The Virginian’s James Drury Discusses Life On The Popular Western
The Virginian was a Western TV show that ran from 1962 to 1971. It was based on the 1902 Owen Wister novel, “The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains.” The star was the foreman of the Shiloh Ranch, played by James Drury. He was known only as The Virginian, the man with no name. The series circled around the foreman’s quest to maintain an orderly lifestyle at Shiloh. It was set in Medicine Bow, Wyo., around the year 1898. The Shiloh ranch was named after the two-day American Civil War Battle of Shiloh, Tenn.
The Virginian ran for nine seasons; it was television’s third longest running Western after Bonanza and Gunsmoke. Towards the end of its run, spaghetti Westerns were becoming popular, so the format was changed in the final season and it was renamed to The Men From Shiloh. Sadly, it was discontinued along with other Western shows in what was known as the “rural purge” of 1969 to 1971. CBS had become known as the “country broadcasting system” and sought to change its image.
Drury grew up on a ranch in Salem, Ore., and moved to Houston, Texas in 1974. Besides The Virginian, he appeared on Walker Texas Ranger, Kung Fu, The Red Skelton Show, Perry Mason, Rawhide, Gunsmoke, Forbidden Planet and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. In 1991, he was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. I had an opportunity to talk to him about the show, and discovered that he is a real authentic Old West individual, who doesn’t just talk the talk but grew up in an outdoors lifestyle with guns and horses.
Rachel Alexander Did you grow up shooting or hunting on the ranch where you lived?
James Drury I did, both, my first .30-30 Winchester when I was 6 years old. My grandfather taught me how to shoot. I fell down on my butt with the first shot. I learned to brace myself with the second shot. I’ve been a natural shooter all my life. My dad was a professor at NYU and my mother took courses there and married the professor. He would come back during the summer and holidays. They had a successful marriage living like that for over 50 years, even though my dad was never there in the wintertime.
Grandfather helped me with woodcraft and doing things in the countryside. I based the character of The Virginian on him. He was raised in Missouri and came west on the wagon train when he was 15 or 16. When he was 12, he was driving a 20-mule team in the coal mines of Missouri. Nowadays, I don’t know of anyone who’s qualified to drive a 20-mule team. That’s the kind of a man he was, a working man his whole life; cowboy, rancher, he did everything on the land.
He put me on a big Belgian plow horse when I was 3 or 4 years old. I remember that horse, the sweaty smell of the horse in the sun. I’ve been nuts about horses ever since. I’ve become very adept at horse-related riding events like polo and have competed. I’ve been fascinated by guns my whole life, always been a collector. I’ve had large collections before that have been stolen. A lot of my guns of The Virginian era were stolen, including a Colt .45 with a larger handle.
RA How did you get into acting, was that due to your mother and acting in a children’s theater group play at age 8?
JD I spent some of my boyhood in New York during the wintertime. I think my mother was an extra in a couple of silent movies. She always wanted to be an actress and wanted my brother and I to be actors. I went down and auditioned for the part of King Herod. I wasn’t that interested, she had to boot me onto the stage. But I knew my lines and my march. At the end, people clapped. That encouraged me, so I made a lifelong decision to be an actor. I started studying acting in junior high and high school, and majored in it at NYU. I went to Southern California and signed a movie contract with MGM, a real Cinderella story. Blackboard Jungle was my first movie. I said just two words, “thank you.” Mostly they looked at me and said “here’s a gun, get on the horse and don’t get off.” I spent most of my acting career on a horse!
When we were in L.A., mom took us to every cattle call, but we never got hired. It turned out to be a good thinkg; I wouldn’t have wanted to be a child star. I fell in love with Shakespeare at the Shakespearean plays in NYC. If you can play Shakespeare, you can play anything.
RA How did you end up doing Western movies and shows?
JD I have the skills to do Westerns. I knew my way around a horse and I’m firearm savvy. We were a close-knit unit back then; there were a few actors and directors who appeared in all the Westerns. I didn’t have to keep auditioning since they knew me. Nowadays, you have to read every time. You have to memorize the script because you can’t act without memorizing it. Now I just have someone film me at home.
RA What was it like working on The Virginian?
JD It was wonderful. We had all the resources that we needed. We had a tremendous advantage because we were the first and only 90-minute show with continuing characters, Western or otherwise. Our writers had the chance to write big juicy guest roles for men or women. Actors would walk over glass to get those parts, like George C. Scott, Robert Redford, Barry Sullivan, Bettte Davis, and Joan Crawford. Every day, I’d go down to work and know I would work with somebody tremendous. It brought our level of acting up; we had to bring our A-plus game. I never had a bad day on The Virginian. If someone told me that I’d grow up to do that in high school, I would have told them they were crazy.
RA I saw the immense amount of work you had to do on the show; besides having a photographic memory, how did you endure it?
JD It’s just the nature of the job. Working with those great actors and actresses was truly palpable. That kept me going. You can’t help but be excited. I usually got to the studio about 6 a.m., and usually got out of there around 9 or 10 p.m. . And then I had to learn my lines for the next day, if I had any time at all.
RA Did you carry a real Colt .45 on the show, or was it a replica? Any other types of guns on the show?
JD It was real and I did a lot of shooting with it. It was destroyed in another movie. Last year, I was able to get ahold of a Colt revolver from a Colt collector. Twenty years ago, I was appearing at the Tulsa Gun Show, and Al Qualls (CHECK NAME!) came up to me and noticed I was carrying a Ruger. He said I should be wearing a Colt. He put one together and gifted it to me. I carried that chrome-plated stag-handled Colt just like the one in the show, although fancier. All of my handguns are highly modified for fast draw and accuracy. (CHECK NAME!) made all my holsters. He found a dragoon handle in a glass jar with my name on it, and he bought it. It’s on my Colt now.
I traveled 10,000 miles last year attending events, such as horse shows and benefits for boy scouts. I drive a 2008 Crown Victoria Ford. It is faster than greased lightening and extremely comfortable. I stopped flying in 1998 because I’m tired of being pushed around. I can get in my car with my guns in the back seat. I don’t want to take my boots off for anyone.
RA Any funny or embarrassing memories from the show?
JD The Westerns they make these days are designed to make people hate Westerns. Deadwood – the language was way more foul than it needed to be. I may use foul language, but not on the Westerns I played in. There’s nobody to root for when you do that. Today’s movies have massive rounds out of automatic weapons yet nobody gets a scratch. They’re fake. The shooter never hits anything, couldn’t hit the barn with a hat. The truth is, a .45 would chew up a fence.
RA It was such a wholesome show, was there ever anything controversial?
JD At the time, a lot of our scripts were controversial. But we went ahead with them. It was very serious dramatic work. They were episodes that resonated; we pulled no punches. Once every few shows I’d have a bad guy come to town and I’d have to shoot him.
RA How was the Virginian different than Bonanza, Gunsmoke, The Wild Wild West and other Western shows of that era?
JD I appeared at the Weird West Fest and Steam Punk World’s Fair recently. The Wild Wild West covered the era when steam power was starting. It was the steam age. Those people celebrate the era; they make their own costumes and have competitions. Switches and gauges are sewn into the fabric, so they look like a man inside a machine. It’s phenomenal. The women dress in gay ‘90s outfits with extremely obvious cleavage. Some of them actually have steam coming out of their shoulders. It was an era that went beyond what we did.
Bonanza and Rawhide took place during our same period. Some had a different slant. Jim Garner of Warner Brothers did a Western, Maverick. Mel Gibson did a motion picture version of it somewhat recently. The movie Support Your Local Sheriff had comedy in it.
We essentially produced a Western movie every few days. The Viriginian was designed to be an adult show. The girl always had to die at the last minute, so I could be involved with another lady in the next show. There were lots of love stories.
RA Any Western shows or movies you particularly enjoy today?
JD Open Range was a really good Western, with Robert Duvall and Kevin Costner. I think the recent Lone Ranger was done well.
RA Any advice you’d give you folks interested in getting into acting?
JD It’s a very difficult profession, but it’s very, very rewarding. The rewards that you remember from your acting career are not financial. I’ve made a lot of money acting, but I’ve never acted for money. You’ve gotta love it, and do it better than anyone. Do it right, and it is the most gratifying feeling. Study it and work on the stage as much as they can. Of course, acting in plays is not very good training for motion picture acting. I played the Montgomery Clift role in From Here to Eternity, and I ranted and raved around the stage, it was terrible. If you raise your eyebrow, it goes up 10 feet on the big screen. You need slight movements. Some of the greatest close-ups are where the actor does nothing. The camera captures the truth in his eyes. It’s easy to learn the difference.
RA You’ve been a regular participant in the shooting sports, including skeet, trap and cowboy shooting. You’ve said, “Cowboy action shooting is the best way I know to promote our Second Amendment rights. It teaches all kinds of people, men and women, young and old, to handle firearms and shoot safely and responsibly. We share a sense of history and connection with the Old West.” What is your favorite kind of shooting?
JD I love to shoot skeet, some trap. I look forward to more skeet shooting. I love BB gun shooting. For five dollars you can shoot a bunch. Put your eye on the target, put the gun to your eye and pull the trigger. We started with a coke can, then moved up to shotguns, then .45s, .38s and .22s, then BBs. I can now shoot 18 BBs at 18 feet and never miss. It brings your marksmanship way above what you have ever done. My accuracy with those weapons has increased 300-fold since I started BB gun shooting.
RA Any favorite guns you enjoy shooting?
JD In the movie King Solomon’s Mines, I carried a .370 caliber. It was an elephant gun, designed to bring down elephants and rhinos. The Marlin .45-70 is another big caliber I like. For long-range shooting, I prefer a lever action with iron sites. I’m partial to Ruger, Remington, Winchester, S&W, Colt, and Marlin. I just haven’t shot the others. I like guns period! I have a pair of Colt army revolvers that were supposed to have been owned by the foreman of the Easter Egg Ranch in Wyoming when he was writing The Virginian. They were presented to me by Red Skelton at the studio in NBC.
RA Where can folks catch you at, where do you make public appearances around the country? I see there are a few upcoming events posted on your website.
JD I do most of my traveling in the summertime. Photos with me are free.
RA What are you up to these days, besides oil and gas and other business opportunities in Texas?
JD I’m pretty much retired from business. I’m open to acting opportunities and doing personal appearances. I told a Houston reporter who asked me whether I wanted to get back into acting, “in a New York minute!” It would be great to be in a motion picture that is nominated for an Academy Award. I may also write a book.
Editor’s note: Reruns of the Virginian are available to watch on Cozi TV, a cable affiliate of NBC, weekdays at 8 a.m. Fans can join James Drury’s Virginian Posse on Facebook.
Article by Rachel Alexander, Photos by James Drury