In Anthony Mann’s classic 1955 western, The Man From Laramie, Jack Elam, who has died aged 86, introduces his character as follows: “I can’t give you any references, but anyone can tell you Chris Boldt is not a man to be trusted.” Later on, he tries to backstab James Stewart and winds up dead in a dark alley. That role, and many more like it, in over 50 other westerns, made Elam one of the best-known, and best-loved, character actors in the genre.
With his bony, stubbled face, beetle-brows looming over a dead left eye, and gravelly voice, he was the very embodiment of a skulking, no-account, two-bit varmint, and the relish with which he played his parts made every appearance, however fleeting, a pleasure.
Jack Elam, the son of an accountant, was born in Miami, Arizona, a small mining town outside Phoenix, in 1916 (though he would later suggest that he had added two years to his age in order to get work). As a child, he earned money gleaning cotton, and, at the age of 12, lost the use of his left eye in an accident at scout camp. After graduating from Phoenix Union high school, he moved to California where he completed business studies at Modesto and Santa Monica junior colleges, before working as a hotel manager, and then an accountant for Standard Oil.
Following two years’ service in the US Navy during the second world war, Elam joined Willam Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy Productions as an auditor, while also doing outside work for other companies.
In 1948, Elam quit accountancy, after being warned that he was imperilling the sight in his right eye. He agreed to raise finances for three low-budget films in return for acting parts, and, in 1949, made his debut as The Killer in a short film entitled Trailin’ West. Within three years, he had made his mark as a villain in Henry Hathaway’s Rawhide (1951), and notched up appearances in Fritz Lang’s flamboyant Rancho Notorious and Fred Zinnemann’s classic High Noon (both 1952) – in the latter he had a brief scene as Charlie, the town drunk.
In 1954, he could be seen in Robert Aldrich’s influential Vera Cruz, and Anthony Mann’s The Far Country, in which, as baddie John McIntire’s deputy, he is gunned down in the final reel by James Stewart, the usual fate of Elam’s heavies, assuming they lasted that long.
In 1955, Elam cut an alarming figure in a floral-print shirt and shorts as one of Paul Stewart’s henchmen in Aldrich’s seedy and brilliant thriller, Kiss Me Deadly, as well as appearing in Fritz Lang’s costume drama, Moonfleet.
By the mid-1960s, Elam was playing featured parts in big-budget productions. In 1968, he was seen in Vincent McEveety’s Firecreek and, that same year, travelled to Spain for what would become his most celebrated role, as one of a trio of gunslingers in the opening sequence of Sergio Leone’s magnificent Once Upon A Time In The West. Together with Woody Strode and Al Muloch (who had played a part rejected by Elam in Leone’s earlier The Good, The Bad And The Ugly), Elam is seen killing time at Cattle Corner station. A fly crawls over his jowls. Elam tries to dislodge it but it keeps returning. Eventually, he traps it in his gun barrel, a sly, childlike grin on his face. A train arrives. Charles Bronson appears. Words are spoken. Guns fire, and Jack Elam bites the dust, a whole career encapsulated in one, unforgettable scene.
Elam’s later roles tended towards the comic, partly as a result of his success in Burt Kennedy’s comedy westerns, Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), and partly as a result of his advancing age. He was in fine form, alongside Ernest Borgnine and Strother Martin, in the improbable Raquel Welch vehicle, Hannie Caulder (1972), as well as the TV mini-series The Sacketts (1979), but his last great part was probably in Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett And Billy The Kid (1973), in which he plays a lawman whose sense of duty forces him into a gunfight that he knows he cannot win. “Least I’ll be remembered,” he says before dying.
A gregarious man who enjoyed “cigars, Cutty Sark, and a good poker game”, Elam is survived by his second wife and daughter, and a son and daughter from a previous marriage.
BY . The Guardian
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