Perhaps my most memorable interview with the star of a Western series was conducted in a bar in downtown Cleveland. That's where I met actor James Drury who played the title role in "The Virginian," perhaps prime time television's most ambitious weekly series. Each episode was 90-minutes long. Drury remained with the show until the end of its 10-season run and appeared in all 249 episodes.
Drury was a relative unknown when "The Virginian" went on th air in 1962. He slowly slipped into obscurity afterward, starring in a short-lived series about firemen ("Firehouse," 1974) and afterward doing three guest spots on "Walker, Texas Ranger." He also had a cameo role in a 2000 TV movie, "The Virginian," that starred Bill Pullman in the title role. Born in New York in 1934, Drury now lives in Houston where he has been in the oil business for many years.When I met him, Drury was between marriages in 1968 and was accompanied on his publicity trip by a girl friend (who may have been Phyllis Mitchell, who became his second wife later that year) and his bodyguard, who was about my height (6-foot-3), but muscular and scary.
I made no attempt to go drink-for-drink with Drury, who enjoyed his scotch so much that our table and his right elbow remained strangers throughout the evening. Fittingly, when Drury became very, very mellow, he slipped into a Richard Burton impression. An excellent Richard Burton impression, by the way. I was convinced that had Drury been cast in a good police or medical drama that he probably would have a different, perhaps more successful career and would have been recognized as a damn fine actor.
As it was, Drury had acquired a reputation for being taciturn and frequently hostile, but he proved unusually friendly for a celebrity who was saddled with a journalist for more than three hours. It was close to midnight when I finally said goodbye, politely declining Drury's invitation for another round of drinks.
Thus I missed the most exciting part of the evening. Soon after I left, Drury's bodyguard decided to try out pick-up lines on women seated at the nearby bar. Another patron, undoubtedly fueled by liquid courage, figured out the identity of the man in the horn-rimmed glasses having drinks with the best-looking woman in the place. He approached Drury, belched the old cliche ("Well, if it isn't The Virginian! I bet you think you're sooooo tough!"), then found himself face-to-face with the lightning-quick bodyguard, who'd spotted trouble, and responded by grabbing the man and hurling him through a large window, onto the sidewalk out front.
Or so I was told the next day by someone at the Cleveland NBC affiliate, who may have exaggerated a bit. At least, I hope he did.