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James Best shares his life and career at FAC

Posted: April 10, 2014 5:14 p.m.
Updated: April 11, 2014 5:00 a.m.

By GARY PHILLIPS

C-I (Camden, S.C.) staff reporter

gphillips@chronicle-independent.com

 

With an acting career spanning more than 60 years, James Best has plenty of stories to tell. He did just that when he brought his one-man show, "Best in Hollywood," to the Fine Arts Center (FAC) of Kershaw County on March 22. The multimedia presentation had photos and film clips shown on a big screen as Best told behind-the-scenes stories about his life and career.

Well known for playing the role of Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane on the hit TV show "The Dukes of Hazzard" from 1979 through 1985, Best’s filmography goes all the way back to 1950. He currently resides at Lake Murray, approximately 50 miles west/southwest of Camden. Before the show began, State Rep. Laurie Slade Funderburk of Camden welcomed Best and read from a proclamation by the S.C. House of Representatives.

"We know you have had a far and wide-ranging career in writing and directing and starring in more than 600 titles. I know you are more than just ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’ and I know there are fans in the audience who have watched your career throughout everything. It is such an honor for Kershaw County to have you here," she said. "The State of South Carolina, the House of Representatives, has a motion here to honor you as a citizen of South Carolina and also for your lifetime of contributions and also for sharing your journey with us. We want to wish you well in everything you do in the future."

Born in rural Kentucky in 1926, Best was adopted by a couple from Indiana after his mother died when he was only 3. He served in WWII and started performing on the live theater stage after his discharge. He caught the attention of a Universal Pictures executive, who signed him to a two-year contract with the movie company in 1949.

"I’ve done 73 feature pictures and over 600 television shows and I worked back in the day with Gene Autry and Hopalong Cassidy and all those people that a lot of you people out here are too young to remember. I did five movies with Jimmy Stewart. I did a lot of westerns. We figured up one time that I had done more than 200 westerns, Bonanza, Rawhide and so forth," he said. "I loved westerns. When I was a little boy I always wanted to be a cowboy. I finally got out there and got paid for it."

Best said there was one vital skill he had to learn quickly -- horsemanship.

"I couldn’t ride a horse. The only horse I ever rode was one that was pulling a plow. They (Universal) had good stuntmen and horsemen in the back lot that would train us how to ride horses," he said. "I did a film called Winchester 73, and I’ll tell you how small the part was. Tony Curtis and I were playing two soldiers and Jimmy Stewart and Shelly Winters and all these people played the main parts. We were shooting at the Indians and the camera cut to Jimmy Stewart shooting at the Indians. It cut back to me and I got killed and I fell dead. They cut back to Jimmy Stewart and cut back to me and I’m alive again! Gradually I got better and better parts."

Best said he worked with several well-known stars of the day, including Randolph Scott, Lee Van Cleef, Audie Murphy, Humphrey Bogart, Henry Fonda, Jerry Lewis, Rock Hudson, Anthony Quinn and Burt Reynolds. He appeared on two episodes of "The Andy Griffith Show" as Jim Lindsey, a guitarist who lacked the confidence to further his career until Sheriff Taylor intervened. Best said he didn’t know how to play guitar, but found a way to land the part anyway.

"I try not to lie. I said, ‘I have two guitars,’ which I did. So when I got on the set and they had the music I said, ‘I can’t play that. I know four chords. If it’s not western I can’t play it.’ They said, ‘You lied. You said you could play guitar.’ I said, ‘I did not lie. I said I had two guitars.’ It was too late to replace me, so I did the show," Best said, adding that a real guitarist’s hands were shown in the close-up shots. "I’ve been asked about 10,000 times if I played the guitar on ‘The Andy Griffith Show.’"

In the early 1970s, Best took a break from acting and became an "artist in residence" at the University of Mississippi," where he taught motion picture techniques and drama, directed four plays and established the Mississippi Film Commission.

Best said he was attracted to the part of Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane because "The Dukes of Hazzard" was filmed in Georgia and he was excited to work away from Los Angeles. He said television producers today would do well to go back to the kinds of values presented on the hit show.

"I’m too conservative for Hollywood. I don’t believe you have to make a movie with every other word a four-letter word. I believe in entertainment by putting actors in front of the cameras instead of so-called reality stars who have never been trained or done anything," he said in an after-show interview with the Chronicle-Independent. "I did hundreds of performances on the legitimate stage for the experience, and then I did movies. It upsets me when somebody calls themselves a reality star. A star to me is Jimmy Stewart and Henry Fonda, where everybody knows their name."

Best said he has had a busy career, but never got the big breakout role that could have made him a big star.

"Jimmy Stewart had the Christmas one, ‘It’s a Wonderful Life,’ that just goes on forever," he said. "John Wayne was an actor but he was also a big personality that everybody loved. Fonda was a wonderful actor, but these people were trained and knew how to project themselves on the screen and stage."

Best said "Best in Hollywood" has been around for a year and he doesn’t keep a heavy performance schedule, with only eight shows scheduled this year.

Best lives in the South Carolina Midlands area and said he loves living at Lake Murray. He is an avid fisherman, but said he rarely fishes at the lake.

"You have so many jetskiers there and they scream ‘Roscoe’ at me as they go roaring by and just about knock me out of the boat," he said. "So, I don’t fish there very much, or I’ll go out early in the morning on my pontoon boat and enjoy the sunrise."

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