Tuesday, April 7, 2015

James Best (1926-2015)

Twilight Zone screencap from the Shadow & Substance blog (thenightgallery.wordpress.com
The other day I was watching Apache Drums (1951), a Hugo Fregonese western that was producer Val Lewton's last film. Early on a young man volunteers on what will prove a suicide mission. As soon as the actor spoke I recognized him as James Best, then nearly as young as I've ever seen him in movies. Best was going on 25 at the time and had only been making movies for about a year, including a small role in Winchester '73. Over the past couple of years I've watched a lot of movie and TV westerns from the genre's classic era. During that time I learned to appreciate Best as a welcome name in the credits. His versatile work as a character actor redeemed a performer I once despised by association with a show I despised and for which he'll regrettably be best remembered. On The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85) his Rosco P. Coltrane was a one-note clown who struck me as not just a poor man's Buford T. Justice (and that's starting poor) but an even poorer man's Sheriff Lobo, since Claude Akins, one of Best's classic-era peers, was also toiling thanklessly on redneck TV at the time. Best had his chance at bigger things. He came closest to genuine movie stardom in 1959 when he was top billed in Samuel Fuller's Verboten! and Ray Kellogg's The Killer Shrews. Of course the latter film is better remembered, thanks partly to Mystery Science Theater 3000. It's so well remembered that Best recreated his role in perhaps the most belated movie sequel ever, released in 2012. That was his penultimate film according to IMDB, but he was scheduled to appear in a new film before pneumonia claimed him this spring. Nearly everything he made had at least him going for it. To honor his memory, watch anything but the Dukes.

1 comment:

hobbyfan said...

Just you wait. As you say, James Best was more than just Rosco P. Coltrane. He did quite a bit of TV in the early days. I have plans to do an obit of my own later, involving Best's appearances on The Andy Griffith Show that demonstrate an otherwise hidden talent.