JAMES DRURY: Well, it was the third-longest-running western. GUNSMOKE and BONANZA ran longer than we did, so I think that’s a pretty good record, and we’re happy with that.
Monday, April 13, 2020
MY INTERVIEW WITH JAMES DRURY
By Henry C. Parke
Conducted Wednesday, January 6th, 2016
“People say, are you retired? I tell them no, I’m not retired; I just can’t get a job. That’s really the truth. I would go to work tomorrow if somebody had a job for me. “
We lost James Drury on April 6th. He was 85. His wife of forty years, Carl Ann Head, had died this past August. Drury so epitomized the character of The Virginian, the decent, savvy, supremely competent, private man, that it’s hard to compare him to anyone on television except -for James Arness as Matt Dillon. If you can play someone that well for 249 90-minute episodes, you’re doing something right.
Over the years I’d been to a number of events that he’d attended, and had tried to set up an interview. Finally, in January of 2016, I succeeded. We both had gone to New York University, which was interesting in his case because James Drury didn’t actually graduate from high school.
JAMES DRURY: I had been expelled from high school on the last day of the year, in fact, the day before graduation. I hollered in an assembly – that was the extent of my crime. They had the guys come and get me out of the assembly and take me outside, and they told me I was never going to graduate from University High School; they were going to keep my diploma in a safe, and I might be able to get it in ten years or something. My father did go back and get it a long time later; we had a ceremony when we got it out.
HENRY PARKE: From there you went to New York University. I guess it helped that your father was a Professor there.
JAMES DRURY: Of Marketing and Advertising. My dad said, well, you can go to NYU.
HENRY PARKE: Where you didn’t study Marketing and Advertising, but Drama.
JAMES DRURY: They were teaching the classics – Shakespeare and Shaw and Barrie; all the great playwrights. I worked in the classics for three years. I had been working in summer stock for two years, and at the end of my junior year I took a vacation, out to California to see my mother for a couple of weeks. I had done an audition for a talent scout at Loew’s Incorporated, which was M.G.M., in New York, for a man named Dudley Wilkinson. And I didn’t think he was very interested, because he was having his shoes shined throughout the entire audition. But apparently, he called M.G.M. on the coast, and they called me when I got to my mother’s house, and said come in, we want to meet with you. That next day they signed me to a contract for seven years: I thought this was just great. Of course, after the first year they dropped me. (laughs) Then I signed a seven-year contract with 20th Century Fox, and at the end of two years they dropped me. At M.G.M. I did seven pictures, and I had about twelve lines altogether, just tiny little bit parts. When I got to Fox, I played Elvis Presley’s brother in LOVE ME TENDER, Pat Boone’s brother in BERNADINE. Then I got a good role as a cavalry lieutenant in THE LAST WAGON, with Richard Widmark, Felicia Farr and Nick Adams. It was really a classic Western, and did very well. (Writer/Director) Delmer Daves was particularly great with cavalry stuff, because he knew all about how the cavalry was supposed to work and form, so we truly looked like the American cavalry of that time. I was just thrilled with that, but then they dropped me.
So I was on the open market. I did three or four RAWHIDES, I did five of the GUNSMOKES, HAVE GUN WILL TRAVEL, I did TRACKDOWN with Robert Culp, THE REBEL, MAN WITHOUT A GUN, with Rex Reason.
HENRY PARKE: That’s a lot of Westerns.
JAMES DRURY: I got cast in a lot of Westerns because I had a western background. I had my own horse from the time I was about twelve years old, and been raised around horses and cattle, so I had skills that a lot of other guys didn’t have. And when I moved to Texas, I really became a horseman. I had a lot of great professional trainers who were delighted to work with me, and let me ride their million-dollar horses, and I got to the point where I consider myself a horseman now. And I went through the dressage and all the other disciplines, and started winning cutting horse competitions and reining horse competitions and playing polo and jumping.
HENRY PARKE: When did you move to Texas?
JAMES DRURY: I met a lady, and about two days later I said, where do you want to live? And she said I live in Houston. That was the end of that discussion, and we’re still on our honeymoon.
HENRY PARKE: What year was that?
JAMES DRURY: We married in 1979; actually we were together for about four years before that, so around 1975. We’re just together like two halves of a pair of scissors. And we’re still together and very happy.
HENRY PARKE: Back when you were doing episodic TV, before THE VIRGINIAN, you played a lot of villains. Which is more fun? Playing a hero like The Virginian, or bad guys?
JAMES DRURY: Well, the villains in a piece are usually the more complex characters, and they’re usually more fun to put together, because you don’t have any restrictions on your social behavior – a villain can do anything he wants to do. So I had a lot of fun playing those characters. But it’s two sides of the same coin; because you have to have a villain, and you have a protagonist who can counterpunch the villains. That’s what makes the drama, and I just love playing both sides of the coin. I had a lot of fun playing the villains, and when they started getting me to play heroes, they wouldn’t let me play villains anymore. Until many years later, I got to play a couple of villains for David Carradine, on KUNG FU – THE LEGEND CONTINUES. I went to Canada and did a couple of those, and played some really bad guys, and had fun with those. That was great. I’m still anxious to play either heroes or villains, whatever people will give me a job for.
HENRY PARKE: You’ve played a lot of George Bernard Shaw. What were your favorite Shaw roles?
JAMES DRURY: Probably Marchbanks in Candida. And I loved playing Don Juan in Don Juan in Hell. I was able to do a full production of that in Dallas, right after I moved to Texas. I’ve had lot of fun with Shaw, and I admire him so much. It’s amazing how he had a definite socialist political agenda, but he was able write plays that appealed to everybody. Anybody who reads Shaw will see the definite political leaning, but his characters were all everyman and everywoman, and that’s what sets him apart. I think Shaw and Shakespeare are the greatest playwrights in the English language that have ever come along.
HENRY PARKE: I was recently watching a movie you did before THE VIRGINIAN, RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY.
JAMES DRURY: Wonderful movie – and that was when Sam Peckinpah was just getting started. He was just marvelous in everything he did. And inventive – we’d sit around when we weren’t working, and watch him direct, because he came up with such great ideas for everybody. He was a visionary. Then he got into the vodka I guess, after a while, and became real mean and unpredictable, and I heard some bad stories about him later. But he was wonderful to work with when I worked with him, and I’d been working with him for years. In fact, when I did that TRACKDOWN with Robert Culp, Peckinpah had written that (RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY) script, so we met at that time, and got to be friends from then on. Originally, he had wanted Robert Culp for my part. And Robert Culp’s agent said no, we don’t want Robert playing a bad guy, so he got me, and I was able to play the part with great gusto, and I surely did enjoy that. We got into a snow-storm up in the mountains, and then they had to use artificial snow down in the mine camp. They had fire-hoses full of soap-suds sprayed up on the side of the hill to give the illusion of snow. That’s the definition of acting, to create the not reality, but the illusion of reality. And that’s what’s so wonderful about the profession of acting: you have a chance to create those illusions. If people believe you, then you have done your job. And that’s what we all strive for. Spencer Tracy said, “Acting is a great profession if you don’t get caught at it.” And every time you see a performance by a man or woman, on the screen or in the theatre, where you become aware of the fact that they’re acting, they got caught acting. And we all get caught, but you try to minimize that as much as possible. That’s the main challenge to being an actor, but it’s a worthwhile challenge, one that good actors relish, and one that I certainly enjoy.
HENRY PARKE: You also starred in a string of films for Walt Disney.
JAMES DRURY: I enjoyed POLLYANA, and I enjoyed the one about the circus, TOBY TYLER. I shot that chimpanzee out of the tree, and I’ll never live that down. People come up to me right now and say, why did you shoot that chimp? It was a big mistake, folks; I’m real sorry about that. I also did a couple of ELFAGO BACAs with Robert Loggia, who we just lost (in 2015).
HENRY PARKE: Shortly before you did THE VIRGINIAN, you starred in an excellent pilot, THE YANK, which was going to be the companion show for THE REBEL. I was surprised that it didn’t go.
JAMES DRURY: That was the year that the networks all went from half-hour western shows to hour western shows. And we were a half an hour. We could have expanded it to an hour easily, but they just didn’t buy it. And it was a little jewel of a show – it was beautifully written and directed. I also made a half-an-hour pilot for THE VIRGINIAN, playing the Virginian, for Screen Gems, Columbia Studios. That had been about three years before, in ’58 or ’59. We had a good little half hour show. The Virginian was treated far differently than he was in the show we finally wound up doing, but the characters was basically the same. The costumes were all different – they made a southern dandy out of him. He had a shirt with frilly cuffs and a frilly front, and was very much the southern gentleman. Way back then in the fifties, they were afraid of too much emphasis on guns. So they had me wear a little bitty gun. It was a six-shooter, but it probably shot a .22 or .25 caliber slug, and I wore it on my belt, very unobtrusively. But we still used it the same way, and I would have gone to a .45 if we had (been picked up). But again, that didn’t sell, and we were able to do the 90-minute version.
HENRY PARKE: How did you get the role of The Virginian?
JAMES DRURY: I had signed one more seven-year contract, with Universal Studios, and I had no assignment; they just signed me to a contract as a stock player. And then they told me about a month later to come in and test for the role of The Virginian. I’m sure they had that in mind all along. But I didn’t know that when I signed the contract, or I would have asked for a lot more money. (laughs) Anyway, they tested me for the role, and their only comment was, you’re too fat: go lose some weight. So, I lost about ten pounds and tested again. They said, you’re too fat: go lose some weight. So I lost thirty pounds in thirty days. I ate a head of lettuce every other day, I ran it off on the Los Angeles River; worked out twice a day, really concentrated on it, and I got way, way down. I had to test three times. The third test they didn’t really make a comment at all. They just didn’t tell me to lose any more weight. And so I figured well, I got that part done. And then on the Friday night before the Monday morning that we started to shoot, they informed me and Doug McClure that we had the parts of the Virginian and Trampas. They didn’t give us any real warning at all, but of course we’d been thinking about it for quite a while – Doug had been testing, too. We started then, and nine years later we were done. We never got the memo. You couldn’t do THE VIRGINIAN: it was logistically impossible. It’s still logistically impossible, but we did it anyway. It really did require a lot of concentration and dedication to get the thing right. We just worked on it with everything we had, and never worried about what time it was, and we got it done.
HENRY PARKE: What was an average work-week like for you and Doug?
JAMES DRURY: You’d get there at 6:30 or seven o’clock in the morning, and usually get out of the studio by about eight or nine o’clock at night. You’d do that five days a week. We used to work Saturdays, but it had just changed, so you had Saturday and Sunday off to recuperate and learn the next week’s script. And I had the gift of being able to do that with great facility. You had multiple units working all the time, to meet the air-dates. We took eight days to make one, and we used one up every five days. One memorable day I worked on five different episodes of THE VIRGINIAN. I went from soundstage to soundstage to the backlot to soundstage to the backlot again. That will really test your memory and your mettle, to try and make sure you doing the right thing at the right time in the right episode without making any mistakes. I was able to do that, so I think I’m justifiably proud of that record, and I don’t think it will ever be matched.
HENRY PARKE: No, not when a TV season now consists of, like, nine episodes.
JAMES DRURY: That’s right. First couple of years I think we made thirty-three shows a year, then we made thirty, then we made twenty-six. But I don’t think we ever made less than twenty-six in all the years we were on the air, which was nine seasons, including the final season, where they changed the name to THE MEN FROM SHILOH. Which seemed like a good idea at the time, but everybody was looking for THE VIRGINIAN, and they couldn’t find it. And they never heard of THE MEN FROM SHILOH, so it went off the air. It was a good idea that didn’t work. But I was in favor of it at the time, so I have no one to blame but myself. I don’t blame anybody; everything runs its course.
HENRY PARKE: Nine seasons is a pretty terrific run.
JAMES DRURY: Well, it was the third-longest-running western. GUNSMOKE and BONANZA ran longer than we did, so I think that’s a pretty good record, and we’re happy with that.
HENRY PARKE: Who were your favorite guest stars?
JAMES DRURY: That would be hard to say because every week I knew I was going down the hill and going to work with somebody wonderful. And we had Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, George C. Scott, Robert Redford. Harrison Ford actually played a small role in THE VIRGINIAN. Vera Miles did several of the shows. Ralph Bellamy – the list goes on and on and on. Suffice it to say that there were 249 guest stars, and they all had a chance to do a great, complex role, and I think that’s what people respond to. Because we literally made a movie every week. 79 minutes and thirty seconds worth of film, which is as long as a lot of feature films today. That’s really the key to our success then, and the fact that people have responded so well to it in reruns.
HENRY PARKE: During the run of the show, more than one man owned Shiloh. You’ve said that Lee J. Cobb was your favorite, but what did you think of Charles Bickford, John McIntire, and Stewart Granger?
JAMES DRURY: After Cobb we got John Dehner – which everybody forgets. He was a great actor, I got along wonderfully with him. He told me to quit drinking, and I told him to mind his own business. He proved to be right; I finally did quit drinking later. In fact I’ve been sober 35 years; but that’s the work of my wife, Carl Ann. She told me she loved me but if I didn’t quit she was going to leave me. And by God, that got my attention, so I was finally able to quit. But I drank an awful lot during the show. You never would see it in the show that I know of, but people were concerned, and then people were complaining. You get enough complaints, you take some action. I thought John Dehner was great, and then one day he was gone, and I think that’s when Bickford came in. And of course, Bickford couldn’t be better – he was perfect for the role, and perfect for that position. And he loved doing it, and died on the show. He finished the show on a Friday night, went home, and died on Sunday morning. He had pneumonia, and we didn’t know it. We knew he was sick. He insisted on staying on a cold night and finishing out his work on that show, and then he never came back. Then we got the McIntires. Jeanette Nolan, John McIntyre’s wife, had been one of the leading characters in the half-hour version of THE VIRGINIAN that I’d done for Screen Gems, and we’d worked in other shows, too; I’d done an ALFRED HITCHCOCK with her, so we were good friends. And John McIntire was a big part of THE YANK, that Andy Fenady did as a spin-off of THE REBEL. He was the old doctor. So I was very close friends with both of them, and when they came on, it was wonderful. We had a great run with them, and would continue with them for a long time. Then they changed the show, and brought on Stewart Granger. And since I have nothing nice to say about him, I won’t say anything. Okay?
HENRY PARKE: Okay! Do you have any favorite episodes?
JAMES DRURY: I liked an awful lot of them; we watched one the other night that I hadn’t seen in a long time. It was called LAST GRAVE AT SOCORRO CREEK. It was with Kevin Coughlin, and the guy who played the villain was a good friend of mine, Steve Inhat. But the ones that stand out, there’s two that were great little stories. One was FELICITY’S SPRING, with Katherine Crawford. Because of the nature of the show, I always had to have my fiancé or loved one go off and die in the 89th minute, just before the end of the show, so I could have another girlfriend the next week. She died of an unknown, strange disease, just before I married her. That one, and THE MOUNTAIN OF THE SUN.
HENRY PARKE: For much of the series you had Clu Gulager as a co-star. What was he like to work with?
JAMES DRURY: He’s wonderful. Clu is always interesting. He always does things that surprise you. Every time I had a scene with him, we had sparks fly, and we created the illusion of reality. It just pays to sit down and watch Clu and see what he’s going to do next. And of course, Doug McClure and I became very close friends, and got closer and closer as the show went on. You do form some great friendships on shows like that, because you’ve been through the fire together.
HENRY PARKE: Was there much concern about sticking close to the novel THE VIRGINIAN?
JAMES DRURY: We went far afield from the story of THE VIRGINIAN. The book published in 1902 by Owen Wister was the first literary western. Before that, western stories had mostly been dime novels like. He was truly a literary author, and a highly educated man; I think he was from Philadelphia. Of course, he became friends with Teddy Roosevelt, and went out to Wyoming with Roosevelt on a major hunting trip, and I guess that’s when he stayed and decided to write about the Wyoming cowboy. I always thought that elements of THE VIRGINIAN have been influential in many, many westerns. For example, you look at the Spaghetti Westerns that Clint Eastwood did in the early days, in Italy and Spain. ‘The man with no name’ and PALE RIDER all bears a debt to THE VIRGINIAN, because that’s where the idea of the no-name cowboy came from. I always thought that was a wonderful device, because it gives you an air of mystery that you don’t have to do anything to achieve: it’s built into the part. If you walk into a room and someone says behind their hand, there’s the Virginian over there, well, all of a sudden you’re mysterious. And if you’re mysterious, it becomes interesting. I think that’s one of the reasons Clu is so interesting is he’s mysterious. I mean that as a compliment. Because you don’t know what Clu’s going to do next, and that’s a mystery. It creates definite interest. I think that many, many westerns, THE PLAINSMAN, THE KENTUCKIAN, all of those great pictures bear a debt of gratitude to that original book by Owen Wister. In the confines of a television show, we couldn’t really stay with the characters the way they were in the book. Trampas and Steve would have died in the first episode. So we made leading men out of them because no one man could do all the leading man roles. Doug had to do his share, and Steve did his share because I couldn’t be everywhere every day. There weren’t enough hours in the day to do it, so we just had to make it work.
HENRY PARKE: Between all of the Western events and Veteran Charity events, I guess you spend a lot of your life on planes.
JAMES DRURY: I don’t fly; I drive everywhere. I quit flying in ’78, simply because I don’t want to put up with people telling to take my boots off, or pat me down. I don’t take kindly to that, and I’m likely to get into a big roaring fight, even today with anybody who tells me to do that. It’s like touching my hat. So I stay out of airports. I just drive up the road, and nobody bothers me. I can go anywhere I want and take my guns with me, and that’s the way it should be.
HENRY PARKE: I understand you’re a Navy veteran.
JAMES DRURY: Yes, I was given a direct commission in the Navy during the Vietnam War. They made a Lieutenant Commander out of me, and I traveled for the Navy for public relations purposes all over the world. It was a great experience, and I was very honored to be chosen.
HENRY PARKE: Was this after THE VIRGINIAN?
JAMES DRURY: It was during THE VIRGINIAN. I went to Vietnam in 1966, took my own USO unit over there. I had already been commissioned in the Navy, but I didn’t travel for the Navy, I was travelling for the USO at that time, just like a Bob Hope tour, but not as elaborate But we played all over that country for 28 days. From Huay in the north down to Fuqua Island off the southern tip of Vietnam. We played for three guys in a fox-hole and fifteen thousand guys in an airbase. I had two girl dancers, and they did two or three numbers, and I had a couple of western musicians, and we would tell some jokes, and then the girls would dance, we’d tell some more jokes, and they’d dance some more. And we were a big hit everywhere we’d go, because most of those guys hadn’t seen an American girl in a long, long time. That was a seminal experience as well, being over there, seeing that war up close and personal. We traveled mainly in those de Havilland Doves, those short take-off and landing airplanes. Those farmers would pick up their rifles and take a shot at us. But none of them were duck-hunters, and they’d always hit us in the tail of the airplane. We’d hear a bang, and there’d be a hole is the sheet-metal in the tail of the airplane. But it never hurt the airplane any. We got fired on a lot, but nothing that gave us any trouble.
HENRY PARKE: It’s a little surprising that a New York boy should grow up to became famous as a Western icon.
JAMES DRURY: My dad was teaching at NYU, and my mother was running the family ranch in Oregon. They’d get together in the summer time, and Christmas and Easter. But her father, my grandfather, was the main male figure in my life growing up. He had me shooting when I was six years old, and had me on the back of one of his Belgian plow-horses when I was two or three – that’s one of my earliest memories. The horse’s back was so broad my legs stood straight out in both directions. I loved the feel of it and the heat of it, and the dust, and the smell of the horse, and I wouldn’t come down all day. He was an Oregon rancher and a dirt farmer, a great character, and a great example of a frontiersman and a pioneer. The kind of man that won the west. So I grew up with that, and that informed a lot of what I did, as The Virginian. I tried to represent the working cowboy, and I’ve been told by working cowboys that I did good, so that’s also a big feather in my cap, coming from those guys.
HENRY PARKE: Growing up, were there any cowboy actors that you admired?
JAMES DRURY: Well, of course everyone admired John Wayne and Roy Rogers and Gene Autry. I used to go to the Saturday afternoon serials and see them. Loved them all. I admired Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, and I got to work with them, so that was another milestone for me, in RIDE THE HIGH COUNTRY. I’ve been extremely lucky. I may be one of the luckiest men who ever lived – that’s what I take away from it.
THE VIRGINIAN airs seven days a week on INSP, and weekdays on STARZ ENCORE WESTERNS.
And here’s that pilot of THE YANK.
‘OUTLAWS’ AND ‘TRAPPED IN TIJUANA’ -- DVD REVIEWS
In 1960, NBC premiered an hour-long Western series, OUTLAWS, with the original premise of being a Western crime show that focused on the criminals, although the regulars were all lawmen. Featuring long-time Warner Brothers tough-guy Barton MacLane, of MALTESE FALCON and TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE; and Don Collier, who would become the foreman of THE HIGH CHAPARRAL, and appear in a slew of feature Westerns, the show ran only two seasons, and produced only fifty episodes. Alpha Video has released a pair of episodes, and they are unusual dramas well worth watching.
In the grim but moving pilot, THIRTY A MONTH, the accidental death of a cowhand moves his fellow drovers to consider more promising lines of work, including robbery. But trail-boss Rance (Steve Forrest) has saved his wages for ten years, and is about to buy a piece of land. When his bank folds, his mind snaps, and he leads drovers Robert Culp, Warren Oates and Garry Walberg on an ill-fated train robbery.
In the series’ third episode, BEAT THE DRUM SLOWLY, drovers Vic Morrow and Dean Jones first lose their boss’ money to roulette wheel, then when they win it back, the place is robbed, their winnings are gone, and they are lured by slimy Ray Walston into a heist to get the money back. Even with just these two strong episodes, the weakness of the premise is obvious: if we’re going to spend an hour with criminals, we have to acre about them, hence the stories tend to be full of extenuating circumstances, and takes of otherwise good men forced into crime. But these two episodes are quite good.
OUTLAWS lists for $7.98. Alpha Video/Oldies.com is currently shut down due to the Coronavirus, but when they reopen, it can be purchased HERE.
A movie which could only be embraced by Duncan Renaldo completists, TRAPPED IN TIJUANA (1932) opens with some promise. Early in the 20th century, at a United States Fort near the Mexican border, the General’s tiny twin sons are playing when a Yaqui bandit, played exuberantly by Frank Lanning, swipes one of the boys, who is never heard from again. Jump ahead twenty years, and unless you’ve never seen any movie involving separated twins, you will be able to guess everything that happens to the two brothers, played by Duncan Renaldo, for an excruciating sixty minutes. Renaldo does as well as he can with what he’s given to work with, and there is some fun to seeing him play two roles. His co-star is lovely Edwina Booth, with whom he had starred the previous year in the M.G.M. hit TRADER HORN. It would be her last movie, after which she would be bed-ridden for five years as a result of illnesses contracted while filming TRADER HORN in Africa. It would be Renaldo's last film before being arrested and imprisoned for two years for entering the country illegally. This poverty row effort from Fanchon Royer, one of the few women to successfully produce movies in the 1930s, was based on a story idea from cowboy actor Rex Lease, who stuck to acting after this one. It’s available for $7.98 from Alpha Video/Oldies.com, once they reopen, HERE.
…ONE MORE THING!
If you’re a fan of silent movies, and want to see then they way they should be seen, with a live musical accompaniment, here’s great news: Retroformat Silent Films is joining forces with Flicker Alley, Lobster Films and Blackhawk Films to bring you a new weekly silent film simulcast, featuring live musical accompaniment by Retroformat Musical Director Cliff Retallick! Join them by clicking the link below on Monday, April 13, 2020 at 7:00 p.m. PDT for two hilarious Charlie Chaplin short films: "The Masquerader" (1914) and "One A.M." (1916):
AND THAT’S A WRAP!
All Original Material Copyright April 2020 by Henry C. Parke – All Rights Reserved