William Scott "Jack" Elam (13 November 1920 – 20 October 2003) was an American actor best known for his long career (seventy-three films and forty-one different television series) in westerns. He started playing a lot of villains, but later in his life took on mostly comedic roles, many of which spoofed his earlier appearances as the bad guy. He had a dry way of delivering a sardonic line, but his true strength was his ability to deliver entire pages of dialogue silently, using nothing more than his facial expressions, a skill of which he was one of the great masters.
Elam was born in Miami, Arizona. He earned a degree in Accountancy, and worked as a bookkeeper for Standard Oil before joining the Navy during World War II (he was a supply officer). After the war, he became an independent accountant in Hollywood, California, where one of his clients was studio mogul Samuel Goldwyn. It was Goldwyn who suggested Elam try acting, telling Elam that "you've got the perfect face to play a tough guy." He made his film debut in 1949's She Shoulda Said No!, a now forgotten low-budget exploitation film about marijuana addicts, playing a drug dealer. He'd go on to appear in nearly all of the popular western and crime dramas of the 50s and 60s, including Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Bonanza, Rawhide, Zorro, The Lone Ranger, and Have Gun – Will Travel, always as the bad guy. His first chance to play a straight-up, non-comedic good guy was his turn as Deputy U.S. Marshal J.D. Smith in The Dakotas, a short-lived western series on ABC.
While he appeared in a relatively light-hearted cameo in High Noon, his was given his first real comedic role in 1969's Support Your Local Sheriff, and the rest, as they say, was history. After his masterful comedic performance in that movie, dramatic and villainous parts were pretty much never offered to him ever again.
According to Ricardo Montalbán, Jack Elam was the perfect example of the various stages of a successful actor's career. As the saying goes, Stage One of the actor's career can be described as "Who the hell is Jack Elam?" The next stage is "Get me Jack Elam!". Then "I want a Jack Elam type!" "I want a younger Jack Elam!" And finally, the actor returns to "Who the hell is Jack Elam?"
Jack Elam was married twice, first to Jean Elam from 1937 to her death in 1961 and then to Margaret Jennison from 1961 until his death in 2003. Elam had two daughters, Jeri Elam and Jacqueline Elam, and a son, Scott Elam. He died of congestive heart failure in 2003, a month before he would turn 83 years old. The epitaph on his headstone reads "I drank scotch and played poker."
Elam's most memorable physical feature, his "lazy" left eye, occurred at age 12 when he was accidentally stabbed in the eye-socket with a pencil by one of his best friends at a Boy Scout meeting in 1928.
Films and television series featuring Jack Elam which have their own pages on this wiki include:
- Bonanza: The Return, Bonanza: Under Attack (1995) as Buckshot
- Lonesome Dove: The Series (1994-1995) as Curtis
- Lucky Luke (1992) as Axel Ericson (Voice)
- Home Improvement (1992) as Hick Peterson
- Suburban Commando (1991) as Colonel McHowell
- Once Upon a Texas Train (1988) as Jason Fitch
- Simon & Simon (1986) as Bud Krelman
- Webster (1985) as Dusty
- Cannonball Run and Cannonball Run II as Dr. Nikolas von Helsing
- Fantasy Island (1981) as Kid Corey/Hollis Buford Jr.
- The Villain (1979) as Avery Simpson
- Eight is Enough (1978) as Joe Simons
- Hot Lead and Cold Feet (1978) as Rattlesnake
- The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams (1978) as Jonas
- How the West Was Won (1977) as Cully Madigan
- Knife for the Ladies (1974) as Sheriff Jarrod
- Kung Fu (1973) as Marcus Taylor
- Gunsmoke (1959-1972) as multiple characters over 15 different episodes
- Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971) as Jug May
- Hannie Caulder (1973) as Frank Clemens
- Bonanza (1970) as Buckshot
- The Virginian (1970) as Harve Yost
- Rio Lobo (1970) as Old Man Phillips
- Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) as Jake
- Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) as Snakey
- The Wild Wild West (1967) as Jack Slade
- The Night of the Grizzly (1966) as Hank
- F Troop (1965) as Sam Urp
- The Dakotas (1962-1963) as Deputy J.D. Smith
- The Last Sunset (1961)
- The Untouchables (1960-1962) as multiple characters over 8 different episodes
- The Girl in Lovers' Lane (1959) as Jesse
- Lawman (1958-1962) as multiple characters over 5 different episodes
- Rawhide (1958) as Turkey Creek Jack Johnson
- Have Gun – Will Travel (1958 and 1962) as Shaffner and Joe Gage
- The Rifleman (1958-1961) as Russell the Pool Shark
- The Twilight Zone (1959) (1961) as Avery
- Zorro (1958) as Gomez the Coachman
- Kiss Me Deadly (1955) as Charlie Max
- Vera Cruz (1954) as Tex
- The Lone Ranger (1954) as Reno Lawrence
- Rancho Notorious (1952) as Mort Geary
- High Noon (1952) as Charlie (the drunk in jail)
- The Ring (1952) as Harry Jackson
- A Ticket To Tomahawk (1950) as Fargo
- Quicksand (1950) as Man at Bar (uncredited)
Tropes associated with his work include:
- Eye Scream: His left eye was accidentally blinded by a pencil in his childhood, and many of his roles take advantage of its eerie immobility.
- Leslie Nielsen Syndrome: As a young man, he played mostly serious roles. Later in life he was almost exclusively cast in comedies.
- Playing Against Type: Whereas he was mostly typecast in his younger days as gangsters and gunslingers, in High Noon he played an amiable alcoholic.