The “Virginian” star passed away Monday at age 85
Alas, we’ve lost another one of the great TV cowboys: James Drury, who rode tall for nine seasons in prime time and decades of reruns on broadcast and cable outlets as The Virginian, has left us at age 85.
The tragic news was delivered by the actor’s assistant, Karen Lindsey, on Facebook: “It is with immense sadness that I let you all know that James Drury, our beloved Virginian and dear friend passed away this morning of natural causes, Monday, April 6, 2020. He will be missed so much. It is beyond words. Memorial service to be determined later.”
From 1962 to 1971 on NBC, Drury authoritatively played the title character in The Virginian, the tough but fair-minded foreman on the Shiloh Ranch in late 19th-century Medicine Bow, Wyoming. (He remained in the role even after the series was renamed The Men from Shiloh for its final season.) Prior to landing the part, the New York-born actor appeared in several film and television westerns, including Love Me Tender (opposite Elvis Presley), Ride the High Country (directed by Sam Peckinpah), The Last Wagon, Good Day for a Hanging, Gunsmoke, Cheyenne, Rawhide, Wagon Train and Death Valley Days.
Drury later starred in the short-lived 1974 TV drama Firehouse, and guest-starred in such series and TV-movies as The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw, Alias Smith and Jones, The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and Walker, Texas Ranger. But he remained best known for The Virginian, which continues to attract a loyal audience on Grit TV, INSP and other platforms. In 2016, he spoke with C&I about the show — and the secret of its lasting appeal.
Cowboys & Indians: Two years before the 1962 premiere of The Virginian, you starred in The Yank, a pilot for a proposed western series from the producer of The Rebel. It must have been a disappointment at the time when the pilot wasn’t picked up, but…
James Drury: It turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Of course, at the time, you’re right — I was extremely disappointed. The funny thing is, I’d also done a half-hour pilot for The Virginian, playing The Virginian, for Screen Gems. That was a pilot that didn't sell, either. That was about the time that the networks were going from a half-hour to an hour with the westerns, and they just didn't pick up either one of the shows. But if either one of them had been successful — the chances are very slim that I would have had a chance to do a 90-minute Virginian for nine years. I thought I was unlucky, but I wasn't unlucky at all. I was just waiting for the bigger opportunity, and the bigger challenge. That's something I’ve always been happy about, the way that worked out. It's amazing that it did. You know, 90 percent of life is showing up — and the other 10 percent is pure luck, I think.
C&I: People tend to forget what a radical notion it was at the time to have a weekly 90-minute dramatic series of any sort with continuing characters.
Drury: Really, it was like doing a movie every week. We had 79 minutes and 30 seconds worth of film, which was as long as a lot of feature films of the day. It was a very radical concept. I know Wagon Train went to a 90-minute format for one season, and there may have been other attempts. But no one has ever been successful with 90 minutes for a western series except The Virginian. It's a very difficult thing to do logistically. It's a lot of film to get through. You have to have good stories and good writers. [Laughs.] It’s easier to spot a bad script in an hour show than it is in a half-hour show. And it’s a lot easier to spot a bad script in a 90-minute show than it is in an hour-long show.
C&I: You were able to attract quite a few major guest stars throughout the run of The Virginian.
Drury: Well, like I said, we were blessed to have a lot of really fine western writers working for us, and they were able to write big, important, juicy guest-star roles for men and women. Of course, then as now, actors were walking barefoot over broken glass to get to play a part that they wanted to play. As a result, we had the best actors and actresses in Hollywood come and work on our show. We had Bette Davis and Joan Crawford and George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst and Ralph Bellamy — and the list goes on and on. We had somebody great every week. It was a very unique situation. And it was a very wonderful place to be as an actor, because you were always working opposite someone who was extremely gifted and skilled, and you had to bring your game up to match theirs. It kept us on our toes and tested our mettle every single week.
C&I: Is it true that, because of your demanding production schedule, you often found yourself working on two or three episodes at the same time?
Drury: Sure. We had multiple units working quite often because we would run out of time. See, we had to provide one episode every week — but it took eight days to make one, so we had to make two or three at a time. You’d have a show where Doug McClure would have the largest role, and I’d come in for a small part. Then I’d go to another episode where I had the starring role, and I’d do several pages of script. And then I’d go someplace where Gary Clarke maybe had the starring role. It was fascinating how it all worked out, how it was all put together. On one famous occasion, I was in five episodes of The Virginian in the same day. You’d go from one soundstage to the backlot to another soundstage and back to the backlot. It was an amazing day, but we got it all done. It's where you really have to concentrate and keep everything straight so you're not saying the lines from one episode in another episode. Make sure you know where you are — end of story. Of course, that's something I was very, very determined to make happen. And I did. We all did. We were able to pull it all off.
C&I: What do you think is the key to the enduring popularity of The Virginian?
Drury: I think people respond to it because they get involved in the story, and it takes them away from their own problems, which is the definition of entertainment. That's what we were able to do, so I was very pleased and honored to be part of it. I still am quite proud of the show. And rightfully so, I believe.