“I’ve made a living doing what I wanted to do”
James Griffith was a prolific Western actor who, between 1949 and 1960, appeared in 42 features in the genre, as well as 161 episodes of 63 different TV series and 3 TV movies. That’s quite a record. He had a striking appearance, tall, thin, gaunt, sometimes downright cadaverous, with a beaky nose, indeed a striking face you didn’t forget. Many times he made an indifferent movie memorable. He never led in a Western but was one of those character actors you always enjoyed seeing.
He principally took parts as villain. He was ideally suited to playing the bad guy and, an excellent actor, he did that well. He later said, “I understood what many actors did not understand – that playing bad guys afforded me more opportunities to work and thus be in different settings. Most Westerns have only one hero, and he’s pretty much restricted in what he can do … whereas the heavies run around in gangs and do all kinds of colorful things.”
He actually started as a musician, playing clarinet at school and in the Santa Monica Symphony. He was once a bandsman with Spike Jones and His City Slickers. Later he would write the music for the 1964 film Lorna. In 1934 he finished school and joined the Marines, aiming to enter as a musician, though found himself in a Howitzer unit. But he was transferred to Pearl Harbor as a band member. Born in 1916, he’d been raised in San Pedro and started his acting career as Santa Claus in a play at his local church as a child. Rather a scrawny Santa but still. In 1938, on discharge from the service, he was hired as a reporter on a local paper, acting with theater groups in San Diego in his spare time. In World War II he was recalled into the Marines and was assigned to the Douglas Aircraft Factory.
In the late 40s he was working as a gas station attendant and writing screenplays, two of which he managed to sell to Paramount. Then producer Martin Mooney gave him the lead in a quickie movie he was making, Blonde Ice, and he got noticed.
His first Western was a 77-minute color picture, Daughter of the West, in 1949, distributed by Classic Films, on which he was also one of the writers. Sixth-billed, he played Morgan, the nasty henchman of the chief bad guy (Donald Woods) in a tale of Lolita Moreno (Martha Vickers) who teaches on a Navajo reservation, falls for Navo White Eagle (Phillip Reed) and together they foil the plot to rip off the Navajos and deprive them of the proceeds of a copper find.
That was followed in the fall of the same year by a part as Quantrill (called Quantrell, as was often the case) in the Randolph Scott oater Fighting Man of the Plains, a Nat Holt production for Fox. During the attack on Lawrence, Kansas, Quantrill incites Randy to kill a man who, Quantrill lies, killed his brother.
So right from the first year, Jim was playing bad guys.
There were three Westerns in 1950, Cariboo Trail (released in August), Indian Territory (September) and Stage to Tucson (December). The first was another Nat Holt/Randolph Scott oater for Fox, the second was a Republic Gene Autry picture directed by John English and the last was a Rod Cameron Western at Columbia. In Cariboo Trail he was one of the bad ‘uns trying to stop bold engineer Randy from enabling the Canadian Pacific to cross the Rockies. In Indian Territory he was the Apache Kid, aka Johnny Corday. In Stage to Tucson Jim, finally a goody, was Abe Lincoln for the first time, though we only see him from the back in a chair and hear his voice.
There were four Westerns in 1951. In January Columbia released the biopic (aka whitewash) Al Jennings of Oklahoma, with Dan Duryea as Jennings, though Jim only got a bit part. That was followed in February by The Great Missouri Raid, a pretty weak Frank and Jesse James tale with Jim in another minor role (as Jack Ladd). In April Jim was a lieutenant in Apache Drums, a Universal picture starring Stephen McNally, and in the semi-Western Drums in the Deep South he was an uncredited Union officer. So he was working that year but not winning major roles.
No Westerns at all in 1952. Two in ’53: Kansas Pacific (February) and Powder River (June). In Allied Artists’ Walter Wanger-produced railroad drama Kansas Pacific with Sterling Hayden, Jim had a smallish part but at least he was credited, while in Fox’s Powder River, a Rory Calhoun Western, he was a hotel clerk. He was always recognizable, though, even in these small roles.
But he really got into his Western stride in 1954. There were no fewer than eight big-screen oaters! One of them was his own personal favorite role.
There were two released in February, the rather good Audie Murphy effort Ride Clear of Diablo, in which Jim was, sadly, only Henry – Train Conductor (uncredited), and Warners’ Will Rogers biopic The Boy from Oklahoma, directed by Michael Curtiz and with Will Rogers Jr in the lead. In that one Jim had a small, though credited, part.
In April, Columbia came out with Jesse James vs the Daltons with Jim as one of the Dalton boys, and, back at Universal, Rails into Laramie, the third oater with Dan Duryea, with Jim higher up the cast list as a marshal.
In August there was another ‘versus’ Western, The Law vs Billy the Kid, a Sam Katzman/William Castle meller for Columbia starring Scott Brady as a beefy Billy, in which Jim landed the plum role of Pat Garrett. And the month after, Jim was back to being a henchman in another Columbia picture, The Black Dakotas.
To end the year there was only a bit part as Veteran One-Legged Soldier at White House Gate (uncredited) in Delmer Daves’s (rather weak) Western Drum Beat released in November, and, in December, his best part of the year – in fact one of the best of his whole career and his own personal favorite – when he was Doc Holliday in the (otherwise pretty clunky) Columbia picture Masterson of Kansas with George Montgomery as Bat Masterson. Actually, Jim’s Doc saved the picture.
So, Quantrill, Abraham Lincoln, a Dalton brother, Pat Garrett and Doc Holliday, things were looking up by the mid-50s.
1955 wasn’t a bad year either. He was in Burt Lancaster’s The Kentuckian, though only as Riverboat Gambler (uncredited), he got a bigger part in Columbia’s George Sherman-directed Count Three and Pray with Van Heflin, then he did Apache Ambush, directed By Fred Sears and starring Bill Williams, also at Columbia – he was Abe again in that one – and finally he was a mysterious stranger in the Fred MacMurray Western At Gunpoint, released on Christmas Day. Not bad.
In 1956 he had quite a good role as a rustler in MGM’s Jimmy Cagney oater Tribute to a Bad Man directed by Robert Wise, then he added to his list of great Western characters by playing Davy Crockett in Allied Artists’ Byron Haskin-directed semi-biopic of Sam Houston (with Joel McCrea as Houston), The First Texan, and finally he had a biggish part as a marshal again in the Bel-Air John Payne Western directed by Alfred Werker, Rebel in Town.
1957? Well, first he did what could be my favorite James Griffith part of all when, in The Guns of Fort Petticoat, another Audie oater, he was Kipper, one of three outlaws – the others were Ray Teal and Nestor Paiva, so excellent! Cruel, laughing villain Ray, portly, cowardly, smiling Mexican Nestor and their boss, runty, unshaven, frock-coated ruthless murderer Jim, they made a nefarious trio. All three are quite ready to sell the brave women in the fort out to the Indians (they’d probably cheerfully sell their grandmothers) to save their worthless hides, which they do not. They are very villainous indeed and better news still: Jim does a fellow in with a derringer. He does it smilingly, while the victim is tied up. Ooh, that’s bad. These outlaws are soon killed off by the Indians and they are a bit extraneous to the plot to be honest, but I thought it was the best bit.
And later in the year he did another Rory Calhoun picture helmed by Ray Nazarro, Domino Kid, but he only had another bit part in that, boo.
1958 was a busy Western year with five pictures. Columbia’s Return to Warbow was another Ray Nazarro flick, this time headlining Phil Carey, and Jim was Carey’s alcoholic wastrel brother who drinks and gambles away all the stolen money from Andrew Duggan’s stage line, before being strong-armed by Robert J Wilke. Excellent.
In Allied’s George Montgomery oater Man from God’s Country, freighter Frank Wilcox, afraid of being driven out of business by the railroad, hires ruthless gunslinger Faber as muscle. That’s Jim, of course.
We reviewed the next one, Seven Guns to Mesa, the other day (and by the way, you’ll find most of James Griffith’s Westerns in the index so you can click to read more) and once again Jim lifted what was, to be brutally frank, a very ordinary Western, by being really good as the patriarchal outlaw boss in a derby, taking innocents hostage and coldly planning to murder them in cold blood because dead persons tell no tales.
Bullwhip was another Allied Artists sagebrush saga and Jim was again a hired gunfighter. This time he takes money from two different villains, both to kill Guy Madison and to protect him. I’m not sure that’s entirely ethical professionally. He wrote the music for this one too.
Frontier Gun was another good one for Jim. Again, it was a very modest movie really, starring John Agar, one of those black & white but widescreen pictures that Regal Films made for Fox and directed by Paul Landres (Griffith and Landres worked eight times together) but Jim once more made it memorable. He was Cash Skelton, a frock-coated gambler in the saloon who plays a kind of court jester role.
And that was that for 1950s big-screen Westerns.
Jim started TV Westerns earlier than most actors. He worked quite closely with Flying A Productions, the company Gene Autry set up at the start of the 50s, and shows like The Range Rider, Buffalo Bill Jr, Annie Oakley, The Adventures of Champion and of course The Gene Autry Show provided plenty of opportunities for actors like Jim. He did seven episodes as Benson on Range Rider and was a regular guest star on Flying A’s other shows. He also did episodes of The Lone Ranger, Death Valley Days, Hopalong Cassidy, Frontier, Gunsmoke, Laramie, Maverick (in which he would add to his list of famous Western characters by playing John Wesley Hardin), Bonanza, Have Gun – Will Travel, Rawhide, Broken Arrow, Cheyenne, Wagon Train, Zane Grey Theatre, you name it.
From 1957 he had a recurring part on Trackdown as Aaron Adams and from ’58 he was John Bromfield’s arrow-straight deputy Tom Ferguson on Desilu Productions’ US Marshal, as the two of them preserved law ‘n’ order in modern-day Arizona. His last Western TV gig was as a preacher on a 1982 episode of Little House on the Prairie.
Back on the big screen, the 1960s and 70s were not, of course, the highpoint of the Western movie, far from it, but he started the 60s with a tiny but noticeable part as Salvation Army Leader (uncredited) in John Wayne’s North to Alaska, he was an uncredited poker player in How the West Was Won in ’62, he had a decent part in the George Marshall/Glenn Ford comedy Advance to the Rear in 1964, and a smaller role in A Big Hand for the Little Lady in ’66. As screenwriter, he adapted Louis L’Amour’s Shalako for the film with Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot in 1968. He finished the 60s with two more Westerns with Glenn Ford, in a minor role as a storekeeper in Day of the Evil Gun in ’68 and as Abraham Murdock in MGM’s Heaven with a Gun in ’69.
There were only two feature Westerns in the 70s. He again adapted a Louis L’Amour yarn for the screen, this time as Catlow (a pretty bad film to be honest) and he was fifth-billed as an actor on the family-adventure, barely a Western, Seven Alone in 1974.
All through his career Jim Griffith was perfectly happy to take bit-parts, even uncredited ones. Work is work, right? But when he did get assigned a meaty role he did an excellent job. I think he always added to a Western, however iffy it was or however modest his part in it.
He spent his latter years writing plays and movie scripts. He was a gifted raconteur and loved attending film festivals. In a farewell letter to his friends, Jim wrote, “I have lived a wonderfully full life. You name it, I’ve done it. I’ve made a living doing what I wanted to do. Best of all, look at all of you who are my friends.” He died of cancer in September, 1993, aged 77.