Jack Elam

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A profile of one of filmdom’s most unique and interesting faces. 

If Elam is a villain you love to hate in the movies, you might gain sympathy for him after hearing about his hard-knock childhood. He made good through perseverance and hard work, and his reward was a fine film career. Elam was born around 1920 outside a mining town in Arizona. His mother died after childbirth, and for almost the whole first decade of his life, Elam was bounced from home to home as a foster child who often had to earn his room and board through a day’s hard labor. When Elam was 9, though, he was summoned back home. It happened that his father, an accountant, had started going blind, and hoped to train the boy to help him with mountains of paperwork and number-crunching.

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Ironically, the boy who at that point seemed only valued for his sight, was himself half-blinded a few years later, at the age of 12. There are conflicting stories that go like this: at a boy scout meeting Elam either got into a fight with a boy, or was the victim of horseplay and was stabbed in the left eye with a pencil. It didn’t change his career course; by that time Elam he had accounting experience, and pursued the trade further in college. For a time he also worked as a hotel manager, but his aptitude for bookkeeping was the more lucrative and got him jobs at Bank of America and Standard Oil.

After returning from two years of service in the Navy, Elam became auditor at Samuel Goldwyn’s studio. Eventually Elam was warned that like his father before him, he risked going blind from the constant eyestrain of the accounting work. At this point, Elam chose an interesting way into the movies. From his time as controller and auditor for Hopalong Cassidy Productions, Elam had lots of connections, and was able to secure financing for a producer’s three westerns, on the condition that he would be given roles in those films. That’s how he started out in 1949, embarking on what was to become a seemingly endless list of cowboy movies where he honed his gruff, menacing but fascinating presence.

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Thanks to the boyhood pencil incident, Elam had that unique off-kilter stink eye, one of film’s most recognizable and unnerving leers. Elam’s ogles and bad behavior usually earned him a bullet from the movie’s hero, no matter the genre. Encouragement and support from Rawhide costar Tyrone Power helped nudge Elam toward a seven year Fox contract within his first year in acting. He went on to appear in great westerns like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Rancho Notorious, Once Upon a Time in the West, Rio Lobo, and his personal favorite, Support Your Local Sheriff. He did a few days’ work with good friend Gary Cooper on High Noon, but got no credit because his part was added after principal shooting was finished, and though his introductory scenes were left in, his clowning in the climactic scenes was deemed distracting and left on the cutting room floor.

While working with Ronald Reagan in Cattle Queen of Montana, Elam and Gene Evans found themselves crawling on a cabin floor searching for Reagan’s contact lens. Elam and Reagan also discussed politics, with then-Democrat Reagan urging conservative Elam to get more involved. Elam had great gambling stories, including getting Jimmy Stewart to bet more than his strict ten dollar limit on the very first Super Bowl, or being part of the perfect bridge team with John Wayne.

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Elam was staple bad guy in many noirs as well, movies like Kansas City Confidential, One Way Street, Quicksand, and Kiss Me Deadly. As he aged he got into more TV work, amassing hundreds of credits, many on his favorite set Gunsmoke, as well as Rawhide, Laramie and the Virginian, not to mention Home Improvement. He aged into more of an appealing and eccentric fogey suitable for family friendly fare. Way back in 1952’s My Man & I, Elam proved that he was good at comedy, which was really highlighted in Cannonball Run 1 &2. He was generally known for being a great guy (somehow the best screen villains usually are) and a hard worker who never took himself seriously or put on airs that he was something special as an actor. He was married to his first wife Jean from 1937 until her death in 1961; he remarried within the year, and from the two marriages had a son and two daughters. When Elam was asked late in life about his true age, to clear up confusion arising from common Hollywood age obfuscation, Elam answered and cleared up the matter: ”I’m old. Just put down that I’m old.” He died in 2003, when he was—well, old.

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a version of this was previously published in THE DARK PAGES, newsletter for film noir fans. Click here to check out the latest issues

source for clipping http://oldshowbiz.tumblr.com/tagged/Jack-Elam

 

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14 thoughts on “Jack Elam”

  1. I’m devoted to the TV series “Gunsmoke”, and that is where I first discovered Jack Elam. Guesting on the show over a dozen times, the actor is unmistakable, but the variety of characters is staggering and impressive. It would make for fun marathon-style viewing.

    1. I know, and because of those reruns and the stuff like Cannonball, I always found him kind of lovable. ONly later did I see the noirs and discover some were creeped out by him 🙂 thank you for reading!

  2. Terrific post – Jack Elam was such a unique presence; he had that quality that you were never sure what he was going to do next. And he was REALLY good in comedy!

    1. He was, since I saw those more at first I always thought he was more likeable than menacing 🙂 but I really like him in noirs too. thanks!

  3. Elam was one of my first favorites growing up as “one of the gang”. in the background but always managed to steal some scenes along the way. If you haven’t seen a TV movie called The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County you really need to as he plays up his image as a mean gunslinger with goggles for glasses. And like Stewart Granger, I see Jack had nice penmanship. haha.

    1. Haha. No I have never seen that one, but like you I always liked him growing up, so much personality and someone you get to know really quickly as you get into movies. Him and Neville Brand 🙂

  4. A great writeup: thanks, Kristina. I was recently writing about Elam in The Bushwkackers (1952); as you say, he was instantly recognizable and at the same time, however menacing, at the same time almost lovable because of the ugliness.

    1. Thanks, yeah it was kind of surprising when I saw him in noirs after getting used to him as the older coot type. The one I love is the combo of him, Lee Van Cleef and Neville Brand in Kansas City Confidential.

  5. This is a great description: “unique off-kilter stink eye”. Perfect!

    I knew nothing about Elam’s childhood and early life. That was incredibly sad. Some people sure have a rough go in life, and maybe that helped make him such a screen presence.

    1. Pressure makes diamonds, as they say. In his case the misery didn’t change him from being such a nice person which is always nice to see. Thanks for reading!

  6. Fabulous story!! I love this guy, and like, you, I always found him more mischievous than terrifying. Your piece was so well-done I could hear that squeaky voice in my head as I read it!! 🙂

    1. haha, that’s great, Elam is one of the most easily recognizable people in the movies, you see him once as a kid and never forget him. Glad you learned something new about the man, thanks for reading!

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