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Jack Elam, 82; Actor Played Many Villains in Long Career

October 23, 2003|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Jack Elam, the veteran character actor with the trademark off-kilter eye who menaced John Wayne, James Stewart and other screen heroes in scores of westerns during his more than four-decade career, has died.

Elam, who had been in declining health in recent years, died Monday of congestive heart failure at his home in Ashland, Ore., where he had lived since 1987.

Although various biographical sources give his age as 86, he was actually 82, according to his wife, Jenny, who said Wednesday that he had added four years to his age to get work as a young accountant.

With a face once described as belonging on a wanted poster, Elam portrayed some of the screen's meanest, nastiest characters.

He tried to knife Stewart in the back in "The Man From Laramie," and he bashed Stuart Whitman with a rifle butt in "The Comancheros." But one of his most memorable villainous turns was as the sex-crazed killer in Henry Hathaway's "Rawhide," the 1951 movie that established him as a screen tough guy.

"I was pretty bad in that one," he acknowledged in a 1993 interview with the Modesto Bee. "I shot a baby to make it dance, and I killed everybody in the picture except Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward. That's bad."

Film critic Jim O'Connor agreed: "He's so good because he's so bad. And the way he can pop his eyes, bare his teeth and lick his lips in a leer is frightening."

Elam's portrayals of sinister thugs, gangsters and gunslingers were aided immeasurably by his squinty, wandering left eye. He had lost vision in the eye at age 12 when a fellow Boy Scout jabbed him with a pencil during a scuffle at a troop meeting.

Elam had no control over his wandering eye. "It does whatever the hell it wants," he said in one interview.

The memorable opening sequence of Italian director Sergio Leone's 1968 western "Once Upon a Time in the West" is dominated by a close-up of Elam's eye as it stares sideways while a fly buzzes around it.

"He's about as distinct a character actor that ever walked on screen," film critic Leonard Maltin said Wednesday. "It wasn't just his look. It was his presence. I think of him in 'Once Upon a Time in the West' right away. He's indelible.

"And yet it turns out he had a wonderful sense of humor and, in fact, could be a delightful comedic actor as well, spoofing his own image."

The comedic side of Elam surfaced in 1969 in the western parody "Support Your Local Sheriff!" starring James Garner.

"I was playing rotten, worthless guys in 95% of my pictures until that movie came along," Elam told the Toronto Star in 1986. "Since then, I've played 95% comedy relief or plain, dull nice guys."

Elam appeared in about 100 feature films, including "Vera Cruz," "Kiss Me Deadly," "Gunfight at the O.K. Corral," "Rio Lobo," "Support Your Local Gunfighter" and "The Cockeyed Cowboys of Calico County."

He appeared in dozens of TV series, including "Cheyenne," "Bonanza" and "Gunsmoke," on which he had 14 guest roles.

"He played a rogue kind of a guy, but not a real mean heavy, although he could certainly do that," "Gunsmoke" star James Arness recalled Wednesday. "What made him distinctive was the fact he could play unusual characters. And he had this marvelous face -- it was one of a kind -- so he could make almost anything play."

Arness also remembered another side of Elam.

"He was a great card player and great at all kinds of gambling," Arness said. "He always took everybody's money when he was on the set. He was a wonderful guy, and I thought extremely highly of him."

Elam was born in Miami, Ariz., a tiny mining community 100 miles from Phoenix. His mother died when he was about 2 and he lived with various families until he was reunited with his father at age 9.

After studying at Modesto City College, Elam arrived in Los Angeles in his early 20s with his first wife, Jean, who died in 1961. He worked as a bookkeeper, theater supervisor and auditor for the Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air.

Exempt from military service during World War II because of his eye, Elam worked as a civilian for the Navy in Culver City. After the war, he worked as a bookkeeper for Samuel Goldwyn Studios and then as controller for William Boyd's Hopalong Cassidy production company.

But staring at small figures on ledger sheets for hours on end strained his good eye and doctors told him he risked losing his sight if he continued his lucrative accounting business.

When a movie director friend was having trouble getting financing for three western scripts, Elam told him he would arrange the financing in exchange for roles as a "heavy" in all three pictures. The first was "The Sundowners," a 1950 film starring Robert Preston, which helped launch his long career.

Years later, Elam would say that he didn't care for modern movie villains, whose bad behavior was attributed to psychological problems.

"The heavy today is usually not my kind of guy," he told the Los Angeles Times in 1977. "In the old days, Rory Calhoun was the hero because he was the hero and I was the heavy because I was the heavy -- and nobody cared what my problem was. And I didn't either.

"I robbed the bank because I wanted the money.... I've played all kinds of weirdos, but I've never done the quiet, sick type. I never had a problem -- other than the fact I was just bad."

Elam's last credit was "Bonanza: Under Fire," a 1995 TV movie.

In addition to Jenny, his wife of 42 years, Elam is survived by three children, Jeri, Scott and Jacqueline; three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.

At Elam's request, no memorial service will be held.

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