Jack Elam was one of the most widely recognized character actors who worked in film and television during his five-decade career beginning in the 1950’s. Born in Arizona 100 years ago on 11/13/1920, after graduating high school Elam moved to Los Angeles and enrolled in Santa Monica Junior College. After serving two years in the US Navy during WWII, he embarked on a career as an accountant. By chance, Samuel Goldwyn was one of his bookkeeping clients, and Elam was able to parlay the connection into his first role in acting. Elam became well-known for playing villains in dozens of Westerns and gangster stories popular during that period. He played his desperados with an air of crazy, accentuated by his physical appearance.
As a youth, Elam lost the use of his left eye after being stabbed in it with a pencil during a fight with another Boy Scout from his troop. Later in his career, Elam played a wider range of roles, including comedic performances in films such as Support your Local Sheriff, Support your Local Gunfighter and The Cannonball Run. The contribution of character actors is often overlooked in Hollywood’s paparazzi culture, lost in the shadow of the bright lights trained on headliners. However, good character actors are highly regarded by their fellow actors, and often enjoy long careers that span decades.
“I could sneak up on a coyote if I’ve a mind to.” – Jack Elam