Known for his role as Roscoe P. Coltrane on “Dukes of Hazzard,” I interviewed actor James Best last week about his Hollywood career.
Best came to Shelby, NC last week to the Don Gibson Theatre with his one man show, “Best in Hollywood,” where he tells anecdotes about his career. I interviewed Best, 87, for a preview story about the show for The Shelby Star newspaper.
I ended up going to the show and later eating at Denny’s with Mr. Best and his wife.
Before Best starred in “Hazzard,” he acted in films with James Stewart, Ann Sheridan, Maureen O’Hara, Audie Murphy, Rock Hudson, Randolph Scott, Charlton Heston, Susan Hayward, Paul Newman, Humphrey Bogart and Jerry Lewis.
“I got into acting overseas after World War II while I was in the service,” Best told The Star during a phone interview Wednesday. “I was in the play ‘My Sister Eileen’ that the GIs did. When I got back I decided to take acting up permanently and hitchhiked to New York.”
During the show, Best called himself a “dumb country boy” –born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana– asking the cab driver to drop him on Broadway, because he was going to be an actor.
In New York, Best did winter and summer stock plays and was in a show on Broadway before heading to Hollywood.
“I was put under contract in 1949 to Universal Studios and then I freelanced,” Best said. “I have made 87 feature films and made 600 TV show appearances.”
In his show, Best shows clips from several movies and tells a story about each one. He joked he always died or was injured in all of his films.
He laughed at the script writing for “Seminole” (1953), starring Rock Hudson, when his character is drowning in quicksand, made of cork.
“Those script writers were so stupid! We are sneaking up on Indians and the soldiers are taking a cannon through quicksand,” Best laughed on stage. “I was injured, riding on the cannon and Rock Hudson had to dive in the quicksand to save me.”
He told how it took several takes to get the scene right. He was supposed to breathe through an air tube underwater. One take there was no air, another time too much air causing him to float and the third he came up laughing because Rock Hudson grabbed him awkwardly.
In the 1950s and 1960s, Best was in several westerns, including five movies with James Stewart such as “Firecreek,” “Shenandoah” and “Winchester ’73.”
“Jimmy Stewart was my icon,” he said in the interview. “I was good friends with Paul Newman, and I was in five films with Audie Murphy. Randolph Scott was a lovely man.”
Though Best worked with some of Hollywood’s top stars, he says he was never star struck.
“When I started acting in Hollywood, I was doing one show after another and you work with nearly every movie star that existed,” Best told the Star. “It’s a job. It’s different than most people’s job, but it’s a job. You work four to five days on one project and then move on to the next.”
After playing everything from cowboys to murderers, Best was in his first comedy in 1966 called “Three on a Couch” with Jerry Lewis and Janet Leigh.
Though Best had already acted in nearly 100 films before 1966, the opening credits said “Introducing James Best.”
“I asked Jerry Lewis why he did that. I said ‘What do you mean introducing; I have already been in 100 movies.’ Jerry said this was introducing me to doing comedy,” Best said with a laugh. “I had played so many murderers and been on ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents,’ but I hadn’t done much comedy.”
Best learned the comedy skills he used on “Dukes of Hazzard” from Lewis.
“I loved Jerry Lewis. I once told him he was five different people, and I hated three of them,” Best said. “I learned a lot from Jerry and I thank him for that.”
Most of the comedy for Roscoe P. Coltrane was improvised before the scene began.
“I didn’t want Roscoe to be mean, so I played him like a 12-year-old buffoon,” Best said. “Ninety-percent of it was improvised and it just came off the top of my head.”
After the series, Best and his wife Dorothy formed their own independent film company. At 87, he hasn’t stopped acting. He recently acted with his wife Dorothy in the play “On Golden Pond” in Hickory, NC, where he currently lives.
“Hollywood has changed so much,” he told me on the phone. “It has lost its glamour and they have given away all the secrets that made it so glamorous. It’s all reality stars now. None of them are trained actors. When I was working with Bogart, Newman and Stewart, those were actors.”
After his show on Friday, I was able to introduce myself and thank him for the interview. James Best is just your average, elderly gentlemen and is very kind.
After the show, I was searching for a place to eat and ended up at Denny’s.
My close friend who works at the Don Gibson Theater happened to already be at the restaurant and urged me to sit with her group. James Best and his wife happened to be part part of the group.
I talked with Dorothy about what plays she had acted in with the Hickory theater and James Best taught the table the proper way to eat pancakes. (If you are curious, he cut the center out and poured the syrup into the center. “That way your syrup doesn’t run all over your eggs,” he said.)
When he was ready to return to his hotel he turned to his wife and said, “Are you ready to go sweetie tootie?”
Again, we shook his hand and he smiled warmly. A class act.
“From the time I was adopted when I was 4 years old up to now, my life has been like a roller coaster,” Best told the Star. “There have been more ups than downs and I have been enjoying everything. I thank God every day for it.”