A Couple of Cowboy Characters
Seen the news lately? War wages on in the Middle East, terrorists in Africa, a Malaysian passenger jet is shot down by Russian separatists, Iran is on its merry way toward becoming a nuclear threat to the world, ISIS, the Islamic terrorist group, is purging the region of all Christianity, tens of thousands of illegal immigrants continue streaming in across our southern border flooding our towns and cities from coast to coast, the IRS, the DOJ, and the Department of Veteran Affairs continue their deceit and cover-ups, and meanwhile President Obama continues golfing, hanging out at burger joints, and attending political fund raisers.
None of those things will be covered in this week’s column.
When we heard the news of James Garner’s death, my wife and I decided to watch one of our favorite Garner films, Support Your Local Sheriff! which also happens to feature two of my favorite western supporting players, Walter Brennan and Jack Elam. Plenty has been written on Garner’s life and career this week, as well it should, so I’d like to devote a little space to the character guys. Let’s start with Walter Brennan.
Brennan is the first actor ever to win three acting Oscars, having won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor in 1936, 1938 and 1940. He began in the late twenties and early thirties taking extra parts and then bit parts in as many films as he could as well as working as a stunt man. By the mid 1930s, he began appearing in higher-quality films and getting better parts which culminated with his receiving the very first Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role in the period film Come and Get It (1936). He won his second Oscar in 1938 for his role in Kentucky.
It seems Walter Brennan always played old characters, even when he was relatively young, but no matter his age, he was always believable. His range was great, his talent for comedy every bit as wonderful as his dramatic roles. His performances were a highlight of many pictures, whether it was Northwest Passage, Sergeant York, Pride of the Yankees, or To Have or Have Not.
His performance as Judge Roy Bean in The Westerner (1940) with Gary Cooper, is a classic, and won him his third best supporting actor Academy Award. Another great role of his was of ‘Old Man’ Clanton in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946), opposite Henry Fonda. Much later, Brennan would spoof that role in the 1968 comedy, Support Your Local Sheriff with James Garner.
Brennan’s roles in two Howard Hawks Western pictures, Red River and Rio Bravo are terrific, especially his part as Stumpy, an extremely cantankerous (and funny) crippled and toothless sidekick to John Wayne in Rio Bravo. That should have been Oscar number four, as far as I’m concerned.
In later years he did a lot of television while continuing his work in feature films, including three pictures for Disney. From 1957–1963, he starred in the popular television series The Real McCoys, a sitcom about a poor West Virginia family that relocates to a farm in southern California. When the McCoys ended, he did a couple of other short-lived series The Tycoon, and The Guns of Will Sonnet. Film historians and critics have long regarded Brennan as one of the finest character actors in motion picture history and I couldn’t agree more.
But we shouldn’t forget another western character, wonderful Jack Elam. Elam started in parts as a straight heavy but wound up as one of the best comedy western character actors in the business. His most distinguishing physical quality was the iris of his left eye, which was skewed to the outside, making him look unnaturally “wide eyed” (the opposite of cross-eyed). He lost the sight in that eye during a boyhood accident when he was stabbed with a pencil at a Boy Scout meeting.
He started acting in the late 40’s, appearing mostly in westerns and gangster films playing villains. Elam made multiple guest star appearances in many popular Western television series in the 1950s and 1960s, including Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Lawman, Bonanza, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, Zorro, The Lone Ranger and Rawhide.
Jack Elam was terrific in his first comedy role in Support Your Local Sheriff! (1968) playing opposite James Garner (with Walter Brennan). A few years later, he did the follow-up, Support Your Local Gunfighter. He also played an eccentric sidekick to John Wayne in Howard Hawks’ Rio Lobo (1970). In 1994, Elam was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
Elam once spoke of the five stages in a moderately successful actor’s life, as defined by the way a film director refers to the actor suggested for a part.
Stage 1: “Who is Jack Elam?”
Stage 2: “Get me Jack Elam.”
Stage 3: “I want a Jack Elam type.”
Stage 4: “I want a younger Jack Elam.”
Stage 5: “Who is Jack Elam?”