Well-cast character actors can strengthen the performance of the star in the leading role, and they can enrich a formulaic storyline by infusing their secondary characters with color and personality. These are the type of actors whose faces are familiar to movie-goers but whose names are seldom remembered. In previous eras, veteran character actors often enjoyed careers that were five or six decades long, and they were revered by stars, directors, and producers who recognized their contributions to the films—even entire genres. The Hollywood industry has changed a great deal in the last two decades, altering the cinematic landscape for actors. For many reasons, there are far fewer character actors than ever before. And, certain genres, particularly those with formulaic story patterns, are the lesser for it.
This Saturday, Facets Night School presents Hannie Caulder, a revisionist western starring Raquel Welch as a gun-toting woman who seeks revenge on those men who did her wrong. Her romantic lead is television actor Robert Culp, who gives one of his best performances as the gunslinger who teaches her to shoot. A sex symbol with a pleasing personality, Welch was a limited actress who carefully selected her roles. Hannie Caulder includes several highly respected character actors whose faces were familiar to audiences in 1971 when the film was released. The addition of veteran character actors Ernest Borgnine, Strother Martin, and Jack Elam as the Clemens Brothers elevated Welch’s performance, especially in scenes in which the dialogue is depicted in shot/reverse shot.
Young cinephiles may recognize Jack Elam as one of three gunslingers who menace Charles Bronson in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Though Elam appeared in a variety of genres as the heavy, he excelled at western movies and television series, and his bit in Once Upon a Time in the West made him immortal as a western outlaw.
Like many actors, Jack Elam’s face was his fortune. His face was instantly recognizable because of his off-center left eye, which was left sightless and immobile from a fight during his childhood. He was born November 13, 1916, in Miami, Arizona, and like many Depression-era children, he had to earn money by doing manual labor, including back-breaking work in the cotton fields. Later, he attended Santa Monica Junior College in California. He became an accountant, often working for the film studios, but the stress from looking at small numbers all day threatened to damage his good eye. Friends suggested he try his luck at acting, so he exchanged some accounting work for a small film role in 1949, making his debut in She Shoulda Said No (aka Wild Weed), in which a chorus girl ruins her career by smoking marijuana.
As a young man, Elam was extremely thin, and his skinny frame and face made his damaged eye protrude even further. This, combined with his dark, swarthy appearance, destined him to play villains, desperadoes, and killers. But, like all good character actors, Elam was never just the bad guy. In the film noir Kiss Me Deadly (1955), he plays a less-than-bright henchman whose predilection for gaudy Hawaiian shirts seems at odds with his violent nature. In Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), his trademark leer creates a menacing Tom McLowery, one of the outlaws who died in that famous western gunfight. His unattractive looks, particularly when combined with a two-day growth of beard, made him such a memorable outlaw that westerns dominated his filmography: The Sundowners, The Gunfighter, High Noon, Cattle Queen of Montana, The Far Country, The Commancheros, Support Your Local Sheriff, Rio Lobo, Cat Ballou, and more. Small wonder Leone selected him, alongside Woody Strode (a prominent African American character actor), to represent the outlaw archetype in his mythic rendering of the Wild West.
When series television became a major part of the entertainment industry, Elam began appearing in TV westerns, including Wanted: Dead Or Alive, Yancy Derringer, Wagon Train, and Gunsmoke. Television would tweak his image, thereby broadening his appeal. In an episode of Bronco Lane in 1961, he played Toothy Thompson, an exaggerated western sidekick character more laughable and lovable than intimidating. Age actually improved his appearance, adding pounds to his frame and softening his face. As he got older, he appeared in more comic roles, sometimes lampooning his earlier image as a sneering, leering desperado. Elam’s career was at a highpoint in 1971, when he costarred in Hannie Caulder. He had just finished Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo opposite John Wayne and was about to start Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, directed by Sam Peckinpah. Hannie Caulder is not only a must-see western because a woman plays the protagonist but it also affords an opportunity to see highly regarded character actors at the peaks of their careers.
Alas, it is the nature of character actors to fade into their roles. . . and then fade away. Jack Elam was surely aware of this when he insightfully explained to an interviewer that there are five stages to a character actor’s career: (1) Who is Jack Elam? (2) Get me Jack Elam. (3) Get me a Jack Elam. (4) Get me a young Jack Elam. (5) Who’s Jack Elam?