Image: Everett Collection
James Drury was born to play a cowboy. He spent much of his youth on family farms and ranches outside Salem, Oregon. His grandfather established one of those ranches when he traveled west along the Oregon trail in the late 1800s.
Drury revealed in a 2014 interview how his childhood inspired and shaped his future career.
"I patterned my Virginian character after my maternal grandfather, John Hezekiah Crawford, an Oregon dirt farmer and rancher who raised cattle. He came out to Oregon with a wagon train in 1880 or 1875." Drury even noted, "Granddad put me on my first horse when I was in diapers."
His experience and skill with horses was put to great use as an adult. Drury acted in over fifteen different Western television series before landing the lead role on The Virginian. He appeared in multiple episodes of Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Rifleman and Wagon Train. On Gunsmoke, he was memorably the titular outlaw in "Johnny Red" (1959), as well as a romantic rancher named Jerry Cass with a dubious love interest in "Change of Heart." Or perhaps you remember him as Cole Crawford in "The Cole Crawford Story" on Wagon Train, or a gunslinger named Rance on Rawhide. He could also be seen on Trackdown, Have Gun - Will Travel, Bronco, Cheyenne, The Revel, The Rifleman and more Western gems.
Before television, Drury appeared on the big screen alongside famous singers Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. Drury's first credited role was in The Tender Trap starring Sinatra opposite Debbie Reynolds. A year later, Drury played Elvis Presley's brother in Love Me Tender. It was Presley's film debut. Coincidentally, Drury was also in Pat Boone's first film, Bernadine.
Of course, James Drury is best known as the unnamed title character on the NBC western series The Virginian. He and fellow cast member Doug McClure (who played Trampas) were the only ones to act in all 249 episodes of the show.
Not only was the program incredibly successful, running for nine seasons from 1962 to 1971, it was a remarkable technical feat. Each episode filled a 90-minutes slot, which meant that, without commercials, the show had to produce almost 80 minutes of television every week.
In a 2016 interview, Drury explained, "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.”
Drury’s no-nonsense yet courageous portrayal of the foreman of Shiloh Ranch is an iconic part of television history. He imbued the character with his grandfather’s cowboy philosophy, “If it's not true don’t say it. If it's not yours don’t take it and if it’s not right don’t do it.”
James Drury passed away of natural causes at the age of 85.
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