James Gammon: Character actor who worked with Sam Shepard and Quentin Tarantino
Monday 26 July 2010
As a character actor, James Gammon made himself part of the American landscape, playing weathered cowboys, dysfunctional rednecks and alcoholic patriarchs in films, television and plays, notably those of Sam Shepard.
Though he never played the lead, his presence always brought an air of authenticity.
Gammon's father was a musician and his mother a farmhand but they soon divorced and James ended up in Orlando, Florida. Starting at a local access television station, he was soon producing and directing. After adding experience at a community theatre, he set out for California, where he hoped to become an actor.
In the 1960s and '70s popular television western series gave him a regular income, though not in long-running roles. Beginning with The Wild Wild West (1966), his early work included odd episodes of shows such as Bonanza, The Virginian and High Chaparral, interspersed with war and police dramas and even sci-fi.
At the same time he developed a film career, starting as a member of the chain gang in Cool Hand Luke (1967) and advancing up the cast list in A Man Called Horse (1970). But looking like he did, and with his gravelly voice, he was largely kept playing cowboys, while his slightly mournful demeanour suited downbeat projects like The Journey to Shiloh (1968).
Gammon's television career was a series of one-offs until 1973, when he played Zack Roswell in The Waltons, the sentimental story of a poor 1930s family in the Blue Ridge Mountains. This turned into the nearest thing so far to a regular TV role, with seven more episodes over the next two years. In 1980 he appeared in On the Nickel, a skid-row drama written and directed by fellow Waltons actor Ralph Waite.
In the 1970s Gammon helped found Los Angeles' 50-seat MET Theatre where early productions included William Inge's Bus Stop, Picnic and Dark at the Top of the Stairs. That led to New York's Public Theatre casting him as the belligerent alcoholic Weston in Sam Shepard's Curse of the Starving Class. After Shepard saw Gammon in the role at the MET, the two became friends and Gammon appeared in several Shepard plays. In 1996 he made his only Broadway appearance as Dodge in Buried Child, garnering a Tony nomination.
Shepard said that Gammon "rang a bell" with him, suiting his "notorious father figures ... alcoholic Midwesterners who leave their families and get lost in the Southwestern desert." Though Shepard didn't write The Late Henry Moss explicitly for Gammon, he "had him rattling around" and in the San Francisco premiere he impressed Hollywood co-stars including Nick Nolte, Sean Penn and Woody Harrelson. In 1995 Gammon said he would prefer to do theatre all the time, but, "it's just so unfortunate that there's no way to really make a living at it, hardly." In 2003 he returned to the stage to play Lear in Florida and California.
In 1976 he played the coach in the cheerleader comedy The Pom Pom Girls and this comedic streak was occasionally called on. It reached its height in 1989 with Major League, in which he plays baseball manager Lou Brown. When the Cleveland Indians' new owner wants to break the lease on the stadium she tries to guarantee a losing streak by employing hopeless players. Unsurprisingly it all goes awry and the misfit team wins the championship. It is Gammon's best-remembered role and in 1994 he returned for Major League 2.
Meanwhile, on television he played an artist who hung out at the desert hotel/diner in both series of Bagdad Café (1990), a spin-off from the film. But his biggest TV success – more than 70 episodes between 1996 and 2001 - was Nash Bridges, about a San Francisco detective (played by Don Johnson), with Gammon as his father. Ironically it was the second time he'd played Johnson senior, after a TV adaptation of Faulkner's Long Hot Summer in 1985.
The burst of 1990s Westerns gave Gammon another fair wind with Wyatt Earp (1994), Wild Bill (1995) and The Hi-Lo Country (1998), while in the mini-series Streets of Laredo (1995) he portrayed the pioneering rancher Charles Goodnight. In 1994 Tarantino, with his geekish knowledge of character actors, cast him as a redneck murder victim in Natural Born Killers.
Cowboys, ranchers, and sheriffs continued to be his mainstays as in Cold Mountain (2003) and Appaloosa (2008) though there were occasional changes: he voiced three parts in the animated The Iron Giant (1999) based on the Ted Hughes story, an episode of the animated suspense series Fillmore! and played Teddy Roosevelt in The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1992). In later years he started a thoroughbred farm in Florida, naming it Milagro after the 1988 film The Milagro Bean Field War, in which he had played a horse thief.
James Richard Gammon, actor: born, Newman, Illinois 20 April 1940; married firstly, secondly 1972 Nancy Jane Kapusta (two daughters); died Costa Mesa, Calfornia 16 July 2010.
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