James Best, whose prolific career included 83 movies and 600 TV shows but is best remembered for portraying Rosco P. Coltrane, the bumbling sheriff of Hazzard County, died late Monday in Hickory at age 88.
Best died in hospice after a brief illness of complications from pneumonia, said Steve Latshaw, a longtime friend and Hollywood colleague. Best had fallen ill with respiratory trouble on a cruise and never recovered.
His career included roles in such movies as “The Caine Mutiny” with Humphrey Bogart and “Shenandoah” with Jimmy Stewart. As a character actor in television, he was cast on popular shows like “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Bonanza” 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 made his name. As Hazzard County’s ever-frustrated lawman catching the dickens from a blustery Boss Hogg, he found himself constantly in pursuit – and ever outwitted – by Luke and Bo Duke in their roaring Dodge Charger, the “General Lee.”
“Rosco – let’s face it – was a charmer,” Best said in a 2009 interview with The Charlotte Observer. “It was a fun thing.”
“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, said in a statement. “When asked to cry on camera, he would say, ‘Sure thing – which eye?’”
Came to the foothills
Best and his wife, actress Dorothy Collier, moved to the Bethlehem community near Hickory in 2006 from Orlando. At their home on Lake Hickory, Latshaw said, Best did the thing in life he liked the best – fishing. 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 said 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.
Pam Livingstone, who directed the production, said Tuesday that Best was an avid patron who supported the renovations to the historical theater, donating $25,000 for the rehearsal hall and allowing some of his oil paintings to be auctioned off, raising thousands more.
“He was very funny,” said Livingstone, the theater’s artistic director for the last 15 years. “Actors loved working with him. He was a real kick in the head.”
Bit parts in movies
Youngest of eight brothers and a sister, Best was born Jewel Franklin Guy in Powderly, Ky., on July 26, 1926, to 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 in Germany with the Army after World War II 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 a featured role in “The Jar,” a haunting episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” Other popular shows he got roles on included “Perry Mason,” “Gunsmoke,” “Ben Casey” and “The Twilight Zone.”
Worst movie of the year
In 1959, Best starred in a low-budget horror flick, “The Killer Shrews,” in which giant shrews rampage during a hurricane. B-movie effects included cheesy puppet shrews. It was so bad it was good and became a cult classic.
“They put hairy rugs on dogs to be the shrews,” Best recalled. “It was voted the worst picture of the year. Forgive me.”
In 2012, Best returned in a sequel, “Return of the Killer Shrews,” reprising his role as a boat captain who survived the ferocious shrews.
Taught other actors
Best’s academic credentials include teaching motion picture technique and drama at the University of Mississippi, where he was artist-in-residence. For 25 years, Best taught an acting technique class in Hollywood and worked with Gary Busey, Clint Eastwood, Burt Reynolds, Teri Garr, Farrah Fawcett and Quentin Tarantino.
One thing that sold Best on doing “The Dukes of Hazzard” was the location where the first episodes were shot: Covington, 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.”
Scenes with Boss Hogg, played by Sorrell Booke, who died in 1994, “were 90 percent ad-libbed,” Best said. “He was such a professional.”
“Dukes of Hazzard” was a top 10 prime-time show for three seasons, 1979 to 1982.
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 a dog lover who advocated for their humane treatment. He liked to greet fans who would bring their own basset hounds to meet him, and he kept “doggie num-nums” handy for them.
Best’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.
Lawrence Toppman and Joe DePriest contributed.