James Drury

James Drury
James Drury

James Drury was born in 1934.   He is prinarily best known for his title role in the popular 1960’s television series “The Virginian”.   His films include “Love Me Tender” and “Pollyanna” in 1960.   James Drury died in 2020.

Obituary in “The Telegraph” in 2020.

James Drury, the actor, who has died aged 85, played the eponymous hero of The Virginian, the popular 1960s television series billed as “Tales from the last frontier of the great American West”.

As foreman of the Shiloh Ranch in turn-of-the-century Wyoming, Drury’s character, invariably sporting the same black hat, was the embodiment of the values of the Old West, coping not just with rustlers and outlaws but also the existential threat of incoming Easterners upsetting the traditional cattleman’s way of life.

The first Western series to be broadcast in 90-minute episodes – which meant there was room for meaty guest roles for stars such as Bette Davis and Lee Marvin – The Virginian ran for almost a decade from 1962.

It was Drury’s good fortune that the producers felt a relative unknown was needed to play the enigmatic hero, whose name was never divulged – friend and foe alike would greet him with a cry of “Hey, Virginian!” – and who rarely revealed details about his past, with the result that the character had much of the enticing air of mystery that would characterise Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” later in the decade.

Drury’s laconic performance convincingly conveyed both the character’s toughness and his decency, and he formed a fine double-act with Doug McClure as his more happy-go-lucky sidekick, Trampas. He was an early crush for many young female viewers in both the US and Britain, where the programme was shown on Friday nights on BBC One for many years.     

Later on its popularity flagged and, retitled The Men from Shiloh in its final year in an attempt to freshen it up, it was axed in 1971, to Drury’s regret: “I felt very sad … I would have gone on for another 10 years.”

James Child Drury Jr was born in New York on April 18 1934, the son of James Child and his wife Beatrice (née Crawford). His mother’s family had a ranch in Oregon, where his grandfather, a former cowboy and dirt farmer, taught him to ride and shoot, and told him tales of the Old West: “I was very proud to use some of his mannerisms and expressions in The Virginian.”

He fell in love with acting aged eight when he played Herod for his local children’s theatre group’s Christmas play, and after recovering from a bout of polio made his professional debut at 12 in a touring production of Life with Father.

He was expelled from University High School, Los Angeles, the day before he was due to graduate, but his father, who was a professor of marketing at New York University, pulled strings to enable him to enrol.

In the event, he did not complete his studies, having been offered a contract by MGM. He played bit parts in Blackboard Jungle (1955) and Forbidden Planet (1956) before being dropped, and then signed up to 20th Century Fox, for whom he played opposite Pat Boone in Bernardine (1957) and as one of Elvis Presley’s brothers in the King’s debut film Love Me Tender (1956).

He was dropped again but found plenty of work in television, particularly supporting roles in Western series such as Gunsmoke and Rawhide, for which he was in demand as the possessor of genuine riding skills: “Most of the actors would lie about it, and the posse would ride off in all directions,” he recalled.

He had a juicy role as a boozy villain in Sam Peckinpah’s film Ride the High Country (1962), but before his movie career could take off he was cast in The Virginian. Although he looked the part he had little experience in the art of screen fighting, and left Hugh O’Brian, who was the guest star in The Virginian’s first episode, badly bruised.

In his spare time he played with a band, the Wilshire Boulevard Buffalo Hunters, who spent three weeks in Vietnam playing for US troops in 1966.

After The Virginian finished he worked mainly in the theatre; his television comeback as a fireman in Firehouse (1974) was short-lived because, as he recalled, every episode comprised “three disasters in 21 minutes” and there was no time for viewers to get to know the characters.

Thereafter he became a successful horse breeder and, after moving to Texas, made a great deal of money in oil, although he missed showbusiness. In 2000 he had a cameo in a television movie remake of The Virginian starring Bill Pullman.

He was delighted by the continuing popularity of repeat showings of The Virginian and was a fixture at Western conventions, where fans found him, in contrast with his most famous role, voluble and relaxed.

After two marriages that ended in divorce, James Drury’s third marriage, to Carl Ann Head, endured for 40 years until her death last year. He is survived by two sons, two stepsons and a stepdaughter.

James Drury, born April 18 1934, died April 6 2020

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