Tuesday, November 2, 2021

Jack Elam, Accountant Turned Star

Comical Character Actor Jack Elam

Jack Elam in "Support Your Local Gunfighter" (1971) legends.filminspector.com
Jack Elam in "Support Your Local Gunfighter" (1971).

Jack Elam was just an ordinary, even nerdy, guy in the 1930s. He loved bookkeeping and was quite happy working in offices. In fact, he was a terrific accountant. World War II came along and he enlisted, serving out his time NOT in the “actor’s division” in Hollywood but as an ordinary soldier. 

There's a story behind Elam's ability to serve. Ordinarily, those without sight in one eye cannot be in the military. However, that barrier was relaxed during World War II. Effective 1 August 1942, those who qualified only for limited service could be inducted. This specifically included those with sight only in one eye. These standards were further relaxed in the ensuring period so that those who qualified only for limited service could be shifted to general service. So, due to this change in standards, Jack Elam was able to join the U.S. military.

At the end of the war, Elam mustered out of the US Navy along with everyone else and returned to his accounting practice. However, this time he opened up his own office and worked for well-heeled people in Los Angeles.

And there the story might have ended, but one day Elam got some bad news from his doctor. A childhood accident had deprived him of the sight in one eye, and the doctor told him he was straining his remaining eye too much. If he continued working long hours as an accountant, he’d go blind.

Well, the poor fellow had no interest in doing anything else and no aptitude, either. Certainly, Jack would never be able to find another career that paid as well as his accounting gig.

So, Elam moped around for a while, at loose ends. He talked to one of his clients about his problem, and the man offered him a job. It wasn’t much of a job, and he had no training in the field, but he figured, well, why not.

The client was Jack Warner. The audiences loved the accountant. Elam went on to a spectacular career as a character actor playing heavies and ornery western parts, often with a broad comical edge. From what I have heard, Jack Elam was a hell of a nice guy, too.

Oh, one last thing. Late in his career, after he had been in films for decades, someone asked Jack Elam if he’d rather still be an accountant. “In a heartbeat,” he replied.

Jack Elam legends.filminspector.com
Jack Elam 1920-2003.