James Drury, an American actor revered in Hollywood for his iconic role astride horseback in the Western television series The Virginian (1962-1971), remains a celebrated figure in the realm of classic television [1]. Born on April 18, 1934, in New York City and later embracing the rustic outdoors on his family’s ranch, Drury developed a profound connection with horses and the Western lifestyle, shaping his career and leaving an indelible mark on the genre [1] [2]. His journey from a childhood overcoming polio to a celebrated Hollywood icon exemplifies his resilience and dedication to his craft [2].

This article delves deeply into James Drury’s life, from his early years and rise in Hollywood to his signature role that would define his legacy. Through the exploration of his personal life, ventures outside of acting, and contributions to the industry, readers will gain comprehensive insight into the life and accomplishments of this iconic figure until his passing in 2020 [1].

Early Life and Education

James Drury’s early life was marked by a blend of urban and rural experiences, as he grew up moving between New York City and Salem, Oregon [1]. This unique upbringing exposed him to diverse environments, from the bustling streets of New York City where he was born on April 18, 1934 [1], to the expansive outdoors of Oregon. It was in Oregon where Drury developed a deep appreciation for horses and the outdoors, influenced significantly by his maternal grandfather who taught him woodsman skills and marksmanship [4]. This early connection with nature and animals played a pivotal role in shaping his future career and personal interests.

Despite facing a significant health challenge at the age of 10 when he contracted polio [1], Drury demonstrated resilience and determination. His battle with polio did not deter him from pursuing his passions. By the age of 12, Drury had already begun his professional acting career, performing in a road company’s production of ‘Life with Father’ [5]. This early start in the world of acting underscored his natural talent and determination to succeed in the entertainment industry.

Drury’s formal education in drama began at New York University [1], where he discovered the drama department [2] and embarked on a path that would eventually lead him to major in drama. His education was further enriched by classes at UCLA [1], providing him with a solid foundation in the performing arts. Despite being expelled from high school a day before graduation [2], Drury’s academic journey did not end there. He graduated from New York University with a major in drama, where he received training as a classical actor. This education equipped him with the skills to perform 12 major Shakespeare roles and 18 major Shaw roles, showcasing his versatility and depth as an actor [4].

Rise to Stardom

James Drury’s cinematic journey began with his debut as an uncredited hospital attendant in Glenn Ford’s Blackboard Jungle, marking the start of his rise to stardom [8]. His early career was characterized by a series of roles in notable films such as ‘Forbidden Planet’, ‘The Tender Trap’, ‘Love Me Tender’, ‘The Last Wagon’, ‘Pollyanna’, and ‘Ride the High Country’, showcasing his versatility as an actor [9]. Drury’s talent was not confined to the big screen alone; he also made significant guest appearances on popular television shows including ‘Playhouse 90’, ‘Gunsmoke’, ‘Rifleman’, ‘Cheyenne’, ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’, ‘Wagon Train’, and ‘Rawhide’, further establishing his presence in Hollywood [9].

In 1954, Drury’s dream of acting on the big screen led him to Hollywood, where his career took a pivotal turn [4]. He signed a film contract with MGM, appearing in bit parts in films at both MGM and 20th Century Fox, and visited MGM studios, landing under contract in just seven days [1] [2]. His journey continued with a move to 20th Century Fox, where he worked alongside Elvis Presley and Pat Boone, showcasing his ability to share the screen with leading figures of the time [2]. This period of his career was marked by a blend of film and television roles, including appearances on shows such as ‘Richard Diamond, Private Detective’, ‘Black Saddle’, ‘Death Valley Days’, ‘The Rebel’, ‘Wagon Train’, ‘Bourbon Street Beat’, ‘Perry Mason’, ‘Ride the High Country’, ‘Wagon Train’, ‘The Virginian’, ‘The Men from Shiloh’, ‘Firehouse’, and ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’, highlighting his adaptability and appeal across different mediums [1].

Drury’s portrayal of ‘The Virginian’ in 1962 was a defining moment in his career, a role he played for nine years, averaging thirty 90-minute episodes per season [1]. This role, along with his substantial part in ‘Ride the High Country’ before ‘The Virginian’, cemented his status as a leading figure in Western television [1]. His dedication to his craft was further demonstrated through his performances in 54 USO-sponsored shows for troops in Vietnam in April 1966, and later roles in ‘Firehouse’ on ABC television in 1974, and appearances in ‘Walker, Texas Ranger’, ‘The Young Warriors’, and ‘The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw’ in the 1990s [1]. Drury’s distinctive voice also led him to work on documentaries and audio books, showcasing his versatility beyond acting [9].

The Signature Role: The Virginian

James Drury’s embodiment of the Virginian, a character shrouded in mystery with no given name, became a hallmark of his career and a beloved figure in Western television [10]. Fans affectionately dubbed themselves “The Virginian Posse,” underscoring the deep connection and loyalty they felt towards Drury and the show [11]. His portrayal not only captivated audiences for nine seasons but also set a precedent for future actors in the Western genre, earning him a respected place within the Western Writers of America [11]. Drury’s character, known for his integrity, bravery, and commitment to justice, became a symbol of the ideal Western hero, navigating the challenges of the Wyoming Territory in the 1890s [3].

  • Drury’s signature look for public appearances often included a black cowboy hat, reminiscent of the one his character wore, reinforcing his association with the iconic role [5].
  • The Virginian’s character was distinguished by his iceberg-blue eyes and a no-nonsense demeanor, traits that Drury portrayed effortlessly, contributing to the show’s success [10].
  • His role in “The Virginian” was preceded by a substantial part in “Ride the High Country” (1962), highlighting Drury’s versatility and appeal as an actor before he became synonymous with the Virginian [1].

Drury’s commitment to the role was evident in the grueling production schedule, with each episode running for 90 minutes. This dedication paid off, as “The Virginian” remains one of the longest-running Western series in television history [3]. Despite the show’s rebranding to “The Men From Shiloh” in its final year and a dip in ratings, Drury’s legacy as the Virginian endured [3]. His continued engagement with the role and the Western genre was demonstrated through appearances in related shows and movies, including a cameo in the 2000 movie adaptation of “The Virginian” [3]. Drury’s influence extended beyond his lifetime, with his portrayal of the Virginian inspiring not only fans but also future generations of actors [11].

Personal Life and Marriages

James Drury’s personal life, particularly his marriages, played a significant role in shaping the man behind the iconic roles he portrayed on screen. Drury was married three times throughout his life, each marriage contributing to his personal and familial legacy [1][16][9][15][10][14][13].

  • Spouses:
    • Cristall Orton (m. 1957, div. 1964): Drury’s first marriage to Cristall Orton marked the beginning of his journey into family life. The couple had two sons, Timothy Drury and James Drury Jr., solidifying Drury’s role as a father alongside his burgeoning acting career [1][16][9][15][10][14][13].
    • Phyllis Mitchell (m. 1968, div. 1979): His second marriage to Phyllis Mitchell further expanded his experience of marital life [1][16][9][15][10][14][13].
    • Carl Ann Head (m. 1979, her death in 2019): Drury’s third and longest marriage was to Carl Ann Head, whom he married in 1979. This union lasted for 40 years until Carl Ann’s death in 2019, marking a significant period of stability and companionship in Drury’s life [1][16][9][15][10][14][13][8].
  • Children and Stepchildren:
    • Alongside his biological sons, Drury also had a stepdaughter, Rhonda Brown, and two stepsons, Frederick Drury and Gary Schero, from his marriages, showcasing the blended nature of his family [1].
    • Drury’s commitment to his family extended beyond his biological children, as evidenced by his inclusion and acknowledgment of his stepchildren as part of his family [3].

James Drury’s marriages and the family he built with his wives and children reflect the personal side of a man known for his rugged on-screen personas. His life off-screen was filled with the roles of husband and father, bringing out a different aspect of his character that his fans and followers might not have been as familiar with. Despite the challenges that come with multiple marriages and blending families, Drury maintained close relationships with his children and stepchildren, leaving behind a legacy of family unity and love [1][16][9][15][10][14][13][3]. His passing in 2020 was mourned not only by his fans but also by his large and loving family, including his sons Timothy and James Jr. and their wives, stepchildren, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, all of whom carry forward his legacy [3].

Venture into Business

James Drury’s venture into business reveals a multifaceted personality that extended beyond his acting career. He was not only a philanthropist dedicating his time and resources to charitable causes such as the Boys & Girls Clubs of America and the American Cancer Society [11], but he also showcased his entrepreneurial spirit in various industries. In the 1970s, Drury began competing and winning in the arena of cutting and reining horses in Texas, demonstrating his passion for the equestrian lifestyle and his commitment to excellence in every endeavor [2]. This blend of philanthropy and competitive spirit laid the groundwork for his later business ventures.

In 2001, James Drury founded James Drury Partners, drawing on his extensive experience beyond the entertainment industry. Before this venture, Drury had been a management consultant and Vice Chairman of a global executive search firm, bringing a wealth of knowledge to his new company [17]. James Drury Partners, based in Chicago, Illinois, with a team of 11-50 employees, specializes in board placement & director recruitment services, board evaluations, and CEO search assignments. The company is renowned for its interest in enhancing the effectiveness of America’s corporate boards and has co-founded two nationally recognized corporate governance conferences [17] [18]. The firm’s unique services include a diagnostic methodology to help boards assess the probable skills and culture fit of new directors and advising corporate boards in selecting appropriate outside directorships for their most valuable executives [17].

Drury’s business acumen was further demonstrated through his involvement in the oil and natural gas business in Houston during the late 20th century [1]. This venture into the energy sector showcased his ability to diversify his interests and succeed in various fields. James Drury Partners has over 150 years of combined advisory experience in executive search, management consulting, and industry, with a proprietary model for director assessment developed in partnership with Hogan Assessment Systems. The firm’s clients span various sectors, with revenues ranging from $1B to $225B, including eight Fortune 50 companies [17] [19]. Drury’s legacy in business is marked by his innovative approach to corporate governance and his commitment to excellence, paralleling his distinguished career in Hollywood and his contributions to charitable causes.

Height and Physical Presence

James Drury, standing at an impressive height of 1.8 meters [15], was the quintessential figure of the American cowboy, embodying the rugged, handsome qualities often associated with this iconic role [20]. His physical presence was more than just about height; it was his demeanor and the way he carried himself that truly set him apart. Drury’s face, described as compassionate, strong, good, noble, sensitive, thoughtful, kind, and firm [20], conveyed a depth of character that resonated with audiences and casting directors alike. This unique combination of attributes made him a natural choice for roles that required a commanding yet approachable presence.

  • Physical Attributes:
    • Height: 1.8m [15]
    • Descriptors: Handsome cowboy [20]
    • Facial Qualities: Compassionate, strong, good, noble, sensitive, thoughtful, kind, firm [20]

Beyond his physical attributes and the roles he portrayed on screen, James Drury’s charisma and genuine nature endeared him to fans worldwide [5]. His authenticity was not just a facet of his acting but a core part of his being. Having grown up on an Oregon ranch, Drury’s early life experiences with horses lent him an authenticity that could not be fabricated [2]. This authenticity was evident in his performances, especially when it came to horseback riding scenes, which he executed with ease and confidence. It was this genuine connection to the roles he played, combined with his physical attributes and personal charm, that made James Drury a beloved figure in Hollywood and beyond [5] [2].

  • Personal Attributes and Skills:
    • Authenticity: Genuine connection with fans and roles [5]
    • Early Life Experience: Grew up on an Oregon ranch, skilled in horseback riding [2]
    • Charisma: Known for his charisma and genuine nature [5]

James Drury’s legacy in Hollywood is a testament to the impact of not just a well-portrayed character but the profound influence of an actor’s physical and personal presence. His height, combined with his distinctive facial qualities and genuine personality, contributed significantly to his iconic status as a cowboy in Hollywood [15] [20] [5].

Legacy and Awards

James Drury’s legacy in the world of Western television and film is immortalized through numerous accolades and the profound impact he had on fans and the genre itself. One of the most significant honors bestowed upon him was his induction into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City in 1991 [1] [9] [5]. This prestigious recognition is a testament to Drury’s influential role in shaping the Western genre, highlighting his memorable performances and contributions that have left an indelible mark on Hollywood and its audience.

In addition to his induction into the Hall of Great Western Performers, Drury received the Golden Boot Award in 2004 [21]. This award, given to those who have made significant contributions to the genre of Western television series and films, underscores Drury’s enduring legacy and the high esteem in which he is held within the entertainment industry. His roles in iconic series such as “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Cheyenne,” and of course, “The Virginian,” along with appearances in films like “Blackboard Jungle” and “Love Me Tender,” have cemented his place in Western entertainment history [8].

Beyond his professional achievements, Drury’s personal character and the joy he brought to his fans are equally noteworthy. He was remembered for his kindness, gentlemanly demeanor, and the lasting impressions he left on those fortunate enough to meet him [23]. Fans like Elizabeth Farmer and Amber Henson recall Drury with admiration, citing his role in “The Virginian” as a source of joy and inspiration [23]. The outpouring of memories and stories shared by fans following his passing highlights the deep connection Drury established with his audience, a legacy that transcends his filmography and awards [23]. Drury’s influence extended to his active participation in cowboy nostalgia festivals and his fan club, ‘The Posse’, which boasted over 15,000 members, demonstrating the wide-reaching impact of his work and the affection in which he was held by fans across the globe [8].

Retirement and Final Years

James Drury’s final years were marked by a blend of personal achievements and public appearances, reflecting his enduring passion for both acting and polo. Drury, who had started playing polo in his late 30s, continued to engage with the sport well into his later years. He played as an amateur in Chicago for four decades, dedicating himself to building teams and honing his skills [24]. His commitment to the sport was evident in his role as the President of Oak Brook Polo Club, a position that allowed him to remain actively involved in the polo community [24]. Drury’s last match was a notable international game against England, held at Oak Brook Polo Club to celebrate the club’s centenary. Oak Brook emerged victorious, winning the match 7-6, a fitting tribute to Drury’s contributions to the sport and the club [24].

Beyond the polo field, Drury’s love for the road and disdain for flying led him to accumulate thousands of miles driving himself to various festivals [8]. These journeys were more than mere travel; they were opportunities for Drury to reconnect with his past, catching up with co-stars from “The Virginian” such as Gary Clarke and Roberta Shore, as well as close friend Robert Fuller [25]. These reunions were a testament to the strong bonds formed during his acting career, allowing Drury to reminisce about his days on set and share stories with fans and fellow actors alike.

James Drury’s legacy was cemented not only by his iconic role in “The Virginian” but also by his active years from 1955 to 2014 [6]. His passing on April 6, 2020, at the age of 85, due to natural causes, marked the end of an era for fans and colleagues [1] [4]. Drury’s life, characterized by his passion for acting, polo, and his commitment to connecting with those who shared his journey, left an indelible mark on Hollywood and the sports world. His contributions to the Western genre and the polo community continue to be celebrated, ensuring his legacy endures.

Conclusion

Throughout his illustrious career and diversified life, James Drury emerged as a monumental figure not only in the realm of Western television but also as a personage of profound influence outside the entertainment industry. His journey from a resilient childhood to a storied acting career, supplemented by ventures into business and philanthropy, stands as a testament to a life lived with dedication, versatility, and authenticity. Drury’s embodiment of the iconic Virginian, alongside his diverse roles in film and television, underpinned by his genuine character and commitment to his craft, endeared him to generations of fans and established a legacy that transcends the boundaries of screen and genre.

Reflecting on Drury’s contributions to the entertainment industry and beyond, it’s evident that his legacy goes far beyond his accolades and the characters he portrayed. His personal life, marked by meaningful relationships and a spirited engagement with various pursuits, paints the picture of a man whose impact was felt deeply by those around him and whose influence continues to resonate. As we celebrate his achievements and the indelible mark he left on the Western genre, James Drury’s story remains a beacon of inspiration, echoing the integrity, courage, and warmth that defined both his roles and his life.

References

[1] – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/James_Drury
[2] – https://www.insp.com/blog/james-drury-the-man-behind-the-virginian/
[3] – https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/james-drury-dead-star-virginian-was-85-1039156/
[4] – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PUngKx_8ZJg
[5] – https://www.statesmanjournal.com/story/news/2020/04/11/james-drury-death-actor-the-virginian-western-film-salem-oregon/2962694001/
[6] – https://www.thevirginian.net/
[7] – https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/208775006/james-drury
[8] – https://medium.com/@jeremylr/everybody-needs-an-attaboy-sometimes-keeping-up-with-actor-james-drury-16b935127639
[9] – https://www.thevirginian.net/bio.html
[10] – https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/06/arts/television/james-drury-dies.html
[11] – https://facts.net/celebrity/17-extraordinary-facts-about-james-drury/
[12] – https://www.ebay.com/itm/256144705031
[13] – https://www.pinterest.com/pin/296252481745702726/
[14] – https://www.pinterest.com/pin/4362930877945691/
[15] – https://www.naijanews.com/buzz/people/james-drury-bio-spouse-children-height-is-he-dead-or-still-alive/
[16] – https://www.closerweekly.com/posts/who-was-james-drury-married-to-meet-the-virginian-stars-3-wives/
[17] – https://jdrurypartners.com/firm/
[18] – https://www.linkedin.com/company/james-drury-partners
[19] – https://jdrurypartners.com/focus/
[20] – https://www.pinterest.com/pin/378443174943295049/
[21] – https://www.imdb.com/name/nm0238628/
[22] – https://www.cmohs.org/recipients/james-drury
[23] – https://obits.oregonlive.com/us/obituaries/oregon/name/james-drury-obituary?pid=195880485
[24] – https://www.uspolo.org/news-social/news/jim-drury-hangs-up-his-mallets-after-40-years-in-the-saddle-an-article-by-clickpolousa
[25] – https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0741123/

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