James Drury, Taciturn Star of ‘The Virginian,’ Dies at 85

James Drury, Taciturn Star of ‘The Virginian,’ Dies at 85

James Drury, an actor best remembered as the stolid, black-hatted title character of the long-running NBC western “The Virginian,” died on Monday at his home in Houston. He was 85.

Karen Lindsey, his assistant, confirmed the death in an email but did not specify a cause.

Mr. Drury, who had iceberg-blue eyes and a no-nonsense mien befitting a frontier hero, appeared on television westerns like “Broken Arrow,” “Cheyenne” and “Wagon Train” before he landed the role on “The Virginian.” The show, which was loosely based on Owen Wister’s novel “The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains” (1902), began airing in 1962.

Mr. Drury’s character, the tough but fair foreman of the Shiloh Ranch in Wyoming, was never named, and little of his history was revealed. He tussled with cattle rustlers and other outlaws threatening the ranch until “The Virginian” was canceled in 1971, after 249 episodes.

Only two other television westerns, “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza,” lasted longer (“Gunsmoke” the longest).

“The Virginian’s” weekly episodes were, unsual for a primetime series, 90 minutes long, requiring a grueling shooting schedule that Mr. Drury, speaking to Cowboys & Indians magazine in 2016, compared to “making a movie a week.”

The show featured many stunts, including tricky riding sequences and fistfights, that Mr. Drury sometimes took part in himself rather than having a stuntman take his place.

This had its advantages, like allowing Mr. Drury’s face to appear in action shots, and its disadvantages, like risking injuries. In one choreographed fight, a stuntman threw an extra punch, “which was not in the script and hit me in the temple like a Missouri mule,” Mr. Drury said in an oral history interview. He spent the next several days of shooting trying to hide the golf ball-size lump on his head.

“The Virginian’s” cast, which rotated over the years, included Lee J. Cobb, Clu Gulager, Roberta Shore and Charles Bickford.

The show also featured a host of guest stars, like Bette Davis, Lee Marvin, Joan Crawford, Robert Redford, Leonard Nimoy and Harrison Ford. Mr. Drury and Doug McClure, who played the lighthearted cowhand Trampas, were the only actors to stay with the series for its entire run.

In 2018, Mr. Drury told the Oklahoma newspaper The Daily Ardmoreite that he was grateful for his years as the Virginian, even though the role defined the rest of his career.

“The Virginian was an indelible character,” he said. “I had a great deal of issues getting past being seen as the man in the black hat.”

James Child Drury Jr. was born on April 18, 1934, in New York City to James and Beatrice Drury. His father was a professor of marketing at New York University, and his mother’s family owned a ranch in Salem, Ore.

He spent much of his childhood on the ranch, learning horseback riding, marksmanship and other skills that would prove useful to his career in westerns. He started acting in the theater when he was 8.

Mr. Drury attended New York University but left after signing a contract with MGM. He appeared in films like “Forbidden Planet” (1956); “Love Me Tender” (1956), Elvis Presley’s first feature film; and “Bernardine” (1957), Pat Boone’s first feature. He also appeared in movie westerns like Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” (1962).

Mr. Drury’s first two marriages, to Cristall Orton and Phyllis Mitchell, ended in divorce. His third wife, Carl Ann Head, died in 2019.

He is survived by two sons, James Jr. and Timothy; a stepdaughter, Rhonda Brown; two stepsons, Frederick Drury and Gary Schero; four grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

After “The Virginian” went off the air, Mr. Drury starred on the television show “Firehouse” and appeared on shows like “Walker, Texas Ranger” and “Kung Fu: The Legend Continues.” He was also a regular at western festivals around the country, where fans were still eager to meet the man in the black hat.


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