Friday, July 29, 2011

A glass of bourbon for Jack Elam

We raise a dust-covered glass of hooch at the old saloon for Jack Elam, the lazy-eyed villain of countless Westerns and gangster films.

Elam was born in Miami - and if that sounds strange for such a tough looking sumbitch it's because this was Miami, Arizona (!) - in 1920. His famous lazy eye was caused by a boyhood fight when he was twelve years old. Elam was in the boy scouts and when he and a fellow scout got into an argument his opponent stabbed him in the eye with a pencil. Never, ever mess with a boy scout. Those guys will kill you.

Elam attended Santa Monica junior college in California and became a businessman. He had a lot of success as an accountant and for a time worked for Hollywood head-honcho Samuel Goldwyn (a guy so tough he was rumored to be the result of an unholy threesome between Al Capone, Mickey Cohen and General Zod). Elam also managed the famed Bel Air hotel for a while, probably seeing more dirty dealings than a window washer in Tokyo. Doctors advised him to quit the accounting business since it was putting undue strain on his good eye. Elam with Stoic assuredness jumped at the opportunity for a career change and traded in his job as an accountant at the studios for a role in a film, his first being the unfortunately titled She Should Have said No!, an early example of the marijuana-propaganda films that have since become favorite Sunday afternoon viewings for stoners everywhere.

With James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff

Elam had a wide and varied career and became an instantly recognizable face due to his eye and often hilarious and/or menacing persona. Many remember him from one of the greatest opening scenes of all times, the tense train station scene from Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Elam starred in countless television series, among which were Gunsmoke and Rawhide, as well as classic gangster films such as Kiss Me Deadly. Elam mostly appeared in Westerns throughout his career among which were Support Your Local Sheriff, The Comancheros and Rio Lobo. One of my favorite Elam roles is in Peckinpah's outrageously underrated masterpiece Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. Elam plays an older gunfighter who gets cajoled into joining the hunt for Billy (Kris Kristofferson) and ends up meeting the outlaw at a ranch owned by a mutual friend of theirs. The scene that follows is wonderful, where Elam and Kristofferson eat dinner in peace and quiet, knowing full well that afterwards they will have to shoot it out.

A famous quote about the career of character actors has been attributed to Elam (though others have also laid claim to it), which is worth quoting here in full:

Stage 1: Who is Jack Elam?
Stage 2: Get me Jack Elam.
Stage 3: Get me a Jack Elam type.
Stage 4: I want a younger Jack Elam.
Stage 5: Who is Jack Elam?

True as that may be Elam added great flair to a variety of wonderful films and his contributions are greatly appreciated. We are proud to raise a glass in his honor. Skál!


Wallace said...

Support your local sidekick? You did omit one of his finest roles: Avery Simpson in the Villain. He starred alongside Kirk Douglas, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ann-Margret.

agust symeon said...

Good call. That was one strange film. In Europe it was known as "Cactus Jack."

Too bad Arnie didn't do more Westerns.