“I never presumed to be pretty,” said actor Jack Elam, who was described in a 1966 interview with STATUS magazine as “the roughest, meanest, dirtiest heavy ever to cast a shadow across a movie-lot cowtown.” With 97 commercially released feature films and 275 television appearances (including 20 movies for television) to his credit, Elam had plenty of time to dabble on the wrong side of the law. “Shame on you for shooting that little baby!” screamed one would-be fan while whacking Elam with her purse after watching him in his breakthrough role in the Henry Hathaway classic RAWHIDE. New York Critic Jim O’Connor wrote: “Outstanding in the [RAWHIDE] cast is a comparative unknown, Jack Elam, who portrays Tevis, a sex-crazed killer. He’s so good because he’s so bad. And the way he can pop his eyes, bare his teeth and lick his lips in a leer is frightening. Remember the name of this comer — Jack Elam.”


Elam was an unlikely candidate for movie stardom. Born on November 13th in Miami, Arizona, he weathered a challenging childhood, underscored by the loss of sight in his left eye from a boyhood accident. He moved in his early twenties with his first wife, Jean, to Los Angeles, where he worked as a bookkeeper, theater supervisor, and auditor for two of Hollywood’s glamour epicenters — The Beverly Hills Hotel and the Hotel Bel-Air. His first job in the picture business was as a bookkeeper for Samuel Goldwyn Studios and then as controller for the Hopalong Cassidy production company. With some shrewd negotiating, he was able to parlay film financing into some minor acting roles as a heavy.


While Elam’s roots as a villain were firmly established in westerns such as RANCHO NOTORIOUS (1951), THE COMANCHEROS (1961), THE RARE BREED (1965), ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), THE WILD COUNTRY (1969), RIO LOBO (1970) and THE WINDS OF AUTUMN (1975) and film noire classics such as BIRD OF PARADISE (1950), KANSAS CITY CONFIDENTIAL (1952), KISS ME DEADLY (1954) and BABY FACE NELSON (1957), he made a successful transition to comedy in later years with box office hits such as SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL SHERIFF (1968), HAWPS (1976) and CANNONBALL RUN (1980). Television viewers remember him for his 14 appearances on GUNSMOKE, as a regular on the series THE DAKOTAS (1962-1963), TEMPLE HOUSTON (1963-1964), TEXAS WHEELERS (1974), STRUCK BY LIGHTNING (1979), THE DETECTIVE IN THE HOUSE (1985) and EASY STREET (1986), and in his Daytime Emmy®-nominated role in RANSOM OF RED CHIEF (1975).


A great favorite on the set, Elam was known as a fearsome drinking buddy, a comedy menace and a master poker (and liars poker) mind. A consummate Scorpio, he remained superstitious about hats on beds (very bad for actors) and ladders (dangerous, in general), but not about cats, crossing in front of him or otherwise (he has four). He also held an instinctive love for elephants — “they represent openness, solid reality and great security . . . three steps in the right direction toward good luck” — and has a figurine pachyderm (all trunks facing upward) for every movie and television show he’s made.


He later retired to Ashland, Oregon, where he lived with his second wife Jenny on a mini-estate that bears Elam’s trademark “tropical paradise” landscaping — or as tropical as the northwest foliage can get. While he missed Los Angeles, he took to his new home, where his children — Jeri, Scott and Jacqueline — frequently visited him. His expanded brood now includes three grandchildren — Ever, Seth and Noah — and three great-grandchildren — True, Rosa and Harrison.


Throughout his life, Elam remained humble about his craft: “The most important part of acting is being relaxed. Concentration is vital. You not only talk — you also listen. Let me see you listen.” His advice to young actors? “Take your work seriously, but not yourself. Acting is not some great pretentious thing — the better you do it, the better it is.” He adds with laugh, “The toughest part of all, after you’ve worked out being an actor, is getting a job.”