Jack Elam appeared in over 73 movies and over 41 TV series. Even if you don’t know his name, you’ll recognize his face.
He had a lopsided left eye that seemed to move on its own. It would go one way while his right eye would go another.
When accounting didn’t work as a career, he tried Hollywood. His physical features and natural talent made him perfect as a Western villain. It even made him fit in comedy films after that, some of which made fun of that persona.
Keep watching to learn how Jack Elam’s eye became his unsettling trademark.
William Scott “Jack” Elam was born on November 13, 1920. The family lived in Miami, Arizona with his father working odd jobs to support them. In 1924, they moved to Globe. His mother Alice died at the age of 30 from “general paralysis” when he was only three years old.
Jack and his sister Alice moved around to different families for a while. He remembers having to work to make extra money by gleaning cotton on nearby farms when he was only six years old.
Their father got remarried in April of 1928, working at a loan company while his stepmother was a school teacher. When he was nine, he went to help his father who, ironically enough, also had eye problems that made it difficult to fill out forms at night. This helped him gain early experience with business and accounting. It may not seem like it would connect or come in handy in acting but, for Jack Elman, it did.
Jack injured his left eye in a fight during a boy scout meeting in 1931. The other boy threw a pencil at him, and it hit him directly in the eye. Doctors had to remove the lens, leaving him permanently blind. The damage also caused the eye to drift within its socket. He said that it did whatever it wanted and he couldn’t control it.
That created his signature cockeyed look. Changing it was possible but dangerous. He said in an interview with The Boston Globe in 1974 that he could have operated on it but didn’t feel it was necessary because it was only a minor inconvenience.
He also remembers a time when making Rawhide in 1951 when he mentioned getting surgery to Darryl Zanuck, head of 20th-Century Fox. His boss told him never to fix it because it was part of his mystique. That proved to be some of the best career advice he ever got.
Life Before Acting
Jack Elam graduated from Phoneix Union High School and majored in business studies at Modesto and Santa Monica junior colleges in California. He worked a variety of jobs in his early years.
In 1936, he allegedly lied about his age to work as an accountant for the Standard Oil Company, He was also an auditor for Samuel Goldwyn Studio and an office controller for Hopalong Cassidy Productions.
Jack served two years in the Navy during WWII. He was exempt from service because of his eye injury but worked as a civilian in Culver City.
What he didn’t realize was how much they would affect him in the long run. The hours of reviewing financial records put too much strain on his good eye. He had to have it operated on several times just to keep it open at all.
The doctors eventually said there was nothing more they could do and he would go blind in that eye as well. He quit the business field in 1947 to save his vision. He knew he had to move on to another career path, and it was almost as if he stumbled onto the one the world knows him for today.
Like and subscribe to Facts Verse for more on the best actors with physical trademarks. Keep watching to learn about how Jack Elam became the instantly recognizable actor he is today.
Starting As a Villain
Jack didn’t dream of building an acting career, but it seemed like a viable alternative when his accounting career had to end. His business skills were what actually helped make him a star.
His friend was a movie director and was having trouble getting financing for three of his Western scripts. Jack promised to help out with the books in exchange for a major role in them. The first one was the Sundowners in 1950.
He had a bit of extra help again when other members of Hollywood noticed his talent. He was working on Rawhide, and the star Tyrone Power convinced the head of 20th-Cenutry Fox to sign him to a contract.
That was the film that catapulted him to stardom and the one that cemented him as a villain. His character shoots a baby to make it ”dance” and kills everybody except Tyrone Power and Susan Hayward.
Before he knew it, Jack’s mannerisms and trademark drooping eye were getting him cast all over. Doug Martin once wrote that “his eyes conveyed villainy as surely as Durante’s nose suggested humor.” Jack even admitted that women have smacked him with their purses over what they’d seen him do on screen.
He guest starred in the most popular westerns of the 50s and 60s, including The Lone Ranger, Gunsmoke, and over 20 episodes of Bonanza. He even appeared in an episode of the hit sci-fi show The Twilight Zone in 1961 called “Will the Real Martian Please Stand Up?” He also appeared in Death Valley Days that year and in the episode Clootey Hutter on the show Lawman in 1962.
By the end of the 1950s, the news and moviegoers nicknamed him “the screen’s most loathsome character.” Roles as heroes or comedic characters didn’t come often, but that began to change in the latter half of his career.
Moving to Comedy
Jack’s lazy eye may have suggested villainy, but he eventually became such a beloved actor that showrunners began to consider him for other roles. What if he were cast as the hero? What if he could be funny or even play at satirizing his tough-guy persona?
It worked thanks to Jack’s wide acting range. He made audiences laugh as much as he had made them want to hit him with their purses.
One of his first official comedic roles was Support Your Local Sherrif in 1969. The follow-up, Support Your Local Gunfighter, ended up being one of his favorite projects.
He began to switch from being cast as the villain to gaining comedic roles after that. Burt Kennedy directed him in 15 films and TV shows and saw his comedic potential. He appeared on TV shows such as Rio Lobo from 1975-1975, the short-run show The Texas Wheelers, and the three-episode show by Lighting in 1979. Jack also continued to get comedic film roles in 1981’s The Cannonball Run and the sequel three years later.
He developed a bond with 11-year-old Mickey Hays who had progeria, a genetic disorder that causes rapid aging, while filming THe Aurora Encounter in 1986. A documentary called I Am Not a Freak was filmed about it in 1987. He said himself, “I’ve met a lot of people, but I’ve never met anybody that got to me like Mickey.”
His final appearance was in 1995 in BOnanza: Under Fire. By that time he’d reached 119 films and 260 TV appearances.
Love of Gambling
Jack Elam isn’t only associated with villains or comedians; he’s always been a key part of hundreds of westerns. He’s a classic cowboy, and what does a cowboy love more than a game of cards?
True to this nature, Jack Elam loved poker, especially Liar’s Poker. He even had the right to a few games of cards written right into his contract with Warner Brothers. His friends have many fond memories of spending their leisure time playing with him.
He never had much of a poker face. His friends say his smile and eyes were too bright to hide anything. That didn’t mean he failed to take everyone on the set’s money away. His costars would always save a bit to play with him, but they rarely got to keep it. They also made side bets about things like the weather.
Love Life and Family
Acting and poker may have been Jack’s primary loves, but he also managed to find a family. He was married twice and had a beloved family who he always took care of.
Jack Elam met Jean Louise Hodge while he was at Santa Monica Junior College. They were married in 1937. They had two children together, a daughter named Jeri and a son named Scott. They stayed together until she died of colon cancer on January 24, 1961.
He married Margaret M. Jennison in 1961, and they had a daughter named Jacqueline. They stayed together for 42 years until his death.
Losing the Cock-Eyed Cowboy
Jack Elam died of congestive heart failure at the age of 82 on October 20, 2003. He is survived by his wife Jenny and his children. He once allegedly said that all he wanted on his tombstone was “I drank scotch and played poker.” His friends and coworkers had plenty of more love to give him than that.
He was inducted into the hall of Great Western Performers in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma in 1994. His close friend Will Hutchins considered him more like family and said his acting was full of humanity. His friend Al Hassan called him “cantankerous in a great way” and said he “lived one of the best lives I’ve ever seen.”
That wonderful life also included plenty of business sense. His net worth was valued at $2 million at the time of his death.
Who is your favorite Western villain? Let us know in the comments below.