William Scott Elam, professionally known as Jack Elam was born on November 13th 1920 and grew up picking cotton and lost the sight in his left eye during a boyhood accident when he was stabbed with a pencil at a Boy Scout meeting. He was a student at both Miami High School in Gila County and Phoenix Union High School in Maricopa County, graduating from there in the late 1930’s.
During World War II, he served two years in the United States Navy. Following the war, Elam worked as a bookkeeper for Samuel Goldwyn Studios and then as controller for William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy production company. Staring at small figures on ledger sheets for hours on end strained his good eye and doctors told him he risked losing his sight if he continued his lucrative accounting business. When a movie director friend was having trouble getting financing for three western scripts, Elam told him he would arrange the financing in exchange for roles as a “heavy” in all three pictures.
The heavy today is usually not my kind of guy. In the old days, Rory Calhoun was the hero because he was the hero and I was the heavy because I was the heavy – and nobody cared what my problem was. And I didn’t either. I robbed the bank because I wanted the money. I’ve played all kinds of weirdos but I’ve never done the quiet, sick type. I never had a problem – other than the fact I was just bad.
In 1949, Elam made his debut in She Shoulda Said No!, an exploitation film where a chorus girl’s marijuana smoking ruins her career and drives her brother to suicide.
He then appeared in the first of his promised “heavy” roles in 1950’s The Sundowners, starring Robert Preston. This led to a stream of playing villains in westerns and gangster films/tv shows including High Noon, Gunsmoke, The Rifleman, Lawman, Bonanza, Cheyenne, Have Gun Will Travel, Zorro, The Lone Ranger and Rawhide.
With regard to High Noon, Elam was not initially cast. After the movie concluded after the first cut, the filmmakers realized the climactic gunfight didn’t work. They resumed production with Cooper and the now new cast member Elam:
“I knew him [Cooper] very well… They also had some extras in the bar. We went back to he jail cell and did a few shots of me in the cell with Cooper walking around and seeing me in there snoring. And then they did a shot where he lets me out of jail, and I go into the bar, people are coming out because it’s high noon. They did about a full minute of me in the bar doing my drunken clown act. I’m taking drinks and putting drinks under my arms and all that. They were going to cut back and forth between me and the gunfight. But then they turned the picture loose with the regular gunfight before they added our stuff, and it got rave reviews. so they never put that stuff in. The only part they put in was to establish who I was. And the only thing you see of me in the bar was when I was going in and everyone else was coming out. The credits were already written up when I went to work. They didn’t bother to put mine in, and that’s why I didn’t get the credit. But I was very happy because I got to work two days, and there was about a half a day with Cooper and me. And what a gentleman he was! There was about a day of me going into the bar and then of me just wandering around the bar. I understand there are some videocassettes of “High Noon” – but I don’t think you can buy them in a store – where those scenes of mine are included in the outtakes, but I have never seen them. The last thing you see of me in the movie is when I’m going in the bar and the people are rushin.”
Upon reflecting on his 1957 movie Night Passage, Elam said: “It was a payday, but I could have done without it.”
In 1961, Elam played a slightly crazed character in an episode of The Twilight Zone entitled Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?. In April 1966 Jack Elam co-starred with Clint Walker in the western The Night of The Grizzly.
It took a number of years but in 1963 Elam got the chance to play the hero – Deputy U.S. Marshal and reformed gunfighter J. D. Smith in the tv western The Dakotas. He played George Taggart, a gunslinger-turned-marshal in the NBC/WB western series, Temple Houston, with Jeffrey Hunter in the title role.
In 1968, Elam had an amusing cameo in Once Upon a Time in the West, where he was one of a trio of gunslingers sent to kill Charles Bronson’s character. Elam spent a good part of the scene trying to trap an annoying fly in his gun barrel.
In 1969, he was given his first comedic role in Support Your Local Sheriff!, which was followed two years later by Support Your Local Gunfighter; both were opposite James Garner, after which he found his villainous parts dwindling and his comic roles increasing. In between those two films, he also played a comically cranky old coot opposite John Wayne in Howard Hawks’s Rio Lobo (1970).
In 1979, he was cast as Frankenstein’s monster in the sitcom Struck by Lightning, but the show was cancelled after only three episodes.
In 1981, Elam played Doctor Nikolas Van Helsing in The Cannonball Run and its 1984 sequel.
In 1985, Elam played Charlie in The Aurora Encounter. During this film Elam made a lifelong relationship with an 11-year-old boy named Mickey Hays, who suffered from progeria. As shown in the documentary I Am Not a Freak viewers see how close Elam and Hays really were. Elam said, “You know I’ve met a lot of people, but I’ve never met anybody that got next to me like Mickey.”
In 1986, Elam also co-starred on the short-lived comedy series Easy Street as Alvin “Bully” Stevenson, the down-on-his-luck uncle of Loni Anderson’s character, L. K. McGuire.
In 1988, Elam co-starred with Willie Nelson in the movie Where The Hell’s That Gold?
In 1991 Elam appeared in Suburban Commando, alongside Hulk Hogan, Christopher Lloyd, and Shelley Duvall.
In 1994, Elam was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum.
He once described the career of a character actor. It went like this: “Who’s Jack Elam? Get me Jack Elam. Get me a Jack Elam type. Get me a young Jack Elam. Who’s Jack Elam?
Sadly, Elam passed away on October 20th 2003 in Ashland, Oregon, of congestive heart failure.