JACK ELAM – FROM MIAMI TO WESTERN STAR
Jack Elam is without doubt Miami’s best known son. For over five decades he stalked our movie and TV screens as a Western stalwart and unforgettable bad guy. Jack appeared in over 200 movies and TV shows, with his last appearance being in the popular TV Western saga Lonesome Dove: The Series.
William Scott “Jack” Elam was born at 701 Cedar Av in Miami on November 13, 1920, one of two children to parents Millard Elam and Alice Amelia Kirby. His father, originally from Wyoming, worked as a millman for the Miami Copper Co. At only 3 years old, Jack lost his mother to a likely stroke. He spent the years that followed with various family members until at the age of 9 he returned to the care of his father. Tragedy struck again at the age of 12 when an incident with a pencil at a Boy Scout meeting caused him to lose the sight in his left eye and gain what would become his crooked trademark stare. Jack attended Miami High School for a period before the family relocated to Phoenix.
It is widely believed that Jack drifted into acting only by chance later in life, but we have unconvered what is quite literally a dramatic revelation.
A Murder has been Arranged is a classic thriller and ghost story. Jack played the part of the evil villain, Maurice Mullins, obviously starting out how he meant to go on.
In the early 1940s, Jack followed his father to Hollywood where he was fortunate enough to land a succession of high-profile jobs. He was the manager of the famed Bel Air Hotel for a while, then became an accountant for Samuel Goldwyn before taking on the role of business manager at Hopalong Cassidy Productions.
However, the concentration involved in Jack’s accounting activities began to take its toll on his surviving eye, and he was advised to seek another line of work. In 1944, Jack found his way in front of the camera in his first acting role as The Killer in the movie-short Trailin’ West.
In 1952, Jack played the role of Charlie, the town drunk, in Fred Zinnemann’s legendary Western High Noon.
Jack went on to deliver a string of memorable performances in Westerns during the 1950’s, stamping his mark on such movies as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Man from Laramie, and The Far Country.
However, it was in the Western TV shows of the 1960s that Jack would make his greatest impression, appearing in series like Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bonanza and Cheyenne. At the time, it seemed that barely a week passed without Jack’s characterful face cropping up in one show or another. Jack Elam became a household face, if not a household name.
In 1968, Jack traveled to the deserts of southern Spain to work with director Sergio Leone on the Spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West, joining a cast that included Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda and Claudia Cardinale. Jack was central to what is regarded by many as the most iconic opening scene in Western movie history.
The following year, Jack took a role in the spoof Western Support Your Local Sheriff, with James Garner, a decision that would showcase his comedic talent and mark a change of direction in his career.
In 1970, he teamed up with John Wayne in Howard Hawks movie Rio Lobo. The year after, he returned to Spain to shoot the offbeat Western Hannie Caulder, with Raquel Welch, Robert Culp and Ernest Borgnine.
Although by then the golden age of the Western was over, Jack continued to work throughout the coming years, mostly in TV series and specials, such as Easy Street (1986), Bonanza: The Return (1993), and his final role as Curtis in Lonesome Dove: The Series (1994).
In an interview, Jack gave his own take on his somewhat unique standing as a character actor. “Who’s Jack Elam? Get me Jack Elam. Get me a Jack Elam type. Get me a young Jack Elam. Who’s Jack Elam?”
Jack was married twice. In 1937, he married Jean Hodgert, and that union lasted until her death in 1961. Shortly after, he married Margaret Jennison and the couple remained together for the rest of his life. Jack had three children, one from his first marriage and two from his second.
Jack’s main source of recreation was playing poker, though he also had a penchant for collecting small elephant figures.
On October 20, 2003, Jack Elam passed away at the age of 82 at his home in Ashland, Oregon. He is on record as saying that his chosen epitaph would be, “I drank scotch and played poker.”
A year later, Jack was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. Jack Elam’s life had been a long and interesting journey from that modest mineworker’s home on Cedar Av in Miami.