In the much-loved TV show The Dukes of Hazzard, broadcast from 1979 to 1985, Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane was the inept sidekick of corrupt crook Boss Hogg. Sheriff Coltrane was guaranteed to accidentally mess up Hogg’s nefarious plans in just about every episode. James Best, a hugely experienced actor, played the sheriff with apparent gusto. But few will know that Best’s C.V. also included a spell with the U.S military during and after WWII.
James Best was born in 1926 in Powderly, Kentucky, with the name Jewel Franklin Guy. His father was Lark Guy, his mother was Lena, and they already had eight children, seven boys and a solitary girl, when James was born. James’ family obviously had some showbiz genes – his cousins were the hugely successful vocal duo, the Everly Brothers.
Tragedy darkened the young boy’s life when he was just three years old. Afflicted with tuberculosis, Best’s mother died in 1929. The child now went into an orphanage for a spell before he was adopted by a couple called Best, Armen and his wife Essa. They took him into their home in Corydon, Indiana.
The Bests asked the young boy what forename he would like. “Jimmie” was his answer, perhaps influenced by the fact that one of his many brothers had that name. And so Jewel Guy became James Best, the name he was to keep for the rest of his life.
Armen Best taught his adopted son how to box and also introduced him to a variety of outdoor pursuits including fishing and shooting. James’ love affair with the outdoors was to last the rest of his life. While still a youngster, he played his first part on stage in a production of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.
Best also spent time packing groceries at the local Kroger and joined the Boy Scouts. Graduation from high school came in 1944 and he went on to join the U.S. Army Air Corps in that year. His ambition was to become a pilot.
Sadly, Best’s hopes of becoming a flier were dashed by the fact that at that point in World War Two, there was no shortage of pilots. There was however a need for gunners and radio operators, so Best was set to training for both those roles.
Best was sent to the base at Biloxi, Mississippi, to train for the role of a gunner aboard a B-17 Flying Fortress bomber. But before he was able to see any combat action, the war came to an end. Best was now reassigned to be a military policeman in occupied Germany.
The job of the U.S. military police in Germany was to restore law and order to a shattered nation and to help to lay the foundations for its reconstruction. At the time, there were fears that Nazi elements known as the Werwolfs might pose a real threat even after the total defeat of Germany. As things turned out, there was little hostile action. Nevertheless, the military police had an important role in keeping order.
After his spell in the military police, Best’s career in the army took a turn that came much closer to the vocation that would dominate the rest of his life – acting. He was able to do this in post-war Germany by joining the Special Services, a unit dedicated to providing entertainment for American troops.
Best – now a sergeant – may well have been enticed into the Special Services unit by more than his aspirations to be an actor. Members of the unit were lucky enough to get better lodgings and food than the average G.I.s. There were also better opportunities for the likes of a handsome young man such as Best to meet members of the opposite sex.
Whatever his true motivation, Best now secured his first professional role with the Special Service unit – the part of a drunk in a play called My Sister Eileen. And then, once Best’s military service came to an end, he headed for New York City in search of fame and fortune.
Best now got a variety of roles in stock productions, but it was actually his occasional modeling work that brought him to the attention of Hollywood. After a casting director spotted him, he was signed up by Universal Studios as a contract player. His contracted peers included such future stars as Tony Curtis, Shelley Winters and Rock Hudson.
Best now got plenty of work, appearing in movies alongside top Hollywood names such as Paul Newman and James Stewart. However, he had built something of a reputation as a tricky character to deal with, and Universal brought his contract to an end.
Although he’d now acted in some major productions, it wasn’t beneath Best to also take parts in some minor and bizarre projects. One such was the 1959 The Killer Shrews. The title alone is probably enough to reveal the fact that this production was a low-budget sci-fi movie. In fact, it was one of those films that were so bad that it has achieved a cult following over the years.
Best also had a prolific TV career during the 1950s and 1960s, appearing in everything from The Fugitive to Wagon Train and Bonanza. And it was television that was to provide Best with the role that he is best remembered for today – Sheriff Rosco in The Dukes of Hazzard.
The viewing public was first able to sample the delights of Dukes in January 1979. And they were able to continue enjoying it through seven seasons and 147 episodes, not to mention two reunion movies. And this was a project that was originally drafted in as a mid-season replacement for a failed show.
In fact, Best’s motivations for joining the show seem to have been mixed. On the one hand, he was keen to work again with his long-time friend Denver Pyle, who played sagacious old-timer Uncle Jesse Duke in the show. On top of that was the fact that the shooting location happened to be near some excellent fishing spots, so Best could indulge in one of his favorite pastimes.
After Dukes ended its TV run in 1985, Best was able to pursue other acting roles as well as some of his wide variety of interests. He was a painter of some talent, he enjoyed writing stories, songs and poetry, and he also found the time to run an acting school. The school attracted such talents as Quentin Tarantino and Glen Campbell.
With his undoubted acting ability and his wide range of interests, Best led what can only be described as a full life, one that included three marriages. Like so many of his generation, his wartime experience was an important part of his life, a time when he took the first meaningful steps in his acting carrier. James Best died in April 2015 when he was 88 years old.