"No, Jack ... Elam."
"Jack E. Lamb? An old vaudeville comedian?"
"No. Jack Elam. The cowboy that looks like a combination of Neil Young and Marty Feldman."
Elam was one of those great character actors that filled movie fans with giddiness when he appeared on the screen. He was known for playing burly cowpokes with a penchant for bumbling heists, but Elam actually started his motion picture career as a skinny pug in exploitation pictures. Forgotten today is his popularity among auteurs like Fritz Lang, Sam Peckinpah and Don Siegel. Although Jack is associated almost exclusively with westerns, throughout the nineteen fifties he was a staple in the world of film noir.
Jack Elam was blind in his left eye since childhood. It was often doctored with make-up or shot around in his first several screen appearances. His eye does not stand out in most of his early anonymous roles. It became prevalent after, I assume, he was told it could be his pay dirt. Elam entered show business after several years as an accountant.1
One of Jack's first pictures was She Shoulda Said No! (1949), an anti-marijuana exploitation film thrown together in a couple days in order to capitalize on film noir bad boy Robert Mitchum's conviction for marijuana possession. Here is the trailer for the roadshow B-film courtesy one of our favorite companies, Something Weird Video.
When Robert Mitchum was busted for pot possession, it was at the home of young friend Lida Leeds (the technical, and almost unbelievable, charge was 'conspiracy to possess marijuana!'). Leeds' pad had been dubbed the "reefer resort," by the L.A. narcs. Mitchum served two months and Leeds got sixty days. Lida was certainly not the star that Mitchum was and by the time she left prison she was broke. It took little persuading from low-budget huckster (and common filmmaker in the "All-Black Cast" genre) Sam Newfield to convince her to star in a cheap marijuana exploitation feature. She Shoulda Said No! depicted Lida Leeds losing her job after becoming a marijuana addict. She turns into a pot peddler and, after discovering this, her brother hangs himself. Jack Elam's part (as the drug dealing "Raymond") is small. Television writer Dick Landau fired off the useless script and twenty-two years later wrote an episode of The Misadventures of Sheriff Lobo titled Disco Fever Comes to Orly. For the record, the ultra-cool Mitchum described prison as "like Palm Springs... without the riff-raff."
Unlike most in director Sam Newfield's stable of actors, Elam had little trouble jumping from the junk roadshow picture to major Hollywood films. The marijuana adventure was followed by a small part in Clark Gable's Key to the City (1950), playing a member of the City Council. That casting might seem unthinkable today, but remember, during the first ten years of his acting career, Elam didn't possess as distinct a look. He had a slim build and camera men did everything they could not to emphasize his eyes.
The same year, Elam sat at the bar in a stark and underrated piece of film-noir brilliance called Quicksand (1950), featuring another great actor known for his eyes, Peter Lorre. In Quicksand, Mickey Rooney steals from the cash register of the shop he works in, only to have his pilfering spiral into a menacing series of events involving cops, gangsters and Lorre as a knife wielding carny. Elam's five o'clock shadow suited the role of a drunk sitting next to a stressed-out Rooney at the bar well. Quicksand was directed by Irving Pichel who made another movie that year: The Great Rupert. Rupert told the age-old story of a squirrel finding a bunch of money and donating it to an impoverished vaudevillian. You can watch The Great Rupert in its entirety here and you can watch Quicksand (you really should) in its entirety here.
One Way Street (1950) was a noir vehicle made by the future director of Dracula vs. Frankenstein2 (1970) and starring noir genre regulars Bill Conrad (The Killers, Sorry Wrong Number, The Racket) and Dan Duryea (Black Angel, Criss Cross, The Underworld Story). Once again Jack Elam's bit part failed to garner a mention in the credits. The amount of film scholarship devoted to Elam is slight, but the writings that do exist peg him almost exclusively as a cowboy actor. Examining his early career, however, demonstrates that he was just as much a film-noir staple as anything else.
1950 was an extremely busy year for the unknown actor. The Sundowners and The Texan Meets Calamity Jane were both low-budget westerns featuring Elam. He acted as a cowpoke in High Lonesome with future "marijuana addict" John Drew Barrymore. An uncredited Marilyn Monroe joined the uncredited Elam in A Ticket to Tomahawk. Before the year was up, Elam appeared in Fritz Lang's only war picture, American Guerrilla in the Philippines and as a gangster in 20th Century Fox's big-budget Love That Brute. Rancho Notorious re-united Elam with Fritz Lang and was, appropriately enough, a western - one of three that Lang made during his career. The period had Elam filling out more and more cowboy pics. In the 1951-52 period Elam acted in the western features Rawhide, The Bushwackers, The Battle at Apache Pass, Montana Territory and most notably, playing the jailhouse drunk in High Noon.
Kansas City Confidential (1952) is a tragically neglected film noir pic. Fast paced, violent and moody, it is one of best movies Elam ever appeared in. Here's a clip of the young Elam dying a slow death in the film and if you feel like watching the entire movie you can do so here. The potboiler was an early effort from Phil Karlson who went on to make expensive B-movies like The Silencers (1966), The Wrecking Crew (1969) and Walking Tall (1973). Young Lee Van Cleef also appears in the movie.
B-westerns continued for Jack in the fifties and as the television western started to gain steam, Elam followed. He was cast in gun battles on The Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Frontier and several episodes of The Lone Ranger and Zorro. He played one more heavy in the last of the classic film noir pictures, Robert Aldrich's Kiss Me Deadly (1955). He was once again cast by one of his biggest fans, Fritz Lang, in the rarely screened picture Moonfleet (1955). His profile was enlarged thanks to Vincent Minnelli who had Elam play a singing Arab in Kismet (1955).
Jack is equally remembered portraying the comical buffoon. His first foray into film comedy came in a pair of films from Martin & Lewis. Artists and Models (1955) is generally regarded as the most manic of the pair's many films, and the first of many Jerry Lewis programmers made by Frank Tashlin. In this initial entry, Elam plays Ivan, an evil Soviet. Pardners (1956) had Elam in a more suitable position, playing a cowhand in what would be his first of many western spoofs. It also re-teamed him with the young Lee Van Cleef.
By the late nineteen fifties, Elam was, if not a house hold name, certainly a house hold face, enough to land himself a spot on Person to Person with Edward R. Murrow. Via satellite, Jack Elam gave Ed a tour of his Hollywood home, an abode fully decorated with porcelain elephants!
Jack Elam's waistline expanded into the form he became know for, thanks to the many paychecks coming his way. His belly had ballooned enough for his character in Baby Face Nelson (1957) to be named Fatso Nagel. The film was directed by future action film God, Don Siegel (Dirty Harry, Charley Varrick, 1964's The Killers). Elam's associates were loyal. They were aware of his dependable talents and unmistakable look. Siegel used Elam again in his pictures The Gun Runners (1958) and Edge of Eternity (1959).
The Girl in Lover's Lane (1959) had our hero taking a break from his newfound Hollywood gloss to return to his trashy B-movie roots. The film was thoroughly panned by Mystery Science Theater 3000. The odd backwoods hillbilly flick has Elam playing a homosexual hobo. Yes, the obvious gag here would be "hobosexual." Here are the end credits to the movie, MST3K style.
The nineteen sixties started with an onslaught of television roles. Hotel de Paree, The Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Richard Diamond Private Detective, Mr. Lucky, Sugarfoot, The Texan, Zane Grey Theatre, Death Valley Days, The Rebel, The Rifleman, The Untouchables, Ben Casey and The Twilight Zone all made good use of those crazy eyes.
Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up? was the name given to the 1961 Twilight Zone episode featuring Elam. The episode takes place in an old roadside diner and, in another cosmic connection, steals more than a little from Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) - a film that was directed by Don Siegel. Elam hams it up as a crazy, squeaky-voiced codger gnawing on a chicken-bone. He is both obnoxious and ridiculous - and obviously having the time of his life. Watch the entire episode in three parts: Part one, two and three.
Jack Elam joined The Rat Pack in 4 For Texas (1963), a disappointing turn featuring Frankie and Dino with little to show for itself other than cameos from The Three Stooges and Arthur Godfrey. It's just as well that Elam gets killed in the opening minute (perhaps out of mercy). Robert Aldrich directed the dull western spoof, making it the first time the two had worked together since Kiss Me Deadly. From this point on, Jack Elam was the western guy. Television appearances on interchangeable shows like Cheyenne, Laramie and The Dakotas were not saved from monotony by Jack Elam. That being said, the novelty of his face never wore thin. Several more films, The Rare Breed (1966), The Night of the Grizzly (1966), The Way West (1967), The Last Challenge (1967) and Firecreek (1968) all cemented the typecasting. The weird thing is, nothing about Elam's unique appearance actually suggested the wild west. No character actor before or since has looked like him, and his physicality only made one think of westerns because he had appeared in so many. He just as easily could have been typecast as the deranged axe murderer, the drunk, the Frankenstein monster or the truck driver.
Never a Dull Moment (1968) was the first of a handful of Disney comedies for old crazy eyes. Starring Dick Van Dyke and put together by a former actor and director of Van Dyke's old show named Jerry Paris, it is yet another "classic" comedy whose actors are far funnier than the film itself. How about this line-up: Edward G. Robinson, Henry Silva, Dick Bakalyan, Mickey Shaughnessy and Slim Pickens? In a serious stretch for the ol' disbelief, Dick Van Dyke is mistaken for the gangster Jack Elam! Hypothetical hilarity ensues. Watch the trailer here.
It should go without saying that Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) was the best western (hotel?) that Jack Elam ever appeared in. Trailer is here. That Sergio Leone classic was Elam's first foray into the spaghetti western. It was followed by another Italian picture called Sonora (1969). Watch and listen to the groovy opening ballad from that B-film here and another piece of footage here.
Many of the comedy westerns with Elam, and there were several, were rather labored. That changed with a winning James Garner vehicle, Support Your Local Sheriff (1969). I have nothing profound or amusing to say about it. It's just a really funny movie. Watch a clip featuring Bruce Dern, Garner and Elam here. The same company of actors got together in 1971 for Support Your Local Gunfighter, another hilarious western take-off. Although it had an identical cast, director and similar name, it was not a sequel and each actor played a new character. Both pictures were made by veteran western director Burt Kennedy, who would go on to make your favorite movie, Suburban Commando (1991). If you can believe it, that movie featured Jack Elam as well.
The Last Rebel (1971) teamed Jack Elam with football superstar, Joe Namath. Three movies were made in the early seventies in an attempt to launch the wooden star of the New York Jets to Hollywood stardom. C.C. and Company (1970) was one of the final entries in the "biker film" genre, and failed to convince that Namath could be anything but a square. Norwood (1970) starred the trio of Namath, Glen Campbell and Dom DeLuise. Its advertising copy bragged, "Its Goodtime Glen and and Super Joe ... Doin what they do best!" So, from that we can gauge that they do not actually act in the movie. The Last Rebel has a prominent comment on its IMDB page from a viewer who states, "The worst movie ever made, it gave me syphilis." Another contributor wrote in bold, "The producers of this horse dung should be incarcerated." For my money, however, the greatest movie from the football player turned actor school of filmmaking remains The Black Six (1974). That blaxploitation classic featured six different NFL stars (including Gene Washington who, years later, was Condoleezza Rice's date at a reception for the Queen). Other NFL players in The Black Six include Lem Barney, Mean Joe Greene, Willie Lanier, Mercury Morris and Carl Eller. Watch two clips from The Black Six, both totally unrelated to Jack Elam, here and here. Also unrelated is C.C. and Company in ten parts. Check out part one, two and three and I'm sure you can find the other seven parts on your own if you so desire.
Burt Kennedy enlisted Jack to join him again, later in the year, for a grim and rather sexual western starring Raquel Welch titled Hannie Caulder. I think the poster kinda speaks for itself. The opening sequence is here. Jack made countless more westerns in the seventies (like Sam Peckinpah's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid), but no matter what, he still set time aside every couple of years for a piece of drive-in camp (perhaps because he knew it would make Kliph Nesteroff salivate). Creature From Black Lake (1976) is a drool inducing piece of garbage that had me sold from the title alone. The picture is in the Bigfoot (1970), Legend of Boggy Creek (1973), Sasquatch: The Legend of Bigfoot (1977) and Crater Lake Monster (1977) vein. Although Hannie Caulder may have been the most sexually charged film Elam ever appeared in, it is actually Creature From Black Lake that, for me, instills a ninety-minute hard-on. Watch a clip of it here. Also the trailer for Bigfoot, the trailer for Legend of Boggy Creek and the trailer for Sasquatch.
Soggy Bottom USA (1980) was another hillbilly filled drive-in picture made in between another hundred westerns. Elam was the perfect actor to portray a backwoods inbred. The movie's poster described the film as, "A moonshine swillin' romp in the swamp." Again, I'm sold. From the same director as the first Elvis car racing film, Spinout (1966).
Jack Elam's filmography is simply too enormous to cover completely. It is immense. He was inducted into The Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1994. His last role was a made-for-television Bonanza movie in 1995. He retired to his ranch in Oregon and died of heart failure in 2003. No, I haven't given too much information about Jack Elam's life outside of the movies. That's because movies were his life. Jack Elam was fantastic.
1Bob Newhart also started as an accountant. That's showbiz, baby.
2There are three different, unrelated pictures with the title Dracula vs. Frankenstein. The most famous was made by talentless schlockmeister Al Adamson. The Dracula vs. Frankenstein referenced here was made by Hugo Fregonese and was originally released under the title Los Monstruous del terror in 1970.