Saturday, May 22, 2021

Sheriff Rosco


"I acted the part, as good as I could.  Rosco, let's face it, was a charmer.  It was a fun thing."
  -- James Best

James Best was born Jewel Franklin Guy in Powderly, Kentucky on July 26, 1926.  When he was three years old, his mother died of tuberculosis and he was sent to live in an orphanage.  He was later adopted by Armen and Essa Best of Corydon, Indiana.

After high school, Best enlisted in the Army and went to serve his country during World War 2.  Although he was trained as a bombardier, he'd spend the majority of his service, ironically, as a law enforcement officer.  He also joined the army unit of actors, which traveled Europe entertaining the troops.  

After the war, Best moved to Hollywood and became a contract player with Universal Studios.  He got his start in a series of western films released in 1950, with such titles as Winchester '73 and Kansas Raiders.  He worked heavily in the genre throughout the 1950s while also appearing in science-fiction films as well.  His most famous of these is the 1959 cult film The Killer Shrews

Best also began appearing on television in the 1950s, not surprisingly in westerns.  He appeared on such series as The Lone Ranger and Annie Oakley.  He also had a recurring role on The Andy Griffith Show (right) as Jim Lindsey, a traveling guitar player who would often string a chord with Andy himself.  Best also found himself in The Twilight Zone, appearing in three of the series more popular episodes, each of which had a western theme.  The most famous of these was called "The Last Rites of Jeff Myrtlebank," which found Best waking up in his coffin at his own funeral.  Best worked steadily on television for the next two decades on series such as The Green HornetFlipper, and I Spy.  But his most famous role was yet to come.

In 1978, while living in Georgia, Best was asked to audition for a new series entitled The Dukes of Hazzard.  He initially turned it down based solely on the title, believing it to be a "gang thing."  But once he understood the concept and that it would be filmed entirely in Georgia, he signed on to play the sheriff of fictitious Hazzard County, Rosco Coltrane.  

The series debuted as a mid-season replacement in January 1979.  It was an unexpected hit for CBS, who moved quickly to capitalize on the show's success.  In order to save money, the network decided to move production to Warner Brothers Studios in Burbank, California, much to the dismay of Best and his co-stars.  For the next seven years, Best found himself commuting home to Georgia on the weekends, along with his co-star Ben "Cooter" Jones.

But the headaches didn't end there.  Fans of the series will remember that Sheriff Rosco often found himself driving into a lake, falling in wet cement or being doused with cans of paint.  Despite his years of service, Best was not deemed significant enough by producers to warrant his own dressing room, and was not afforded the privacy to shower or clean up after these recurring gags.  He reached his breaking point during the middle of the second season, when he walked off the set and flew home.  Rather than cancel production, producers hired a series of replacement sheriffs, played by such actors as Dick Sargent, James Hampton and Clifton James, a man perpetually typecast as a southern law enforcement officer.  Best's castmates found these actors difficult to work with however, and producers had no choice but to finally meet his demands.  

When production ended in 1985, Best moved to Orlando, where he taught drama at the University of Central Florida.  He took up painting in his spare time and was known for his landscapes.  By the 1990s, he had semi-retired, but Hollywood, or perhaps more specifically Hazzard, wasn't done with him just yet.

Following the death of series actor Sorrell Booke in 1994, the cast re-assembled for production of a TV movie of the week entitled The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion! (1997).  It was successful enough in the ratings that CBS commissioned a second reunion movie, Hazzard in Hollywood (2000), a film so ridiculous that star John Schneider later described it as "having achieved MAD Magazine status."

With Hazzard now officially in his rearview mirror, Best decided to open his own production studio.  One of the more popular films he produced during this period was a sequel to The Killer Shrews, appropriately titled Return of the Killer Shrews. Best reprised his character in the film, which featured a few other familiar faces from Hazzard County.

By 2015, Best and his wife had retired to Hickory, North Carolina.  It was there that he died of pneumonia on April 6th.  He was 88 years old.

For a few years, Best's final resting place was something of a mystery, as no information was made publicly available.  This blogger finally tracked it down in 2020.  He was buried in Cedar Hill Cemetery in Corydon, Indiana. 

The exact location is somewhat tricky to find.  Your best bet is to use your GPS or find a helpful park employee, as this blogger did. 

Location: Latitude: 38.2166747, Longitude: -86.1223841
Inscription: Remember Me With Laughter

Rest in peace, Sheriff.

  • Best released his memoirs in 2009.  You can pick up a copy of Best in Hollywood: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful from Amazon.  Fellow blogger and Dukes expert Billie Rae Bates released her book Them Dukes! Them Dukes!: A Guide to TV's The Dukes of Hazzard in 2014.  Pick up a copy from Amazon.

  • Best's biological mother, Lena Guy, was born Lena Everly.  Her brother was Ike Everly, father of the Everly Brothers singing duo.  It wasn't until Best was himself a celebrity that he learned he was related to the famed singing family.  But the musical connection doesn't stop there. Best's daughter Janeen married singer Michael Damian in 1988.  Rock on!

  • When Best appeared in the 1966 film Three on a Couch, his billing read "Introducing James Best."  By this point however, he had been in Hollywood for sixteen years and had appeared in thirty films and several television series.

  • Best founded an acting school in Hollywood, the first of its kind to teach motion picture technique.  Some of his more famous students included Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Teri Garr, Farrah Fawcett and Quentin Tarantino.  Another of his students was Lindsay Wagner, who was working as a babysitter tending to Best's children.  Through this connection, he encouraged her to become an actress.

  • Best was a fan favorite at Dukes of Hazzard events and autograph shows.  Mark Miller snapped this photo in Virginia in 2001, when Best appeared at Cooter's Garage in Sperryville.

  • Best was a martial arts enthusiast who held a black belt in karate.

  • Best stated in interviews that the majority of his lines with Sorrell Booke (Boss Hogg) were ad-libbed.  "If it was good, the writers took credit for it.  If it didn't go over so well, they'd say that SOB is ad-libbing again."

  • Although their characters were not fond of one another, in real life, Best and Denver Pyle (Uncle Jesse) had a friendship dating back to 1958, when they appeared together in the film The Left Handed Gun.

1 comment:

  1. What a nice grave marker! Glad you were able to track it down for this tribute.