James Best, whose prolific career included 83 movies and 600 TV shows but is best remembered for his role as Rosco P. Coltrane, the bumbling sheriff of Hazzard, died Monday night in Hickory.
Best was 88. He died in hospice after a brief illness of complications from pneumonia, said Steve Latshaw, a longtime friend and Hollywood colleague.
Best’s career included roles in such movies as “The Caine Mutiny” with Humphrey Bogart and “Shenandoah” with Jimmy Stewart. After television came to the fore in the 1950s, Best found roles on popular shows like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “The Andy Griffith Show.”
But it was in “The Dukes of Hazzard,” a rural comedy that ran on CBS from 1979 to 1985, that Best became a national figure. As Hazzard’s ever-frustrated lawman catching the dickens from a demanding Boss Hogg, he found himself constantly in pursuit – and ever outwitted – by Luke and Bo Duke in their Dodge Charger “General Lee.”
“I acted the part as good as I could,” said Best in a 2009 interview with The Charlotte Obsserer. “Rosco – let’s face it – was a charmer. It was a fun thing.”
Best and his wife Dorothy moved to the Bethlehem community near Hickory in 2006 from Orlando. At their home on Lake Hickory, he did the thing in life he liked the best – fishing, said Latshaw. He also wrote a book about his career as an actor, writer, producer and director, “Best in Hollywood: The Good, The Bad and the Beautiful.”
“Only thing that makes me sad about having so little time left,” Best wrote in the book, “is leaving the people I love and those who love me. There are also films and other projects that I want to get done, and there are always fish that need catching.”
He never truly retired, taking on the lead role in “On Golden Pond” in 2014 for Hickory Community Theater opposite Hollywood veteran Norma Frank.
“I learned more about acting in front of a camera from Jimmie Best in an afternoon than from anyone else in a year,” John Schneider, who played Bo Duke, in a statement. “When asked to cry on camera, he would say, ‘Sure thing – which eye?’ I’m forever thankful to have cut my teeth in the company of such a fine man.”
Rick Hurst, who played Cletus Hogg, said: “I will always love Jimmie for his kindness to me, remembering him for his sparkling, piercing wit, and envying him for his full head of hair.”
Bit parts in movies
The youngest of eight brothers and a sister, Best was born Jewel Franklin Guy in hardscrabble Powderly, Ky., on July 26, 1926, to parents Lena Mae Everly Guy (sister of Ike Everly, father of entertainers Don and Phil Everly) and Larkin Jasper Guy. He spent time in an orphanage following his mother’s death in 1929, then was adopted by Essa and Armen Best and raised in Corydon, Ind.
His first professional stage experience came with the Army after World War II. His first role was in Germany playing a drunk in director Arthur Penn’s production of “My Sister Eileen.”
Penn later directed such movies as “Bonnie and Clyde,” “Little Big Man” and “Left Handed Gun” with Paul Newman – a film in which Best had a small role.
As a contract player at Universal Studios, Best played bit parts – mostly bad guys – from westerns with Audie Murphy and Charlotte native Randolph Scott to bits in “Ma and Pa Kettle at the Fair” and “Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man.”
On TV, Best had featured roles in two episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show,” where he played a Mayberry musician who hit the big time only to be revealed as a down-and-outer, and appeared in “The Jar,” a haunting episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Other popular shows he got roles on included “Perry Mason,” “Gunsmoke,” “Ben Casey” and “Twilight Zone.”
In 1959, Best starred in a low-budget horror flick, “The Killer Shrews,” in which giant shrews go on a rampage during a hurricane. B-movie effects included cheesy puppet shrews. It became a cult classic.
In 2010, Best finished work on a sequel, “Return of the Killer Shrews,” reprising his role as a boat captain who survived the shrews.
Taught others actors
Best’s academic credentials include teaching motion picture technique and drama at the University of Mississippi, where he was artist-in-residence, and teaching at the University of Central Florida.
For 25 years, Best taught an acting technique class in Hollywood and worked with such celebrities as Gary Busey, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Teri Garr, Farrah Fawcett and Quentin Tarantino.
“As a teacher, he influenced a generation of actors,” Ben Jones, who played the role of Cooter Davenport on “Dukes of Hazzard,” said in a statement. “That creative energy and zest for life were there until the end.”
One thing that sold Best on doing “The Dukes of Hazzard” was the location where the first episodes were shot: Conyers, Ga., an area known for good fishing. But later the production moved back to California. It was a grueling pace, Best told The Observer. “But it was good money.”
Best played his part wide open, like the show’s good ol’ boy car chases. Scenes with Boss Hogg, played by Sorrell Booke, “were 90 percent ad libbed,” Best said. “He was such a professional.”
Best said the cast, which also included Denver Pyle, Tom Wopat, Catherine Bach and Sonny Shroyer, “was like a family.”
“Dukes of Hazzard” was a top 10 prime-time show for three seasons, 1979 to 1982, and sired two spinoffs: “Enos,” based on one of the show’s deputies, and “The Dukes,” a Saturday cartoon show, plus reunion specials.
A dog named Flash
Fans of the program would remember Flash, a molasses-paced basset hound who accompanied Sheriff Coltrane on patrol.
Best rescued the dog from a pound and brought it to the set at the beginning of the third season, suggesting the sheriff needed a partner. Producers didn’t like the dog, but Best prevailed and she got a role.
Best was keenly devoted to dogs and an advocate for their humane treatment. He liked to greet fans who would bring their own basset hounds to meet him meet him and kept “doggie num nums” handy to win them over.
Fought Warner Bros.
In 2011, Best filed suit against Time Warner for using his image on “Dukes of Hazzard” merchandise ranging from Christmas ornaments to trash cans. His lawsuit, filed against Time Warner and Warner Brothers Entertainment, said that under his 1978 contract, he was entitled to 5 percent of royalties for “Dukes of Hazzard” merchandise bearing Sheriff Coltrane’s likeness.
In the three decades since the series first aired, Best said he received only $175,000 in royalties. He estimated Warner Bros. underestimated royalties, and said he might have been due more than $5 million. In 2013, he reached an undisclosed settlement the day before the case was to go to trial.
Kept in show businessBest’s last film was “The Sweeter Side of Life,” a 2013 Hallmark movie written and produced by his daughter, Janeen Damian, and her husband, Michael, who also directed. He was scheduled to star in “Old Soldiers,” a feature film about World War II veterans that was to begin filming this year.
Best is survived by his wife, actress Dorothy Collier, his son Gary Allen Best and wife Angela Best, daughter JoJami Best Tyler and husband Eric Tyler, and daughter Janeen Damian and husband Michael Damian; and three grandchildren.
Private arrangements are pending. Memorial donations may be made to the Humane Society.