Although the popular actor known for playing Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, and also two episodes of “The Andy Griffith Show,” died in 2015, it was still the Best of times Thursday afternoon in Mount Airy.
James Best continued to take center stage, via film clips from his long career, in a program at the Earle Theatre presented by wife Dorothy and David Browning, the Mayberry Deputy, who sometimes performed with Best in his later years.
And while most fans remember Best from his “best”-known role as Sheriff Rosco on “The Dukes of Hazzard” television series, Thursday’s tribute — titled “Remember Me with Laughter” — revealed many sides of the actor, a Mayberry Days regular until his death at 88.
In addition to acclaimed appearances in numerous Hollywood movies and TV series, Best — who moved to Hickory in 2006 — was an artist, a writer, a poet and more, which was highlighted during Thursday’s program.
It was richly illustrated with photographs, archival interviews, examples of his artwork featuring nature scenes and video footage of poetry readings flashing on the big screen at the Earle, which were intermingled with remarks by Dorothy Best and Browning.
“Today is more about the man — than just the actor,” Best’s widow said.
Best would never have entered the acting profession if not for a twist of fate while serving as an MP (military policeman) in Germany right after World War II. He met and became infatuated with a young lady in a uniform bearing the insignia CAT, which he would learn stood for civilian actress technician.
She was part of a touring group that did U.S. Army productions in post-war years and said she wouldn’t go out with Best unless he attended her latest play at Wiesbaden Opera House — which he did.
“And I was like a kid in Disneyland,” Best says in a clip from an interview which was shown to Thursday afternoon’s audience, with that experience opening up “a different world” to him.
The MP, then about 20, decided that theater life was for him rather than apprehending remnants of Hitler’s faithful, telling other members of the acting troupe, “I’m getting shot at every night, and you guys are touring with pretty girls.”
After leaving the service, Best hitchhiked to New York to become an actor, struggling at first until subsequently landing a movie contract with Universal Pictures.
Studio bosses wanted the fledgling actor to change his name from Best — the surname of the parents who adopted him after the Kentucky native was orphaned at age 3 — saying it would open him up to criticism if his work wasn’t indeed “best.”
However, Best refused.
Western movies dominated his earlier career, with roles alongside such actors as Randolph Scott, Humphrey Bogart, James Stewart, Henry Fonda and Walter Brennan.
“He loved Jimmy Stewart,” Dorothy Best said of her husband, who appeared with Stewart in memorable films including “Winchester ‘73,” “Shenandoah” and “Firecreek.”
Best was in nearly 200 movies and TV episodes in all and relished his supporting roles, although his characters got killed “probably 90 percent of the time,” it was noted Thursday.
“I never wanted to be a leading man,” Dorothy Best recalled him saying.
Although he was handsome in his own right, Best believed leading men’s careers became limited as their good lucks diminished, while character actors kept on working.
He even dabbled in comedy at times, including a 1966 film starring and directed by Jerry Lewis, “Three on a Couch.”
Best and Lewis would become good friends, something Lewis often didn’t accomplish due to a reputation of rubbing some people the wrong way. Best once told Lewis, as documented in an interview clip shown Thursday: “You’re five people, and I hate three of you.”
Andy Griffith Show
Best would incorporate some of the mannerisms displayed while working with Lewis in “Three on a Couch” when he later assumed the Rosco P. Coltrane role — but first there was a foray into Mayberry.
He appeared as charismatic guitar player Jim Lindsey in only the third episode of “The Andy Griffith Show.”
In that particular segment, originally broadcast on Oct. 17, 1960, Andy tries to help Lindsey get a job with a touring band that stops for lunch in Mayberry. This is accomplished by giving the group a parking ticket and then forcing its members to listen to Lindsey while jailed in the courthouse.
Best made a reappearance during the same season, again as Lindsey, for his second and final episode on the program.
“To him at the time, it was another job,” Dorothy Best said Thursday of her husband’s guest stints on a series that would gain an immense cult following, as evidenced by the continuing popularity of Mayberry Days.
This led to invitations to Best in later years to appear at various festivals honoring “The Andy Griffith Show,” which puzzled him.
“I did two episodes,” his wife recalled him saying. “What do they want me for?”
The answer was that the two episodes Best guest-stars in are quite popular with fans.
No career summary for James Best would be complete without exploring his signature role, and Thursday’s program including a series of clips from his days on “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
“What an amazing role,” Dorothy Best observed Thursday.
“He built it from the ground up,” Browning said.
Best told a local reporter during a 2008 interview that his portrayal of Sheriff Rosco was a result of a well-thought-out approach to the characterization. “I said, ‘I’m not going to play a mean cop, I’m going to play a cop who’s like a twelve-year-old who likes high-speed pursuits.’’’
The funny noises Coltrane made when he became flustered were the same ones used to amuse his daughters when they were little, Best added in 2008.
Yet similar to others benefiting from such memorable roles, who also become stereotyped in the process, “it’s a two-edged sword,” he said then of his work on “The Dukes of Hazzard.”
“I don’t really want to have it on my tombstone, ‘Here lies Rosco P. Coltrane.’”
Thursday’s presentation at the Earle showed that James Best will be known for more than just his film and TV roles.
Examples of his paintings that were displayed on the screen featured waterfalls, rivers, cabins in the woods and other nature scenes rich with texture and color that might rival those of art masters such as Monet.
Various clips also revealed a deep, thoughtful side of James Best, including his recording of “Summer Storm a ‘Comin,’” a song that includes Best’s somber narration highlighting the plight of Dust Bowl families in the 1930s.
The program by Dorothy Best also focused on Best’s interest in the Civil War, which was sparked by his 1965 role in “Shenandoah” that includes his character getting shot in the head during a bloody battle scene.
Best would write a poem about the futility of the war that cost the lives of about 700,000 Americans fighting for their respective causes, which contains the lines:
“When brother fights brother, somebody’s got to die — the loser gets the grave, the winner gets to cry.”
Tom Joyce may be reached at 336-415-4693 or on Twitter @Me_Reporter.