A fly lands on a man’s face. He swats it away, then traps it in the barrel of a pistol and listens as it buzzes. With that moment from Once Upon a Time in the West, Jack Elam enshrined himself in the history of Western movies as one of the screen’s most enduring villains. Sergio Leone knew that by casting Jack, he was placing Charles Bronson in instant jeopardy. The Elam image was so set in the minds of audiences that his mere presence was a signal of violence. So it’s ironic that this bad guy broke into the movies as a certified public accountant and that his trademark eye was the result of an injury sustained in a schoolyard fight with a boy who accidentally pierced it with a pencil.
None of these facts is in keeping with the Jack Elam image that fans cherish, but Jack was full of wonderful contradictions. A gentle, funny man with a remarkable head for business (and cards), Jack’s persona was as a semi-literate, often psychopathic, outlaw or gangster. His bluster on screen was in direct contrast to his patience off, and there was never a fan who met Jack who didn’t come away with an autograph, an anecdote and a great memory.
Jack Elam was born in Miami, Arizona in 1918. A good student with a strong liking for math, it was only natural that Jack would pursue a career in accounting. His interest in acting and the movies were spurred by classes at Santa Monica City College, but it was his C.P.A. license that broke Jack into films. In 1944 Jack was working as an auditor for producer Harry “Pop” Sherman, and traded accounting services for a role in a short film being produced by writer Alan LeMay (The Searchers). The film was called Trailin’ West and Jack’s part was billed simply as “The Killer.”
The dye was cast and Jack Elam was off and running. Harry Sherman used Jack as a supporting heavy in several B flicks and there were a number of early TV roles, but it was Henry Hathaway who cemented the Elam image by casting him as a psychopathic outlaw in the excellent Tyrone Power vehicle, Rawhide (1951). The final scene, with a crazed Elam shooting at a baby (!) is classic Hollywood-villain stuff. Jack laughed about that part, “That really did it for me! Directors rarely saw me as anything but a bad guy again, but it did mean I was going to work.”
And work he did. During this early period, Jack played the part of a town drunk in Fred Zinnemann’s classic High Noon. Although he had several scenes, his role was trimmed to a funny cameo so as not to detract from the building tension of the story. Despite his lack of screen time, Jack treasured the experience, saying, “Coop was the best.”
In 1953 Jack collaborated for the first time with Don Siegel on the thriller Count the Hours. It was the first of five movies the two would make together, including Edge of Eternity which Elam co-wrote, and Jinxed, Siegel’s final film. Jack commented on the life-long friendship: “Don Siegel and I are bridge partners first, friends second. And sometimes we make movies.”
Siegel’s penchant for casting Jack repeatedly set the pattern for other directors as well. Once they worked with Jack Elam, they wanted to do it again. Robert Aldrich, Andrew McLaglen, Anthony Mann, and Jack’s long-time friend Burt Kennedy sought his services constantly for films like Kiss Me Deadly, Vera Cruz, The Way West, The Rare Breed, The Man from Laramie, The Far Country and Support Your Local Sheriff (as James Garner’s grubby deputy).
One of Jack’s favorite films was not a Western, and was a favorite for that very reason. The film was the Martin and Lewis comedy Artists and Models (1954) of which Jack recalled with a laugh, “I got to wear a nice suit, drive a fancy car and we shot the whole thing on stages! I’d hang out in Dean Martin’s dressing room and he really showed me how an actor should live, and then I found myself on a horse for the next thirty years!” In fact, Elam would later appear in Pardners (1956), the only successful Western made by Martin and Lewis as a team.
A major reason Jack found himself on a horse was his television work. He made over 100 TV appearances (especially Gunsmoke) and starred in several series, including the 1963 short-lived Western The Dakotas with Chad Everett and the odd 1979 situation comedy Struck by Lightning where Jack played a good-natured Frankenstein monster. In the 1960s and ’70s, comedic roles became more a part of Jack’s resume with his doing everything from eccentric characters (“Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” on The Twilight Zone) to knock-about comedy in Burt Kennedy’s Support Your Local Gunfighter and Hal Needham’s The Cannonball Run.
1971 saw Jack reunited with his Comancheros co-star John Wayne for Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo. Jack’s grizzled performance is the highlight of this lesser Hawks Western, and his comedic timing is a perfect contrast to Wayne. Full-throttle comedy with a touch of sadism was the way Jack, Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin played the three brothers who brutalize Raquel Welch in Kennedy’s Hannie Caulder. This interesting Spaghetti Western hybrid also features nice work from Robert Culp and Christopher Lee.
In 1973, Jack scored with a wonderful, underplayed performance in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. As reluctant lawman “Alamosa” Bill, Elam must stand off against Billy the Kid in a formal duel of honor. Naturally, Alamosa bites the dust. During this time, Jack found himself in demand by independent producers and made a number of lower budget films like the infamous “Jack-the-Ripper out west” flick A Knife for the Ladies and Charles B. Pierce’s Greyeagle and The Norsemen.
When not in front of the camera, Jack Elam’s penchant for excellent business deals and cards kept him busy, as did his two daughters. Television roles became more frequent throughout the late ’70s and ’80s and included two more films back-to-back with old pal Burt Kennedy, Once Upon a Texas Train and Where the Hell’s that Gold?!!?.
In the 1980s, set against type (at the request of Michael Landon in the producer’s hat) for the Merlin Olsen Western series, Father Murphy, Elam gave a fine, moving performance as a dying frontiersman and guardian of a young Shannen Doherty. Jack Elam’s last major role was in a television film, 1995’s Bonanza–Under Attack. A pilot for a new series with Michael Landon, Jr. and Dirk Blocker in their fathers’ roles, the strength of the film was the presence of Leonard Nimoy, Ben Johnson and Jack Elam. Unlike the rain-thin heavy of the ’50s and ’60s, this was a thicker, white-bearded Jack in a classic, blustery performance. It’s the Jack Elam that the fans have always loved and he did not disappoint them. But Jack Elam never did that, either as an actor or as a man. He was a great movie villain and a grand gentleman and future Westerns will never be the same without him.