after all. They claim they work harder than most people. So hard, in fact, they rarely have a chance to enjoy the benefits of an acting job in movies or television. (The chief benefit being a large paycheck.)

No doubt there is some truth to what they say, especially if they went through a long dry spell between jobs.

Then along comes Jack Elam, star of ABC's Western series, "The Dakotas." Elam does not look like an actor. And he certainly doesn't sound like one, probably because he began his adult life as an auditor, working in Hollywood. In 1949, without prior experience, he decided to go into acting.

Why?

"Because I got tired of working for a living," he told me. "I noticed when I was an auditor that all the big checks that went across my desk were made out to actors. I thought I was missing the boat."

Elam says he never regretted his decision to become an actor.

"It has been a breeze," eh said. "I still don't consider it work. I don't think I missed out by starting so late. I'm glad I never went to acting school, either. As far as I'm concerned, acting is something you develop naturally. Acting schools have ruined more young performers than they've helped."

ELAM MAKES IT sound easy, but there was a lot more involved in his success than mere dumb luck. He plotted his career switch so shrewdly, he couldn't miss.

It started when director George Templeton was looking for money to make three movies. Auditor Elam promised he could arrange the financing — but only if Templeton would give Elam a villain's role in all three movies."

"I was such a good villain," said Elam, "that I've been busy ever since. Heck, there are six guys out here who've got the bad guy business locked up. Whenever a villain is needed, the producer will call me or Leo Gordon or Lee Van Cleef or another member of our bad guy club.

"Sure, we're one-dimensional characters but I like it better that way. All I have to project is hate.

"But those pretty boy heroes . . . they have to project love, passion, sympathy, understanding, humor and a lot more. Me? I can play with my roles. I don't have the stress that goes with a leading part.

"Besides," he added, "I get almost as much money for a lot less work."

THE DRAWBACK in Elam's special talent is that it is put to use mostly in Westerns, and Westerns usually demand lots of fight scenes.

"My double goes in first and breaks up the place," said Elam, "but I'm needed for a few close-ups. We're not supposed to hit each other, but something usually goes wrong. I've had my nose busted several times."

Elam plays a good guy on "The Dakotas," but this reformation hasn't changed the style of his portrayal.

"I'm not a goody good guy," he said. "I'm a lawman who's just doing a job. I'm not a superman and that's the idea we're trying to present. Marshals in the Old West were people like everyone else."

"THE DAKOTAS" stepped into the ABC-TV schedule as a mid-season replacement for "Cheyenne." The program has done fairly well in the ratings — "especially in areas where we don't compete with NBC's "Monday Night at the Movies" — but Elam says the network is undecided about the show's future.

He then offered his version of something I've heard several times from actors — in person, over the phone or on television talk shows:

"I heard 12 rumors yesterday, and all of them were from people who should know what they're talking about. Six said our show was already canceled and the other six said the show was staying on the air.

"If you find out, call me," he said, "because I'm sure you'll get the word before I do. We're always the last to find out."

WHETHER OR NOT it returns in the fall, "The Dakotas" already has given Elam an identity he lacked in his villainous roles.

"I'm even getting fan mail," he said, laughing. "About 600 letters a month. It's not like Troy Donahue's mail, of course. More than 90 percent of my letters comes from adults and hardly any from teenage girls. Well, you've seen my face, so i guess I don't have to explain why."

It was Elam's unforgettable face and his long history of snarling, sniveling and sneaky portrayals that helped inspire "The Dakotas."

"William Schwimmer approached me about two years ago with the idea," Elam said. "He figured if I played a good guy it might just be the gimmick that would make the show a success."

The twist aroused a lof of interest, but it hasn't provided the success Schwimmer hoped for.

ELAM IS under contract at Warner Brothers, but only for the life of the series. If "The Dakotas" is canceled, Elam says, he'll have enough work to keep him busy.

"I've been able to do most of the major TV shows at least once a season up until now," he said. "I think I could continue to do so in the future."

Elam won't kick if he stays at Warners for more of "The Dakotas," either. He lives just two blocks from the studio with his wife and two children, a daughter, 21, and a son, 18. (If you're wondering how old Elam is, you'll have to take a guess because he won't tell. you won't be far wrong if you guess 45, however.)

Elam writes in his spare time. He sold a screen play in 1959 and it was made into a movie — "The Purple Gang" — a year later.

He recently sold "The Last Westerner" to Bobby Darin and expects it will be flimed later this year.

But Elam's writing is just a hobby. He won't ever change careers again.

"I'd be nuts to give up acting. Where else can you get paid to play?"

Phone interviews don't delve deep into their subjects. Also, in 1963 we lacked the research tools that are available now on-line. Jack Elam did not mention, for example, that he did some film acting as early as 1944 in a short Western called "Trailin' West," directed by his friend, George Templeton. He also appeared in a 1947 Western, "Mystery Range," with Lee "Lasses" White.

He did turn to acting for good in "The Sundowners," directed by George Templeton and starring Robert Preston. It was released in 1950. That same year he was in "High Lonesome," produced by Templeton and starring John Drew Barrymore. I couldn't find the final movie in that three-movie deal Elam mentioned.

Most of the biographical information about Elam says he did not turn to acting on a whim, but because his job as auditor threatened his eyesight. It seems that as a youngster Elam suffered an injury to his left eye. There is no mention that he was blinded in that eye, just that it no longer functioned properly. One source says the eye was fixed, always staring ahead; another source says it turned to the left, regardless of where Elam was looking out of his good right eye.

He was quoted as saying he had no control over his left eye. "It just does what it damn well pleases."

His auditing job reportedly was putting a strain on his good eye, and he was advised to find another profession. In choosing acting, Elam found work that put his eyes to good use. Both eyes also had a tendency to bulge. In short, Elam had a perfect face for certain kinds of roles.

He followed up his two James Garner Westerns with several comedies, including a gem of a TV series that was canceled before it could find an audience. It was "The Texas Wheelers," about a weird single father who tries to raise four sons. Co-stars included Gary Busey and Mark Hamill. The show ran only eight episodes.

Elam also played Kid Sheleen, the character created by Lee Marvin in the 1965 Oscar winner "Cat Ballou." Elam starred in a 1971 TV version.

Elam kept working until 1995. His last appearances were in the TV movie, "Bonanza: Under Attack" and "Lonesome Dove: The Series."

His first wife died in January, 1961. Later that year he married Margaret Jennison and they remained married until his death in October, 2003.

Elam had two daughters, Jeri and Jacqueline, and a son, Scott, who did some acting a few years ago.

His career was unusual, to say the least. And as good as he thought he had it when we talked in 1963, I have a feeling that Elam was astonished at how much better his career would become when the audience stopped hissing him and started laughing.

 

 

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