Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Late Great James Best

Chances are good that if you are an American who watched television between the Fifties and the Teens, then you have seen James Best several times. He was a frequent guest star on television shows, particularly in the Fifties and Sixties, and he appeared on such shows as Have Gun--Will TravelPerry Mason, The Twilight Zone, and The Andy Griffith Show. In the late Seventies and early Eighties he appeared as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard. Mr. Best was also prolific in films, appearing in such motion pictures as The Caine Mutiny (1954), The Left Handed Gun (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Sounder (1972).  Sadly, James Best died last night at age 88 from complications from pneumonia.

James Best was born Jewel Franklin Guy on July 26 1926 in Powderly, Kentucky to Lena Mae Everly Guy and Larkin Jasper Guy. His mother Lena was the sister of Ike Everly, father of Don and Phil Everly, better known as The Everly Brothers. Mr. Best's mother died when he was only three years old and he was placed in an orphanage. He was adopted by Essa and Armen Best, who took him to live with them in  Corydon, Indiana. When the Bests asked the young orphan what he would like to be called, he replied, "Jimmie;" Jewel Franklin Guy then became Jimmie Best. During World War II he enlisted in the United States Army Air Corps where he served as a gunner on a B-17 bomber and later as a military policeman. He ended his career in the military in Special Services, appearing in a production of My Sister Eileen among other things.

After Mr. Best was demobilised, he went to New York City to pursue his acting career. He performed in summer stock productions and also did some modelling. It was the modelling that would draw the attention of Hollywood, and he was signed to a contract with Universal Pictures. James Best made his feature film debut in an uncredited role in One Way Street (1950).  For the next several years he appeared in small parts in several films, including Comanche Territory (1950), Winchester '73 (1950), Apache Drums (1951), Seminole (1953), The Caine Mutiny (1954), and The Rack (1956). As the Fifties progressed he began receiving larger roles in films, so that his roles were much more substantial in such films as Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair (1952), Last of the Badmen (1957), Man on the Prowl (1957), Cole Younger, Gunfighter (1958), The Left Handed Gun (1958), and Ride Lonesome (1959). He played the lead in the 1959 B-movie The Killer Shrews.

In the Fifties James Best also had a successful career in television, make several guest appearances throughout the decade. He made his television debut as the star of the Hallmark Hall of Fame production McCoy of Abilene in 1953. He appeared in many of the Westerns produced throughout the decade, including Hopalong Cassidy, The Gene Autry Show, The Lone Ranger, Zane Grey Theatre, Wanted: Dead or Alive, and Wagon Train. Among his most notable guest appearances during the decade was the Have Gun--Will Travel Episode "The Long Night", in which he played frontier troubadour Andy Fisher, who, along with rifle salesman Clyde Broderick (played by William Schallert) and Paladin himself (played by Richard Boone), is suspected of murdering a young wife.

Of course, James Best appeared in other genres of television shows in the Fifties than just Westerns. He also appeared in such varied shows as Cavalcade of America; Richard Diamond, Private Detective; The Millionaire, The David Niven Show, The Lineup, General Electric Theatre, Men into Space, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and The DuPont Show with June Allyson.  One of his most notable roles during the decade would be on The Andy Griffith Show, on which he played musician Jim Lindsey on the episode "The Guitar Player" in 1960 (only the third episode of the show ever aired). Mr. Best would reprise his role as Jim Lindsey in the 1961 episode of The Andy Griffith Show "The Guitar Player Returns".

In the Sixties James Best's career shifted primarily to television, on which he appeared frequently. Much like the Fifties, he often guest starred on Westerns, including Bonanza, Laramie, The Rifleman, Cheyenne, Rawhide, Death Valley Days, The Virginian, Guns of Will Sonnett, and Gunsmoke. He had a recurring role on the short lived Western Temple Houston. He also appeared in other genres of television shows as well, including Alfred Hitchcock Presents; 77 Sunset Strip; G.E. Theatre; Combat!; The Gallant Men; The Fugitive; Daniel Boone; Flipper; Amos Burke, Secret Agent; Perry Mason; The Green Hornet; I Spy; and The Mod Squad. One of his best roles during the decade was in one of two guest appearances on The Twlight Zone. In "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank" he played the title character, who finds himself in the unusual position of being present (and alive) at his own funeral.

While James Best spent much of his career in the Sixties on television, he continued to appear frequently in films. He appeared in the films Black Gold (1962), Shock Corridor (1963), The Quick Gun (1964) .Black Spurs (1965), Shenandoah (1965), Three on a Couch (1966), First to Fight (1967), and Firecreek (1968).

In the Seventies James Best's career shifted back towards film. He appeared in such films as Sounder (1972), Ode to Billy Joe (1976), Nickelodeon (1976), The Brain Machine (1977), Rolling Thunder (1977), The End (1978), and  Hooper (1978). While appearing in motion pictures, he continued to make appearances on television. He guest starred on the TV shows Hawkins and How the West Was Won, and he appeared in the mini-series Centennial. It was in 1979 that he began playing Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard. He remained with the show for all seven of its seasons, and he also provided the voice of Sheriff Coltrane on the Saturday morning cartoon based on the primetime series, The Dukes. In addition to playing Sheriff Coltrane, he also directed episodes of The Dukes of Hazzard. He reprised the role of Sheriff Coltrane in the 1997 television movie The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion! and again in the 2000 television movie The Dukes of Hazzard: Hazzard in Hollywood.

Following The Dukes of Hazzard James Best guest starred on the shows B.L. Stryker and In the Heat of the Night. He appeared in the films Raney (1997), Death Mask (1998--which he also wrote), Finders Keepers (1998), House of Forever (2004), Hot Tamale (2006), Once Not Far from Home (2006), Moondance Alexander (2007), and Return of the Killer Shrews (2012--which he also wrote). His last appearance on film was in a television movie produced for Hallmark, The Sweeter Side of Life, in 2013.

Mr. Best also taught acting and motion picture technique at the University of Mississippi (where he was artist in residence), as well as the University of Central Florida. He was an acting coach for over twenty five years (among his students numbered Glen Campbell, Burt Reynolds, Quentin Tarantino, and Lindsay Wagner). He also wrote and performed in the play Hell-Bent for Good Times about an Ozarks family during the Great Depression. He was also an accomplished painter, working in both watercolours and oils. In 2009 he published his memoirs, Best in Hollywood: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful.

There can be little doubt that many will remember James Best as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard (although personally I tend to think of him as Jim Lindsey on The Andy Griffith Show). That having been said, his career went far beyond that single role. Mr. Best was a very prolific actor who appeared in numerous television shows and movies. While Mr. Best was known for his many appearances in Western TV shows and movies, he appeared in movies and TV shows from nearly every genre over the years, from war films to horror movies.

What is more James Best also played a wide variety of roles. In fact, many familiar with his later work may be surprised to know that he played more than his fair share of bad men early in his career. He was desperado Billy John in Ride Lonesome. He played killers on episodes of everything from The Linuep to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Of course, James Best was capable of playing much more than bad men and country bumpkins, and over the years he played has played a wide variety of roles. He was Dr. Ben Mizer  in the Jerry Lewis movie Three on a Couch. He also played a doctor in the Ben Casey episode "A Little Fun to Match the Sorrow". He played an oilman accused of murder in the Perry Mason episode "The Case of the Unwelcome Well". And, with his talent for singing and playing guitar, he played several singers over the years, on everything from The Andy Griffith Show to Alfred Hitchcock Presents. James Best was a bit of a chameleon, capable of playing everything from hardened criminals to soft hearted buffoons. While he may be best remembered as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, he did so much more throughout his long career.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

My kid sisters watched "Dukes of Hazzard", but it was never one of my shows. Reading "Best in Hollywood" it was a pleasure to learn what pride he had in that program and the comedy in it. When someone is so involved in their work, and so good at it, it is a joyful thing.