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James “The Virginian” Drury
A gentleman and a thespian
by John Stahl

James Drury of The VirginianMy lengthy conversation with James Drury regarding the release of a spectacular tin box set of the first season of the long-running film-quality ‘60s western series “The Virginian” made me wonder why James Lipton never selected him for a segment of “Inside the Actor’s Studio.” Drury has had a great career, possesses incredible insight into the art of acting, and expresses a rare regard for his fellow humans.

Drury also won me over based on his regard for Barbara Eden, who is one of my all-time favorites and was very gracious when I interviewed her a few years ago. Drury’s remark that actors are similar to magicians in that that they have to create “the illusion of reality” led to a discussion about “I Dream of Jeannie.”

Drury shared that he co-starred with Eden in her first professional acting job, which was a production of the play “The Voice of the Turtle” at a Laguna Beach, California, theater. He praised Eden strongly and stated that “she was eager to learn about the reality of illusion.” I just know that she is responsible for me keeping my eyes open for genie bottles during my Plum Island walks in Massachusetts.

The Virginian cast“The Virginian” enjoyed the distinctions of being the unusual length of 90 minutes and being one of the few color series when it premiered in 1962. It tells the story of The Virginian, played by Drury, who did not have a name and who was the foreman of a 50,000 acre ranch in 1890s Wyoming.

Anyone who has had the privilege of speaking with Drury can understand why the producers selected him for the role. I would still want him to run my ranch if I owned one, and I know that he would have my back in a fight.

James Drury of The VirginianDrury’s response to my first question got our discussion off to a great start. I had asked him if the fact that The Virginian wore a black hat and a black vest indicated that he had been a bad guy in the past. Drury responded that “that just made him a poorer target in the evening” and added that that was important when you were involved in a gun fight.

We additionally discussed the incredible roster of first season guest stars, which included Bette Davis and George C. Scott. Drury stated that the great writing and the rare opportunity to be on film for 45 minutes attracted the stars. He commented also that just watching this people work taught him a great deal about acting.

Drury shared as well that Davis befriended him after her appearance but simply stopped calling him after Joan Crawford appeared in an episode in a later season. Based on what I saw in “Mommie Dearest” regarding Crawford’s disdain for being reduced to working on television in the ‘60s, I asked Drury if she was difficult. He replied that she was very professional and pleasant. I neglected to ask if the wardrobe staff had placed Crawford’s costume on a wire hanger and if that had upset her.

Channeling Lipton, I directed the conversation to the process of making each nearly 72 minute episode. Drury shared that classic Warner Brothers films, such as “Casablanca” and “Beau Geste,” were approximately 72 minutes long and were made in 6 days. He then commented that each episode of “The Virginian” required 8 days.

Drury stated too that part of the illusion of reality is creating an effect that causes the audiences to respond “I don’t know how they did that.” He cited studio tours as one factor in making achieving that more difficulty and commented that that requires that modern filmmakers “reach further in their bag of tricks to create illusions.”

Drury stated further that “I love magic and could watch it all day long, but I don’t want to know how it was done.”

Drury and I additionally discussed studio politics, and he shared that an unwritten rule was that a guest star could not appear on both “The Virginian,” which Universal produced, and the Paramount studios-produced series “Bonanza.”

Drury commented too that his fights for the quality of the show resulted in his making enemies with top studio executives. Conflicts included not allowing use of an expensive camera crane and allowing Universal Studios tours on the set while the show was filming. The fact that Drury won these battles demonstrates his well-deserved star power.

Hearing Drury’s passion for the show and westerns in general prompted me to ask how he felt when the changing TV climate in the ‘70s prompted cancelling virtually every show in that genre. He replied “styles change, tastes change, audience expectations change” and that “dramatists are drawn to what is occurring in real life.”
Drury had many other note-worthy insights, but the time to ride into the virtual sunset has come before I can share them. I want to thank him for teaching me more in 60 minutes than most people teach me in decades-long relationships. He deserves a second shout out for defending me when a third person informed him of a conflict that coincided with the week of our discussion.

Anyone who wants to share their own memories of Drury or “The Virginian” is encouraged to e-mail me at tvdvdguy@gmail.com.


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