Jack Elam photograph

Jack Elam

Jack Elam Life story

William Scott "Jack" Elam was an American film and television actor best known for his numerous roles as villains in Western films, and later in his career, comedies. His most distinguishing physical quality was his misaligned eye.

William Scott "Jack" Elam (November 13, 1920 – October 20, 2003) was an American film and television actor best known for his numerous roles as villains in Western films and, later in his career, comedies (sometimes spoofing his villainous image). His most distinguishing physical quality was his misaligned eye. Before his career in acting, he took several jobs in finance and served two years in the United States Navy during World War II.

Elam performed in 73 movies and in at least 41 television series.

Early life

Elam was born in Miami in Gila County in south-central Arizona, to Millard Elam and Alice Amelia Kirby. His mother died in September 1924, when Jack was only three. By 1930, he was living with his father, older sister Mildred, and their stepmother, Flossie Varney Elam. He grew up picking cotton. Elam lost the sight in his left eye when he was stabbed with a pencil during a boyhood altercation with a fellow Boy Scout. He was a student at both Miami High School in Gila County and Phoenix Union High School in Maricopa County, graduating from there in the late 1930s and subsequently attending Santa Monica Junior College in California.


Before his acting career, Elam worked as a bookkeeper at the Bank of America in Los Angeles and as an auditor for the Standard Oil Company. He then served two years during World War II in the United States Navy and subsequently became an independent accountant in Hollywood, where one of his clients was movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn. For a time, he was also the manager of the Hotel Bel-Air in Los Angeles.


Elam made his screen debut in 1949 in She Shoulda Said No!, an exploitation film in which a chorus girl's habitual marijuana smoking ruins her career and then drives her brother to suicide. During this period, however, Elam appeared most often in Westerns and gangster films, usually in roles as a villain.

On television in the 1950s and 1960s, he made multiple guest-star appearances on many popular Western series, including Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Lawman, Bonanza, Cheyenne, Have Gun – Will Travel, Zorro, The Lone Ranger, The Rebel, F Troop, Tales of Wells Fargo, The Texan, and Rawhide. In 1961, he played a slightly crazed bus passenger on The Twilight Zone episode "Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?". That same year, he also portrayed the Mexican historical figure Juan Cortina in "The General Without a Cause", an episode of the anthology series Death Valley Days. In 1962, Elam appeared as Paul Henry on Lawman in the episode titled "Clootey Hutter".

In 1963, Elam received a rare chance to play the good guy, reformed gunfighter and Deputy U.S. Marshal J. D. Smith, in the ABC/Warner Bros. series The Dakotas, a Western intended as the successor of Cheyenne. The Dakotas ran for 19 episodes. He was then cast as George Taggart, a gunslinger-turned-marshal, in the 1963–1964 NBC/WB series Temple Houston.

In 1966 Jack Elam was given his first comedic role with Clint Walker in the Western film The Night of the Grizzly. In 1968, Elam had a cameo in Sergio Leone's celebrated spaghetti Western Once Upon a Time in the West. In that film, he played one of a trio of gunslingers who were sent to kill Charles Bronson's character. Elam spent a good part of the scene trying to trap an annoying fly in his gun barrel. In 1967, Elam appeared in The Way West with Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and Kirk Douglas as the light-hearted Preacher Weatherby taking part in a wagon train on the Oregon Trail.

In 1969, he played a comedy role in Support Your Local Sheriff!, which was followed two years later by Support Your Local Gunfighter, both opposite James Garner. After his performances in those two films, Elam found his villainous parts dwindling and his comic roles increasing. (Both films were also directed by Burt Kennedy, who had seen Elam's potential as a comedian and directed him a total of 15 times in features and television.) Between those two films, he also played a comically cranky old coot opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks's Rio Lobo (1970). In 1974–1975, he was cast as Zack Wheeler in the short-lived comedy series, The Texas Wheelers, in which he played the long-lost father returning home to raise his four children after their mother dies. In 1979, he was cast as the Frankenstein monster in the CBS sitcom Struck by Lightning, but the show was cancelled after only three episodes (the remaining eight were unaired (and remain so) in the U.S., though all 11 were aired in the UK in 1980). He then appeared in the role of Hick Peterson in a first-season episode of Home Improvement alongside Ernest Borgnine (season one, episode 20, "Birds of a Feather Flock to Tim").

Elam played Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing, an eccentric doctor in the 1981 movie The Cannonball Run. Three years later, he returned in the same role in the film's sequel, Cannonball Run II.

In 1985, Elam played Charlie in the "Weird Western" film The Aurora Encounter. During production, Elam developed what would become a lifelong relationship with an 11-year-old boy named Mickey Hays, who suffered from progeria. The documentary I Am Not a Freak portrays the close friendship between Elam and Hays. Elam said, "You know I've met a lot of people, but I've never met anybody that got next to me like Mickey."In 1986, Elam also co-starred on the short-lived comedy series Easy Street as Alvin "Bully" Stevenson, the down-on-his-luck uncle of Loni Anderson's character, L. K. McGuire. In 1988, Elam co-starred with Willie Nelson in the movie Where The Hell's That Gold?

In 1994, Elam was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.

Personal life and death

Elam was married twice, first to Jean Hodgert from 1937 until her death in 1961, and then to Margaret Jennison from 1961 until his own death.Elam died of congestive heart failure in Ashland, Oregon, in 2003.




References and notes

Further reading

McCormack, Tiffany. "Jack Elam". The Oregon Encyclopedia.

Mahar, Ted (October 4, 1998). "A Sampling of Elam's Movies". The Oregonian. p. L10.

1920 United States Census, Arizona, Gila County, Miami

1924 September 7; Arizona Original Certificate of Death for Alice Amelia Kerby Elam

1930 United States Census, Arizona, Gila County, Miami

2003 October 20; Oregon Certificate of Death for Jack Elam

External links

Media related to Jack Elam at Wikimedia Commons

Jack Elam at IMDb

Literature on Jack Elam

Jack Elam Photos

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