Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Reflection on James Best

This morning the first bit of news I learned saddened me:   James Best had died last night (Monday, April 6, 2015). Like many who grew up during the early 1980s, I had first became acquainted with Best through The Dukes of Hazzard where he played the dimwitted, but lovable sheriff of Hazzard County, Rosco P. Coltrane.  Occasionally I would see Best in an old episode of television (The Twilight Zone, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Andy Griffith Show, etc.) or see him in a movie (Hooper) and would think, “There’s good old Rosco.”

 I also remember when I was in college and was studying everything I could about the film industry. During that time, I read interviews and biographies by every actor and director I had the slightest interest in. Many of those interviews and Q&A’s with stars would recommend that if a person wanted to work as an actor in Hollywood, they should take an acting class. I remember on more than one occasion that the interviewee recommended that people take the acting course taught by James Best. I didn’t realize it at the time (although I should have), but apparently, Mr. Best taught the best acting for the camera class in L.A. and he influenced an entire generation of stars including Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Teri Garr, Lindsay Wagner, and Farrah Fawcett.

Last June I had the opportunity to spend a couple days with Mr. Best (I wasn’t close enough to call him Jimmie) and his lovely wife Dorothy when they came to Greenville, IL for a couple days during Greenville’s  annual summer car show. Over the past years I’ve had the privilege and the opportunity to work with a variety of talent as they have come to town for speaking engagements and appearances. Each experience has been memorable and every person I’ve met has been unique. James Best is probably the biggest celebrity I’ve met, and out of them all, he has (so far) been the most down-to-Earth and fun-loving.

I met Mr. Best and Dorothy on a Friday night during a special one-man show he performed at the Globe Theater. The show ran well over two hours and it was a fascinating evening. Mr. Best talked about his life, his time in the military, how he got into show business, and he told many stories about the famous people he worked with in film and in television. The show concluded with a Q&A. I remember him saying that the reason he was able to work so much (he acted in 83 movies and over 600 episodes of television) was because he was willing to do whatever it took and that he took advantage of every opportunity that presented itself. For instance, he explained how he used death scenes to give himself a few minutes more in front of the camera or how he would add a few additional lines on a tv show or perform some improved scenes in the background of a movie all to get a little more time in front of the camera.

I spent the next morning with Mr. Best and Dorothy at breakfast before his long day of greeting fans and signing autographs at the car show. For me, that breakfast was the highlight of my experience with James Best.  Mr. Best & Dorothy shared with me a lot about their lives.  They told me about L.A.in the 1960s and how it used to be one of the best cities in the country, how it changed in the late 1970s, and how that it’s so different now that it’s like another world that isn’t fit for children to be raised in. They lamented about some of the changes in the industry and the lack of wholesome family entertainment.  They shared with me that, although out of the limelight, neither one of them could get rid of the acting bug (they had just finished a production of On Golden Pond earlier that year) and encouraged my own endeavors with the local theatre organization I was a part.

After breakfast that day, I took Mr. Best and Dorothy to their booth and spent the day serving them: helping them sell their merchandise, keeping the lines of people moving in an orderly fashion, getting them water, etc. It was pretty much like any other typical day at a car show or convention. At the end of the day I took Mr. Best and his wife back to their hotel and that is where I made my farewell.

I only spent two days with James Best. During those two days, I saw how kind he was to people. I learned about his generosity (for instance, when he taught classes in Mississppi, he gave up part of his salary in arrangement for hiring students to work on the films he acted in during that time) and his love for animals and nature. He was just as good-natured and fun-loving in real-life as the famous sheriff he played on tv with a zest for life that inspired those around him. Although many of his performances will live on through the magic of film, they can’t compare to the man who brought those performances to life. Rest in peace, James Best.

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