Jack Elam-An Unlikely Icon

My husband and I have become recent fans of the Western movie channel on TV, mainly because we don’t like many of the more recent movies and shows. We’ve had a great time watching Gunsmoke, Bonanza and a vast array of cowboy movies made from the 50s to the 80s. Last night we watched Jack Elam in Support Your Local Sheriff. It seems each time we watch feature films or television, Jack Elam is in nearly every show. Curiosity got the best of me, and I turned to my friend, Google, to find out about the movies he’d made.


His is an interesting life story. Jack Elam didn’t start out to be an actor. He picked cotton with his family as a child. After graduating from Santa Monica Junior College, he became an accountant. Among his clients were movie mogul, Samuel Goldwyn, and the Hopalong Cassidy production company.

Jack played bit parts, usually uncredited, in the films “Trailin’ West” (1949), “Quicksand” (1950) and “One Way Street” (1950). Those three bit parts started one of the most prolific careers in Hollywood. He helped arrange financing for the Robert Preston film “The Sundowners” in exchange for a larger role. Then came a tough-guy part in 1951′s “Rawhide,” starring Tyrone Power, which helped make him a star.

Elam was equally skillful at playing malicious killers, grizzled sidekicks or comedy characters. His most distinguishing characteristic was his off-kilter left eye. He lost the sight in it when he was stabbed with a pencil at a Boy Scout meeting when he was twelve. Now you just couldn’t make that up.

Elam appeared on over twenty episodes of “Gunsmoke” during the 1950s and 60s, as well as several television movies based on Louis L’Amour novels. His more than 80 feature films include memorable performances in “High Noon” (1952), “The Far Country” (1955), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1969), “Rio Lobo” (1970), “Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid” (1973), and “The Cannonball Run” (1980). He made his TV movie debut in 1969 in The Over-the-Hill Gang. The TV reunion show, Bonanza: Under Fire (1995), was his last screen credit. See, I told you he was in almost everything done during this period.

Jack Elam died at his home in 2003 in Ashland, Oregon, but he’s left his mark on the television and movie industry and a myriad of fans of all ages.

Thanks for the good times, Jack.