Sunday, August 25, 2019

An Interview with “The Virginian” (part 1)

Long before A Fistful of Dollars, there was an original “Man with No Name.” James Drury (the Virginian) worked as the foreman of Shiloh Ranch, owned by a procession of hard-working families in Wyoming on one of television’s “Big Four” westerns, The Virginian.

Unlike other shows of its kind, it ran for 90 minutes, was shot from the debut in color and featured a unique format which saw a semi-mysterious lead character journeying through varied conflicts in intriguing stories with famed guest roles and an endearing family unit.

Comprised of 249 episodes, NBC’s The Virginian, was television’s third longest-running western and rated in the top 30 programs for most of its nine-season run, making the top 10 in 1966. Veteran actors Lee J. Cobb, Charles Bickford and John McIntire portrayed the ranch’s owners as the years progressed, with Stewart Granger filling the role for a final season, titled The Men from Shiloh, with a slightly retooled approach.

Based on the 1902 novel by Owen Wister, the popular western story was filmed numerous times for the big screen before being adapted to television in 1962. It was in that medium that the enigmatic character of The Virginian was brought to life famously by actor James Drury. With a wide knowledge and respect for all things western and a wealth of tremendous stories to tell, he keeps active today with public appearances and a website dedicated to the iconic show. We were very fortunate to have an enjoyable and informative talk with him recently.

Editor's Note: The following is an edited transcription of Christopher Robinson's discussion with James Drury.
WESTERN MAGAZINE DIGEST: Can you tell us a little about how you began your career in movies, television and stage acting?

JAMES DRURY: I started out when I was eight years old in children theatres in New York City. My mother took me down at Christmastime to a place where they cast me in a Christmas play about King Herod and the Christ Child, and I played King Herod. And I had the long grey beard and the long flowing robes. I learned my lines and I hit my marks. But I didn’t want to get on stage. My mother just booted me onto the stage to start out. I got out and at the end of the thing, people clapped and I thought, ‘Well, if they’re gonna clap at something like this… I’d better find out more about it.’ So I started studying.

I studied it in junior high, high school and majored in it at university. Then, at the end of my junior year, I came out to California to see my mother who was living there at the time and I had auditioned for MGM at Loews, Incorporated. I didn’t think anything was going to come of it because the guy I auditioned for was having his shoes shined throughout the audition! But they called me from the studio and had me do another reading and then signed me to a seven-year contract. That was within seven days of my getting to California so it was a real Cinderella story. That was 1954.

I did seven pictures. I had tiny little bit parts, a word here, a word there but… you have to start someplace, learning the difference between stage acting and motion picture acting. On the stage, you use broad gestures and a great deal of volume with your voice. When you get to motion pictures, you find out that it’s 70mm Panavision and when you raise your eyebrow, it goes up eighty feet! You have to restrain your movements and your modes of expression, more so. You find out the difference real quick. You bring things down, more inward.

The camera will go right in your eyeball and see into the center of your soul, if you let it. That’s what you have to do to be effective in motion pictures. In the first year, MGM dropped me and then three months later, I signed with 20th Century Fox and I stayed there three years and did a total of three pictures. I did Love Me Tender. Then, a western with Richard Widmark called The Last Wagon. The same year I did Bernardine, which was Pat Boone’s first picture. So I have the dubious distinction of having been Pat Boone’s older brother and Elvis Presley’s older brother, both in their first pictures.

WMD: Did you get along with both men?

JD: Oh, I did, indeed… lifelong friends with Elvis. I saw him many times after that. He was always extremely nice to me and Pat has always been a good friend and a wonderful gentleman.

WMD: Did you know that those western roles would be the ones you would come to be associated with?

JD: I wasn’t conscious of it, but I had been raised on a series of ranches in Oregon and had been around horses and stock all of my life and had my first horse when I was twelve. That horse taught me to ride, pretty much. Luckily, I had all that ammo in my briefcase. As far as the motion pictures go, I did one picture for MGM in that first year with Lana Turner called Diane.

I played, I think, eight different roles. They put a beard on me one day and a helmet, the next day, on a horse the next day, holding a spear another day. They pretty much said ‘Here’s a gun, get on that horse… and don’t get off, not even for lunch!’ I didn’t gravitate to it but there was so much western work around. I had the skills and horse work and had been around guns all my life. I was planning to be a classical actor but it didn’t work out that way. However, my training in it allowed me to play the Virginian with variety. If you can play Shakespeare, you can play anything.

WMD: The Virginian has stood the test of time. It has a tremendous following to this day.

JD: It sure does. They play it twice a day, six days a week.

WMD: Been watching it, or have you seen ‘em all?

JD: I thought I’d seen ‘em all yet there are some I haven’t seen or I haven’t seen parts of. I’ll sit down if I have time in the morning and see if I remember the particular show and I see a lot of things I hadn’t been aware of.

WMD: Is that popularity a testament to the show itself or the enduring appeal of westerns in general?

JD: I think there’s always a warm place in everybody’s heart for the western. The 90-minute format was what allowed us to do memorable episodes. Our writers were able to write big, important, juicy guest star roles for men and women. Big-time Hollywood stars would’ve walked barefoot over broken glass to play a part. That gave us a great deal of accomplishment, when actors of that caliber would come to play on that show, George C. Scott, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford… the list goes on and on.

WMD: Who were some of your favorites, off the top of your head?

JD: A lot of them are still alive and they have spies everywhere, so I wouldn’t want to name favorites. But they were all my favorites. I was very, very lucky to be in a position where I could go to the studio everyday and know that I was going to be working with somebody wonderful. The guest stars were fabulous. I really believe that’s why we were successful, because we were making a motion picture-length episode every week.

WMD: And thirty-five episodes a season, they don’t do anything like that today.

JD: They don’t even do thirty anymore. They do a lot more reruns. It was just the timing and the forces that came together. Doug McClure and I were informed that we were playing the roles of Trampas and the Virginian on Friday before the Monday morning that we started shooting. We just looked at each other and said ‘We better go ahead and do it’. It was logistically impossible. We sometimes had as many as five different episodes being shot at the same time just to make our airdates. So I actually appeared in five different episodes in one day… a big scene in one place and in another place and a walk-on somewhere else.

WMD: That’s incredible.

JD: It keeps you on your toes.

WMD: Must have been exhilarating. So he was like a thread that literally ran through all those stories.

JD: To do a show like that, you have to really love it. There’s too much work, too many scripts coming at you too fast. I didn’t care. I did it anyway.

WMD: It seems like you really fit the character. Was there much of your own personality in the Virginian?

JD: I had many elements in there of my maternal grandfather, John Hezekiah Crawford. He was an Oregon pioneer who came west with a wagon train. When he was twelve years old he was driving a twenty-mule team in the coal mines of Missouri. He became a rancher and dirt farmer, I think, around 1885.

My dad was a professor at NYU. He was gone all winter and we were there on the ranches with my mother, sister and brother. Grandpa was the man of the house and he taught me to shoot, ride, do woodcraft and how to blow stuff up with dynamite.

WMD: That’s another thing about The Virginian. It presented the life of a working ranch hand quite realistically. That entailed some real cowboy work- wrangling, roping, bulldogging- as opposed to mere ‘play-acting’.

JD: All that stuff and then some. One thing I’m not that good at is roping. Doug McClure was a good, competitive roper and he had some experience on a ranch in Nevada and punched cows. We had cows but I was doing more barn stuff. We had horses, hogs, chickens, milk cows, beef cows. So we ran the gamut. I was well prepared.

The character itself is a wonderful one. He’s emblematic of the whole west, the American people. He has a lot of those characteristics that got them across the plains, across the Rockies to the Pacific. It was a daunting task. So everywhere we punched cows in those days is now America. That’s a thing we can all be proud of. I tried to represent the working cowboy. I’ve been around a lot of them so I knew what they were like and I’ve been told by working cowboys that I did good… so I’m proud of that.

WMD: Are you worried, with more development and technology that the western lifestyle may change for people in the future?

JD: Technology can help and inspire people. It can take them to new heights but there are a lot of places you can only get to on horseback. You have to remember that. It was man’s first partner. If it weren’t for the horse, none of us would be where we are. I don’t think that tradition will ever be replaced. There are more horses in captivity and privately owned in this country than there were in the time of The Virginian.

It’s alive and well and will stay that way. As far as western drama itself, like everything on TV, it can get overexposed. At one time we had fifteen- and-a-half hours of western programming on the air. There are only so many plots you can use, and people get tired of seeing them all the time. So it’s been a long time since a western has been made the way we were making them. They appeal to modern audiences with varied success. They’ll never die out but I don’t think we’ll see what we saw in the Fifties and Sixties.

Be sure to tune in to WMD on September 8th for part 2!

Read Part 2 here:
Also, visit The Virginian Official Website!

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  1. Great to hear Jim reminis about his time on The Virginian their great stuff in these guys from the era long may it continue best wishes to Jim and Carl Ann from Peter in Galway in the west of Ireland

    1. Thank you for the comments. We appreciate hearing from you!

  2. Salem, Oregon is my home. My kids are 6 generations of South Salem. I love your work! I still watch The Virginian each day. A life long horsewoman, and I love the real portrayal of the western days. Great interview and will look forward to the 2nd part!

    1. Great comments, and thank you for liking our work. It's good to know that it's appreciated. If you ever get the notion to take some photos and to write a few lines for WMD, we'd love to publish it. Al

  3. Replies
    1. I watched it all the time as a young man. I always like James Drury's acting style and he really did the cowboy part very well.

  4. The show stands the test of time thanks in a big part to Mr.Drury.

    1. I believe he kept it alive, along with Facebook and many other groups, such as YouTube. Thank you for the great comments.

  5. Great interview! Good to hear the history of James background before he became " The Virginian!" I wonder if he had any competition for the starring role! Still love and watch every episode! Love all the characters that are still with us!

    1. Thank you for taking the time to send your thoughts on regarding James Drury and part 1 of his interview with Christopher Robinson. I've sent your question on to Mr. Drury to see if we can get an answer for you. I will pass it on to you once I receive it.

      Thank you!
      Al Colombo

    2. Greetings!

      According to Karen Lindsey, Assistant to James Drury, it was said in the interview that "70 of the major stars of the time auditioned for the role of the Virginian." As most fans know, James Drury is the Virginian, so it wasn't a difficult decision for the studio.

      Thank you for reading WMD. I hope you will return again soon.

      Al Colombo

  6. It was very interesting to read his comments about his background, I still watch him until this day and he was one of the best looking cowboys. I wish I had the experience back in the day but he was and still is the Virginian. He played it so well.

    1. Thank you for commenting. I agree on all counts. He exemplified everything you can imagine as it relates to being a genuine, honest-to-goodness cowboy. It's hard to see the good ones replaced on our televisions with others that may be entertaining, but not as authentic and real to life.

  7. Love watching the show. He is a very good rider, really played the part well. Favorite western.


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