Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Late Great James Drury

In the annals of Westerns on American television, James Drury occupied a unique place. He is one of only two actors (the other being the late Stuart Whitman) to play the lead in a 90 minute Western. That Western, The Virginian, would prove to be one of the most successful Westerns on American broadcast television, running for nine years and, along with Bonanza, sparking a second wave of Westerns on the American broadcast networks in the Sixties. James Drury never again had the success he did with The Virginian, and for the most part he was typecast in the role. Despite this, he was always grateful for having played such an iconic character. Sadly, Mr. Drury died yesterday at the age of 85.

James Drury was born on April 18 1934 in New York City. His father a professor of marketing at New York University. His mother's family owned a ranch in Salem, Oregon. James Drury spent much of his childhood on the ranch. It was where he would both learn to ride a horse and shoot a gun, skills that would prove useful in his acting career. He began acting while very young, appearing on stage beginning when he was 8 years old. When he was 12 he went on tour with a production of Life With Father.

James Drury attended New York University for a time, dropping out after he signed a contract with MGM. He made his film debut in an uncredited role as a hospital attendant in Blackboard Jungle (1955). He made his television debut the same year in an episode of Cameo Theatre. In the late Fifties he appeared in the films Love Me or Leave Me (1955), The Tender Trap (1955), Diane (1956), Forbidden Planet (1956), The Last Wagon (1956), Love Me Tender (1956), Bernardine (1957), Good Day for a Hanging (1959), Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks with a Circus (1960), Pollyanna (1960), and Ten Who Dared (1960). He guest starred on The 20th Century Fox Hour, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Broken Arrow, Man Without a Gun, The Walter Winchell File, Decision, Playhouse 90, The Silent Service, The Texan, Flight, Bronco, Zane Grey Theatre, Disneyland, Have Gun--Will Travel, Track Down, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Lawman, Black Saddle, Steve Canyon, Cheyenne, Death Valley Days, Men Into Space, Lock Up, Bourbon Street Beat, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, and The Loretta Young Show.

It was in 1962 that James Drury began playing The Virginian on the show of the same name. It was actually the second time Mr. Drury played the role. He had earlier played the role in an unsold pilot that aired as an episode of the anthology series The Virginian in 1958. The Virginian was historic as the first ninety minute American television show with continuing characters. The success of The Virginian would lead to a new wave of Westerns in the Sixties, as well as other ninety minute shows with continuing characters (The Name of the Game and The NBC Mystery Movie, among them). Ultimately it ran for nine seasons, making it the third longest Western to run on American broadcast television after Gunsmoke and Bonanza. In the Sixties Mr. Drury also guest starred on the shows Gunsmoke, Wagon Train, Michael Shayne, The Rifleman, Stagecoach West, Rawhide, Perry Mason, The Detectives, It Takes a Thief, Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In.  He appeared in the movies Ride the High County (1962), Third of a Man, and The Young Warriors (1967).

James Drury began the Seventies still playing The Virginian. In the Seventies Mr. Drury was the lead on the short-lived television series Firehouse. He guest starred on Ironside and Alias Smith and Jones. He appeared in the TV movies The Devil and Miss Sarah and Bull of the West. In the Eighties he guest starred on the TV show The Fall Guy. In the Nineties James Drury guest starred on Walker, Texas Ranger; The Adventures of Brisco County, Jr.; and  Kung Fu: The Legend Continues. He appeared in the TV movie The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw and had a cameo in the TV movie The Virginian. He had a cameo in the movie Maverick (1994).

In the Naughts he appeared in the movie Hell to Pay (2005). He guest starred on the TV show Tales of the Cap Gun Kid.

There can be no doubt that James Drury will always be remembered as The Virginian. In fact, despite the number of times the novel has been adapted as feature films, chances are good that he will always be the actor most identified with the role. If James Drury will always be identified with The Virginian, it is not without good reason. He played the role perfectly. The Virginian was taciturn and tough, but at the same time fair minded and warm hearted. While James Drury will always be best remembered as The Virginian, he was fully capable of playing other roles. One of his best performances was a the former outlaw Johnny Red in the Gunsmoke episode of that name. In the episode of The Rebel titled "Vindication" he played a blind man whose wife had been killed by Apaches. James Drury could even play villains quite well. In the Rilfeman episode "Death Trap" he played Spicer, the sadistic and psychopathic leader of a gang of outlaws.

In real life James Drury was much closer to The Virginian than any villains he might have played in his career. He was well known for attending many classic television and Western conventions through the years, and did so nearly until his death. Mr. Drury was intelligent, well-spoken, and warm, and he truly appreciated his many fans. I had the honour of being Facebook friends with James Drury, and while I did not get to interact with him a whole lot (usually I interacted with his assistant Karen, who is a sweetheart), my interactions with him were always wonderful. James Drury was one of the nicest gentleman one could ever interact with. If James Drury played The Virginian so well, it is perhaps because James Drury was very much like him in real life.

1 comment:

Caftan Woman said...

I was heartbroken to hear the news of James Drury's passing. The Virginian, series and character hold a special place in my heart. His cameo as a Rider in Bill Pullman's 2000 version of the Wister story is a lovely tribute.

You mentioned his villains and one of the best/worst is Billy Hammond in Ride the High Country. It will continue to be fun to spot Drury in a classic TV guest spot or an early movie walk-on.