Cowboy James Drury, a mainstay of 1960s television as the titular hero of NBC’s The Virginian, participated in another legendary project — albeit as the villain in the 1962 western Ride the High Country. A previously unexcavated interview finds Drury reminiscing on nonconformist director Sam Peckinpah, charming scene stealer Warren Oates, the principled Joel McCrea, and avoiding Sunday punches.
The James Drury Interview, Part Three
What is your most critically acclaimed film?
I was freelancing and got the major role of Billy Hammond in MGM’s Ride the High Country , directed by Sam Peckinpah and starring Randolph Scott and Joel McCrea. It became a classic western that has always remained in circulation. People think the world of it. Right after that I started The Virginian and got to be the hero [television’s debut 90-minute western was transmitted for an awe-inspiring 249 episodes between 1962 and 1971]. I had no time for any other projects until the late ’60s when I did an occasional movie for television and several theatrical releases, but nothing ever of the caliber of Ride the High Country. I played a dirty rat who shot McCrea at the climax, and he shot me.
McCrea has one of the most poignant death scenes captured on celluloid.
It was great. The whole movie was magical. We had such a wonderful cast — in addition to Mariette Hartley — John Anderson, John Davis Chandler, Warren Oates, and L.Q. Jones were my brothers [the Hammonds]. That’s a cast that draws your attention. They were all fantastic actors.
Was Peckinpah an unpredictable maverick in real life? How was he towards you?
We had no problems whatsoever. Sam was interested in making very important pictures. Years after our collaboration, he got into the sauce and drank a lot of vodka during the day. He would get real mean to people and cause a lot of trouble.
Sam was just a wonderful, practical, and inspired director. I’d known Sam since 1958 when I appeared in one of the first scripts he wrote and directed for television — a Rifleman episode [In season one “ The Marshal” introduced Paul Fix to the regular cast alongside Chuck Connors and Johnny Crawford. Future Peckinpah stock company alums R.G. Armstrong and Warren Oates are also along for the ride]. Every day was a wonderful experience on Ride the High Country. Everybody got along.
I have interviewed Warren’s biographer Susan Compo regarding Warren Oates: A Wild Life .
That’s a good description of Warren. I knew him for many years [Their debut encounter may have occurred when they first worked together on “The Marshal” episode of The Rifleman. Oates guest starred in four Virginian episodes between 1963 and 1966 — “Stopover in a Western Town,” “A Slight Case of Charity,” “One Spring Like Long Ago,” and “Ride to Delphi”]. Warren played some of the most interesting characters in film. He did more great work with Sam after Ride the High Country [i.e. Major Dundee, The Wild Bunch, and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia]. Warren told me that he had gotten weary of Sam because you had to watch him. Sam would come up behind you, stand next to you, Sunday punch you, and knock you right on your butt. Maybe Sam was mad at you, or maybe he was mad at somebody else. Oh, gosh. The things that people do.
Did Peckinpah Sunday punch you?
No, Sam wasn’t like that at all on Ride the High Country. That behavior must have started later.
Did you and Warren become friendly?
Absolutely, we were very good friends. Anytime I was somewhere where Warren was, we would get together.
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© Jeremy Roberts. All rights reserved. Part three of the James Drury interview, conducted on May 14, 2013, in advance of a Memphis Film Festival appearance, was condensed and edited for clarity upon its 2020 debut in this “Jeremy’s Classic Western Roundup” column. Transcription courtesy of Kate McCullough. To touch base, email firstname.lastname@example.org and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.