Sunday, September 8, 2019

An Interview with “The Virginian” (part 2)

Unlike other shows of its kind, The Virginian 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 part 2 of an edited transcription of Christopher Robinson's discussion with James Drury. Part 1 published on August 25th. To read it, click here (opens a new window).

Western Magazine Digest: You mentioned reusing stories. Also, despite good production values on the series, it looks like some familiar sets were used over and over again.

James Drury: When they started the series they built ‘western streets’. You had one with a saloon, general store, hotel… For instance, they did our show and then they shot Laredo and changed the signs from ‘Medicine Bow’ to ‘Laredo’. But if you’re spending time looking at the buildings, the actors probably aren’t doing a good job capturing the audience’s attention. We had a lot of western streets. We’d go to another studio like Paramount or Columbia, all available for rental. We moved around quite a bit.

WMD: There was also a large ensemble of performers over the duration of the series. But it always had a family atmosphere where everyone seemed to make the best out of working as a team.

JD: That’s part of any major family-owned ranch operation that you see today. They’re all pitching in to get the work done. Any kind of feedlot or cattle operation requires incredible amounts of energy and work to keep everything going. The cattle can come down with more illnesses than you can shake a stick at. You practically have to be a doctor, nurse and a chiropractor combined to take care of them. It’s the cowboy’s way.

WMD: I guess that’s why I live on the east coast.

JD: That’s why you live in New Jersey, right? But you still eat hamburgers, don’t you?(laughs)

WMD: Is there a favorite episode for you?

JD: There are a couple that I was quite proud of. One is “Felicity’s Spring” with Katherine Crawford, which was a major love story that was very well done. It seems to be one of the most popular episodes. Then there’s one called “Mountain of the Sun” with Dolores Hart. After we did the show, she entered a convent. She’s in charge of it now, in a town called Bethlehem in Connecticut. She was planning to go there long before we did that show. She fooled everybody. One of our mutual friends is Jan Shepard.

Jan has been my leading lady many times. She said to Jan, “I’m getting married”! Jan said, “Who’s the lucky guy”? She said, “I’m marrying God”. No one knew she was planning that. She went in, I think, two days after she finished shooting The Virginian. She was, and is a wonderful actress. She did a great job on that show and it stood out as one of the better episodes. And we had some wonderful performances from our cast. Everybody was able to carry the load if they were up to it. We put it together that way. No one person carried the show.

WMD: What ever became of the maroon shirt and black vest?

JD: (laughs) I don’t have any of them. Somebody swiped them from a hotel room. Those elements are all gone. I have some hats and boots but not the trademark costume.

WMD: Should’ve ended up in the Smithsonian.

JD: Well, I don’t know about that but it’s great to see a lot of young people watching the show now. I get letters from grandparents saying that their grandkids are watching it but they didn’t ask or tell them to. That’s very gratifying. When you get to be 85, you have a lot of memories to cherish and I have a lot of fun thinking about it.

WMD: Firehouse was a series that came later. Another active, rugged role. Were they typecasting you because of the Virginian role?

JD: Well, they had to have a captain, a leader. It was a bad show. The writing was uninspired. The producers wanted three disasters in twenty-one minutes. So we’re doing a disaster and running to the next one and the next one… So that ‘family feel’ you talked about, where everybody’s working together, you don’t have that. You couldn’t see us. We had masks on for those compressed air tanks. We’re howling through the masks, “Put out that fire!” You never got a sense of camaraderie or connection. Whereas a show like Chicago Fire, which is on now, those people are a family. You get to know each of them. They all have something to contribute. You never saw that on Firehouse. We were too busy putting out dumb fires.

WMD: Too much action.

JD: They paid me a lot of money to do that show but I’m not that proud of it. Thirteen weeks of agony.

WMD: We just commemorated the 75th anniversary of D-Day, so I thought it would be worth mentioning The Young Warriors, a war film you starred in. Was that made during a hiatus from your TV schedule?

JD: That’s right. It was 1966. I took my own USO unit to Vietnam to entertain troops and we were there for twenty-eight days and I came back and made that picture. We used eighteen minutes of stock footage from To Hell and Back, all the big scenes with the German tanks and all. I wore the exact uniform that Audie Murphy wore. That gave it a lot of scope and breadth that it wouldn’t have had. We were lucky to have it. I’m proud to have made that. It was a nice little picture.

WMD: You and your fellow Virginian cast members continue to hold reunions, something the fans greatly look forward to. Are there any highlights of these gatherings?

JD: We love to get together. We’re all close friends who have great fondness and respect for each other. Lately, I’m not in a position to do more than one a year, but we do a film festival called ‘Spirit of the West’ in Ardmore, every May.

WMD: Finally, what are your favorite westerns that you did not star in?

JD: The Magnificent Seven, The Searchers, Red River, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, The Professionals with Lee Marvin and Burt Lancaster… There aren’t too many I don’t like. I sure liked being in Ride the High Country. I did that with Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea with Sam Peckinpah directing. I played the lead villain and it was a lot of fun. We had Warren Oates, L.Q. Jones, John Anderson, John Davis Chandler… It was quite a group of talent to put together. Over the years we developed what we call ‘The Cowboy Way’ and it’s something I think everybody ought to remember. Real simple… ‘If it’s not true, don’t say it. If it’s not yours, don’t take it. And if it’s not right, don’t do it’… That’s a pretty good way to live.

In closing, James Drury is the kind of icon that Hollywood, sadly, no longer makes. That’s probably because the western ideal is concurrently simple and complex. It speaks to many universal qualities, chiefly the spirit of honor, hard work, cooperation and respect for others as well as the land and its resources. It can’t be prepared, rehearsed or mimicked for the duration of a movie or television production every now and again. Perhaps that’s why he plays the part so convincingly and makes it unequivocally acceptable as the real deal. He knows the American west’s past and that makes his optimism for its future credibly encouraging. It’s why the Cowboy Way has served him so well and why we can all rest assured that it won’t be fading into the sunset anytime soon. --Christopher Robinson, WMD

Read Part 1:
Also, visit The Virginian Official Website!

   Please post a comment below!   


  1. Just read Part ll and was not interesting read due to talent of CR and of course, the subject matter. Great job CR! I think both of you are the Real Deal. I hope we have the icon JD around for a long time...if for no other reason, to remind us of what we were and could be again!

    1. Penelope, thank you for the review. I appreciate the feedback. I think Christopher did a great job, and so far as James Drury goes, there is no better cowboy than "The Virginian!"

      Thank you!
      Al Colombo

  2. Christopher RobinsonSeptember 12, 2019 at 3:46 PM

    Yes, thank you for saying so, Penelope. I was lucky as he turned out to be very cooperative. It's also nice to see that he is regarded so highly.
    Christopher Robinson

  3. My sentiments exactly...on both accounts !


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