Johnny Cash made his mark as an actor during his long career.
Whether he was acting tough, riding tall, or making music, Johnny Cash conveyed the same authority and authenticity on-screen that characterized his recordings and live performances. As we approach the celebration of what would have been The Man in Black’s 85th birthday — February 26 — fans can appreciate the diversity of his work in features and TV movies by sampling these seven titles.
DOOR-TO-DOOR MANIAC (1961)
The Man in Black acquits himself as an effective character actor in this tawdry yet suspenseful B-movie, playing a deranged robber who terrorizes a bank vice-president’s captive wife in her own home while his partner forces the lady’s husband to raise a ransom. Originally known as Five Minutes to Live — the name of a song Cash sings while tormenting his prey — the film received a title change before its extremely limited mid-’60s theatrical re-release. (It’s been issued under both names by various DVD distributors.)
THE ROAD TO NASHVILLE (1967)
In a bold stroke of casting, Johnny Cash plays ... well, Johnny Cash. He’s just one of the many country superstars (Waylon Jennings, Hank Snow, Dottie West, Marty Robbins, and Porter Wagoner are among the others) who perform in recording studios and concert halls while a Hollywood producer (comic actor Doodles Weaver) tours Nashville in search of musical talent for a new movie.
A GUNFIGHT (1971)
One of the better revisionist Westerns of the 1970s, director Lamont Johnson’s allegorical drama focuses on Will Tenneray (Kirk Douglas) and Abe Cross (Cash), two notorious gunfighters who develop a wary friendship when their paths cross in small town. Mindful of their advancing years and dwindling prowess, they collaborate on a retirement plan: They will sell tickets to their one-on-one shootout — in a bullring, no less — and the survivor will claim the box office take. Cash (pictured above with costar Karen Black) and Douglas give compelling performances as surprisingly complex characters during the countdown to their showdown.
THE PRIDE OF JESSE HALLUM (1981)
Cash is credible and creditable in Gary Nelson’s inspiring drama about a Kentucky coal miner who has spent most of his life hiding his illiteracy. But when he moves to Cincinnati for his young daughter’s spinal surgery, Jesse Hallum (Cash) is forced to admit his limitations: He must learn to read and write in order to find work. Brenda Vaccaro shines as the high school vice-principal who becomes Jesse’s mentor.
MURDER IN COWETA COUNTY (1983)
Cash re-teams with director Gary Nelson for a well-done docudrama about a notorious homicide case in 1948 Georgia. Andy Griffith, shrewdly cast against type, plays John Wallace, a powerful businessman who figures he can literally get away with murder. Cash is Sheriff Lamar Potts, who comes off like a small-town Columbo as he methodically builds his case against Wallace.
THE LAST DAYS OF FRANK & JESSE JAMES (1986)
Cash plays an erudite and happily domesticated Frank to Kris Kristofferson’s rambunctiously womanizing Jesse in this underrated drama about the last years of the notorious Wild West outlaws. Despite the, ahem, maturity of the two leads, the movie earned points from critics for its historical accuracy — and delighted western fans with its relatively fresh take on a familiar tale. Longtime buddies Cash and Kristofferson must have enjoyed their on-screen collaboration because, just a few months later, they were back in the saddle again.
Directed by Ted Post (Hang ’Em High), this mildly entertaining made-for-TV remake of John Ford’s 1939 classic western bears only a passing resemblance to its illustrious predecessor. Even so, Cash effortlessly conveys sure-shot authority as the lawman bent on keeping a vengeful Ringo Kid (Kris Kristofferson) from doin’ what a man’s got to do. Better still, he also develops an easy rapport with costars (and fellow Highwaymen) Willie Nelson — as Doc Holliday! — and Waylon Jennings.