Jack Elam

Archetypal villain in film and TV westerns

Jack Elam, actor: born Miami, Arizona 13 November 1916; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Ashland, Oregon 20 October 2003.

In the heyday of the Hollywood western, towns such as Deadwood and Tombstone were invariably populated by a cast of swiftly drawn types: the pompous banker and the drunken deputy, the town gossip and the hired hand drifting on the edge of the law. If these types became instantly recognisable so, too, did the actors who portrayed them.

For over 10 years Jack Elam, with his shapeless face, permanent scowl and immobile left eye, became just such a staple presence. As often as not he played a villain, his unusual looks suggesting a malevolent viciousness that directors were keen to exploit. As often as not, too, he would be dead by the movie's end, gunned down by its clean-cut hero.

He was born in Miami, Arizona, in 1916 (or, by his later account, 1918: he said he falsified his age to get work) and, at the age of 12, lost the sight in his left eye when a fellow Boy Scout stabbed a pencil in it during a camp meeting. Having attended Santa Monica Junior College he worked briefly in hotel management before turning to accountancy, where his clients included several stars and the legendary producer Sam Goldwyn.

At the suggestion of friends he began to act and made his film début, billed simply as "the killer", in a western short entitled Trailin' West (1949), before appearing in She Shoulda Said No (1949). A bizarre anti-marijuana movie occasioned by the drugs-related arrest of the movie's leading lady, Lila Leeds, it did little to further Elam's career. He helped to finance his next movie, The Sundowners (1950), in exchange for a small acting role.

A string of now-forgotten "B" westerns followed, from High Lonesome (1950) and The Battle at Apache Pass (1952) to Jubilee Trail (1954) and Thunder over Arizona (1956). There was, however, among the dross, a number of choicer projects, including Fred Zinnemann's High Noon (1952), Fritz Lang's Rancho Notorious (1952) and, later, John Sturges' Gunfight at the OK Corral (1957), where he effectively essayed the role of a Clanton associate, Tom McLowery.

He also become a mainstay of popular television westerns such as Gunsmoke, Rawhide, Laramie and The Virginian, and, in 1962, landed a starring role in The Dakotas as Deputy Marshal J.D. Smith, one of a quartet of lawmen righting wrongs in the Reconstruction period that followed the Civil War. Sadly, the show failed to gel with the American public and was cancelled after just one season.

As the Sixties progressed Elam found himself in demand internationally. He turned down the chance to play the one-armed bounty hunter in Sergio Leone's The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), but did appear briefly as a member of Henry Fonda's murderous gang in the director's now classic Once upon a Time in the West (1969). He also found himself cast increasingly in sympathetic roles, including the preacher opposite Kirk Douglas in The Way West (1967), and revealed an unexpected talent for broad comedy.

In 1969 he appeared in Burt Kennedy's comedy western Support Your Local Sheriff as deputy to the title character (James Garner) and was reunited with both director and star two years later for Support Your Local Gunfighter. In this latter film he assumes, at the instigation of Garner's itinerant gambler, the role of the notorious gunman Swifty Morgan, hired by one of a pair of families struggling for control of the mother lode in a mining town named Purgatory; a plan that works well until the real Morgan (Chuck Connors) arrives.

In Rio Lobo (1970), the third film in the loose John Wayne/Howard Hawks trilogy that had begun 11 years earlier with Rio Bravo and continued in 1967 with El Dorado, Elam's crazed rancher steals every scene in which he appears, proving perhaps the best thing in an otherwise disappointing movie.

A dramatic weight increase in the years that followed - "I was," he later remembered, "too fat to get on a horse" - ensured that much of Elam's later work continued in this comedic vein. He played Zack Wheeler, the patriarch of an itinerant family of ne'er-do-wells that included the up-and-coming actors Gary Busey and Mark Hamill, on television in The Texas Wheelers (1974-75) and four years later starred, memorably, as Frankenstein's monster in the short-lived sitcom Struck by Lightning.

Elam's film work became increasingly family-oriented and included Grayeagle (1978), The Apple Dumpling Gang Rides Again (1979) and the early Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy Cactus Jack (1979). In 1981 he played a grotesque doctor travelling with Burt Reynolds and Dom De Luise in the box-office hit The Cannonball Run, a role he reprised for its sequel. Latterly, as in Suburban Commando (1991) and the horror film Uninvited (1993), his roles proved little more than small, if effective, cameos.

Paul Wadey