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That has been the story of Jack Elam’s fame; people didn’t know his name but he became an iconic villain. Therefore, this is my homage to the wall-eyed actor who had a gentle spirit and could play any part he was given to perfection, whether it be the embodiment of evil or of buffoonery.
Jack Elam was born William Scott Jack Elam, November 13, 1918 in Miami, Arizona to Millard Elam and Alice Amelia Kerby. (Note: IMDb neglects to add the “Jack.”) His mother died in 1924 and Elam’s father remarried in 1930 and young Jack lived with his father, his step-mother, Flossie and his older sister, Mildred in Gila County. As a child, Jack worked picking cotton. (I wasn’t aware that there was cotton in the southwest but apparently there is.)
As far as his blind left eye, it was damaged by a pencil thrown during a Boy Scout meeting; it was either the result of an accident or the result of an argument with another boy who threw the pencil at him. It all depends from where the information comes.
Elam went to Santa Monica Junior College and earned a degree in accounting. At some time, Elam managed the Bel Air Hotel but that must have been before he worked full-time as an accountant. He parlayed his way into his first acting job by trading his accounting services for a part in a movie; one of his clients was Samuel Goldwyn and when a movie director friend was having trouble getting financing for a movie he wanted to make, Elam said that he would help secure the financing for a part in the film. Elam actually wanted to leave accounting because the job put a strain on his good eye and he was warned that he may lose his sight in his right eye if he continued.
Although Elam is most associated with westerns, he actually began as a staple in film noir, such as Kansas City Confidential, and played thugs and criminals and became a favorite of “auteurs“ such as Fritz Lang, Sam Peckinpah and Don Seigel. His slim build and unremarkable looks were perfect for the medium and his eye was often doctored with makeup or with tricky camera work and therefore, it‘s not obvious in his early work.
One of his first movies was a 1949 “exploitation” film, She Shoulda Said No! about a woman who becomes addicted to marijuana after saying “yes” to it. The movie capitalized on Robert Mitchum’s scandalous arrest and conviction for marijuana possession. But besides that movie, one of the oddest movies and strangest roles that Elam played was in The Girl in Lover’s Lane. Elam portrayed a homosexual hobo (one site referred to it as the “hobosexual” role) and the movie became a cult favorite after it was panned by Mystery Science Theater 3000, a.k.a., MST3K.
Elam went from B-movies and working with unknowns to films with the likes of Clark Gable in Key to the City where Elam played a city council member. That year, 1950, became a busy one for Elam; he had parts in The Sundowners, The Texan Meets Calamity Jane, High Lonesome where he played a cowpoke and A Ticket to Tomahawk with John Drew Barrymore. In that film, both Elam and a Marilyn Monroe were uncredited.
In 1955, Elam was cast as a singing Arab in Kismet and in the late 1950’s, he became a household face. Elam was so popular that he was profiled on Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow. In the show, Elam showed his collection, oddly enough, of porcelain elephants.
With fatter paychecks, Elam became fatter too, putting on so much weight that he could be cast as “Fatso Nagel” in Baby Face Nelson. But Elam began to take advantage of his unique looks and that earned him many more roles. In the ‘60’s, after dropping weight, Elam appeared in episodes of The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Mr. Lucky, Sugarfoot, The Texan, Zane Grey Theatre, Death Valley Days, The Rebel, The Rifleman, The Untouchables, Ben Casey, The Twilight Zone and a plethora of others, sometimes credited, sometimes not. He played in three episodes of Bonanza alone. His last role was playing the cook in the television movie, Bonanza: Under Attack.
Two of Elam’s most popular movies were 1969’s Support your Local Sheriff and 1971’s Support Your Local Gunfighter, both with James Garner and both were comedic parts. The fans loved him but even before that time, Elam was known as the “Western Guy.” He appeared in The Rare Breed (‘66), The Night of the Grizzly (‘66), The Way West (‘67), The Last Challenge (‘67) and Firecreek (‘68) among others. In the 1963 movie, Four For Texas with Frank Sinatra, Elam, as a villain, is killed in the opening minute. But the movie with the oddest casting in which he acted was The Last Rebel with Joe Namath in 1971.
Elam, the actor with the out-of-kilter eye and who had once been described as a “combination of Neil Young and Marty Feldman,” was inducted into The Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1994. Elam retired to Oregon and died of heart failure in October of 2003. He had been married to Margaret Jenson since 1963 and they had one daughter, Jean Elam who gave her parents two grandchildren.
One thing that people remember about Elam is that he was lucky, not just in life but in games--he always won at gambling and would clean up when he played with other actors or crew on a movie set. But Elam’s iconic image will not and can not ever be duplicated. He was highly respected by the others in his craft, well-liked and well-loved.
A young Jack Elam became a popular subject for caricatures. From Rio Lobo In his later years. Jack Elam, Woody Strode, Charles Bronson and an uncredited actor in Sergio Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West. Notice the haunting harmonica and the "artsy" aspect of the opening of the film.
http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=jac ... ORM=IDFRIR
http://www.bing.com/images/search?q=jac ... ORM=IDFRIR
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