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‘The Garbo of the Sagebrush’
When James Drury starred in “The Virginian” from
1962 until 1971, he had such a reputation for recalcitrance
on the set and such a reluctance to reveal anything about
himself during interviews that he was known as “The
Garbo of the Sagebrush,” which was a nickname his father,
who was a professor of marketing at New York University, had
Drury tells me and my wife that he was reluctant to talk about himself at the
time because, for several years, he was married to one woman and living with
another. But he’s open about everything now.
We are sitting at a wrought iron table on a patio behind the Silverland Inn & Suites
in Virginia City the weekend after Labor Day, and we can hear the shouts from
the people attending the camel races down the hill from us. Drury smokes several
unfiltered Pall Malls during our conversation. The sky is an immaculate translucent
blue, and someone tells us you can see more than 140 miles. It’s easy to
Drury was born in 1933 in New York City, where he made his stage debut at age
8 when he played King Herod, crepe beard and all, in a Christmas production at
a Greenwich Village settlement house. But he also spent a lot of time in Oregon,
where his mother had a ranch. She’d married Drury’s father when she’d
gone to New York to study marketing. It’s a common enough story.
He smiles when I tell him that Kit had been a student of mine in a creative writing
class more than 35 years ago.
I wanted to meet Drury, not so much because he played The Virginian, but because
he had a role in Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country,” and
I’ve written three novels about a character I call Sam Bonner, who bears
more than a passing resemblance to Peckinpah.
Drury says he and Sam were friends for years, particularly during the time Drury
was a heavy drinker. He later quit in his 40s, something Peckinpah never did.
Drury met Sam when he was writing scripts for shows such as “Gunsmoke.” Drury
remembers Sam was already consumed with the idea of becoming a director and that
he already had what Drury calls some “revolutionary ideas” about
When I ask Drury to sign one of the original posters for “Ride the High
Country,” he obliges, saying, “Gee, where did you get that?”
Drury had finished his second year, taking all the acting courses he could at
NYU, when he went to visit his mother in Los Angeles. He imagined he’d
stay for a portion of the summer, but she dragged him to every audition available,
and he ended up being signed by MGM in 1954, where he was assigned minor roles.
When his contract lapsed, it was picked-up by 20th Century-Fox, where he had
a supporting role in “Bernadine” (1957) with Pat Boone and in “Love
Me Tender” (1958) with Elvis Presley.
In 1958, Drury also made a pilot TV film for Screen Gems that was based on the
Owen Wister story, “The Virginian.” It didn’t sell, but in
1962 Universal optioned the rights to it, casting Drury in the lead, although
it wasn’t easy.
Drury smiles. “They told me I was too fat; that I had to lose 10 pounds.
So I went home and lost it, but when I went back again, they told me I had to
lose another 10. Finally, I lost 30 pounds in 30 days jogging through the Los
Angeles River.” (The river bed consists of concrete during the summer.)
The schedule for “The Virginian” was grueling, since each episode
ran 90 minutes. Luckily, Drury says he has a photographic memory, and the 12-hour
days seemed easy to him, since he’d worked in summer stock, where he had
18-hour days and had to learn the dialogue for 13 three-act plays in eight weeks.
The rest, as they say, is history.
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