Notable Oregonians: Jack Elam - Actor

Photo of Jack Elam in a cowboy hat.
Jack Elam (
William Scott "
Jack" Elam was born on November 13, 1920 in Miami, Arizona to Alice and Millard Elam. His mother died when he was two and Jack lost his left eye in a fight when he was 12. He studied accounting in California and landed related jobs with Bank of America and Standard Oil before serving two years in the Navy during World War II.  After the war, Elam opened his own accounting business in Los Angeles, where many of his clients worked in the film industry. During this time,  Elam developed an interest in acting and got his chance in movies when he helped a director secure funding for a film in exchange for Elam playing the bad guy.

Elam's film and television career spanned from 1949 to 1995, during which he acted in about 100 films and about 200 television episodes. His movie credits include Once Upon a Time in the West, High Noon, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral , Kiss Me Deadly and Rio Lobo. He acted with John Wayne, Henry Fonda, Frank Sinatra, James Garner and many other top Hollywood stars, usually playing a villain. Elam's frequent appearances on television included more than 20 episodes of the Western Gunsmoke

A review of one of his early films, Rawhide, by the New York Times described "a maniacal henchman, played with great disagreeable effect by Jack Elam." A reporter once commented on Elam's signature look and what appeared to be his dramatic control of his blind left eye. Elam replied that "I don't control it at all, it does whatever the hell it wants."

Interestingly, after showing off his wit and timing spoofing his villainy in the James Garner Western film comedies Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and Support Your Local Gunfighter (1971), Elam was offered roles in many more comedies later in his career. Still, he had been so believable as a villain that some people felt compelled to respond when they saw him in real life. He once told a newspaper reporter that "a lot of women have come and whacked me with a purse over something they've seen me do in a movie."

Elam moved from California to Ashland, Oregon in 1990. He died there on October 20, 2003 and was survived by his second wife and three children.

His New York Times obituary noted that Elam's "bulging eye and precise acting skills transformed him from an accountant into one of the movies' most identifiable villains."

(Sources: New York Times obituary | | Wikipedia) 

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