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Best man tells all about Hollywood career

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Film and television star James Best, known most famously as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on “The Dukes of Hazzard,” has gained recognition in recent years for his Southern landscape paintings and now has his autobiography on the bookshelves.

Ken Beck/The Wilson Post 

 

This bunch of bad dudes in the 1968 western “Firecreek” includes, from left, James Best, Jack Elam, Morgan Woodward, Gary Lockwood and Henry Fonda.

Ken Beck/The Wilson Post 

 

As Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, James Best had a doggoned good time with his hound, Flash.

Ken Beck/The Wilson Post 

STAR MEMORIES: James Best comments on stars he worked with in films. 

Jimmy Stewart: “The epitome of what an actor should be. He had the integrity, the honesty, the sincerity and the motivation, and the man was an impeccable, very talented actor. On top of that he was a very kind, gracious, giving man and also a war hero.”

Paul Newman: “I loved Paul as a person, but I didn’t love his politics. He works entirely differently than I do in developing character. He builds his character in layers and polishes it. Paul was full of pranks and gags.”

Randolph Scott: “A very sweet gentleman, very nice, but the cheapest man I had ever met in my life.”

Burt Reynolds: “I told Burt, ‘You’re five different people, and I hate three of them.’ Burt is a very self-assured man, and he never lets an opportunity pass that he doesn’t take advantage of.”

Audie Murphy: “Audie was the total hero but a very private guy. He and I did five movies and we really enjoyed each other. I told him, ‘You don’t make many friends,’ and he said, ‘Jimmie, I don’t make friends. I lost my friends in the war.’”  

Meet James Best Actor-writer-artist James Best, best known as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on TV’s “The Dukes of Hazzard,” will sign his autobiography, “Best in Hollywood: The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful” ($25, BearManor Media), 6-9 p.m. Friday at Sherlock's Book Emporium in Lebanon and 6-9 p.m. Saturday at Sherlock's Book Emporium in downtown Nashville as part of the Downtown Art Crawl. He also will have his paintings for sale each night. Sherlock’s Book Emporium in Lebanon is at 200 Maddox-Simpson Parkway. 449-9807. Sherlock’s Book Emporium in Nashville is at 235 Fifth Ave. N. 248-1962. For more information, go to www.sherlocksbooks.com. For more about actor-artist Best, go online to www.jamesbest.com and www.jamesbestart.com. By KEN BECKSpecial to The Wilson Post

You know him best as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, but it might surprise you to know that “Dukes of Hazzard” star James Best also paints and writes.

He will be in town Friday night to sign his autobiography, “Best in Hollywood,” and offer his paintings at Sherlock’s Bookstore in Lebanon, and then Saturday night, will sign his book and sell his artwork at the Sherlock’s Bookstore in Nashville as part of the Downtown Art Crawl.

“I decided to write this book to share my own personal journey living the American Dream,” said Best, 83, who made more than 80 movies and 600 TV appearances. “I hope it can inspire, as well as provide an honest, historical depiction of how Hollywood once was . . . and perhaps could be again some day.”

As for his skills on a canvas, the self-taught Best, who took art class in grade school but was booted out by his teacher, said, “Years later I took up painting for relaxation, and I got better and better at it. I was very persistent and finally started selling some of my stuff. I had celebrities buy some of my paintings, such as Burt Reynolds, Jerry Lewis, Lucie Arnaz and Andy Williams.

“I just kept painting. I paint every day now and have sold some to Europe, and I do commission paintings. I paint Southern landscapes and some still-lifes. What I love to paint mostly is old barns and ponds and creeks that I might conjure up in my mind.” 

The actor nearly brushed off the idea of auditioning for “Dukes of Hazzard,” but when he found out they would begin filming in Conyers, Ga., the same place he produced the Burt Reynolds movie “Gator,” he was eager to go because of the Southern hospitality and the fishing, his favorite sport.

“I knew they had a good cast with a blonde guy (Bo Duke/John Schneider), a brunette guy (Luke Duke/Tom Wopat) and a good-looking girl (Daisy Duke/Catherine Bach) who would stop you in her pair of shorts. The grandfather (Uncle Jesse/Denver Pyle) and Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke) and Rosco (Best) and that car, the General Lee, covered all the bases,” Best recollected.

“I didn’t want to play the sheriff like a mean guy and decided to play him like a 12-year-old that likes hot pursuit. I wanted to play him as comedy. The first two episodes were written straight, and I thought, ‘I’m not going to do this,’ so they let us change the personality of Boss Hogg and Rosco to be sort of like Laurel and Hardy characters. Sorrell Booke and I had a great bond. I ad-libbed over 90 percent of the stuff.”

Born to a coal miner in Powderly, Ky., Best wound up in an orphanage. Adopted at age 4, he grew up in Corydon, Ind. (the town will honor its native son with a celebration June 4-5). Enlisting in the Army Air Corps in 1944, he served as a military policeman in Germany, and that was where he got his first taste of the lights and greasepaint in the play, “My Sister Eileen.”

When he returned stateside, Best hitchhiked to New York and worked in plays, where he was spotted by a talent scout with Universal Studios. So by 1949, he found himself in Hollywood studying acting with classmates Tony Curtis, Rock Hudson, Audie Murphy and Shelley Winters.

He also got to hang around the sound stages, where he discovered Jimmy Stewart making the film “Harvey.” Best later was to make five films with this his acting icon. He also got small roles in popular Universal film franchises such as “Abbott & Costello,” “Ma and Pa Kettle” and “Francis, the Talking Mule.”

“It was a thrill every day. I’d go to that studio as soon as the sun came up because I wanted to learn everything I possibly could. I never stopped acting. . . . I have a one-track mind. Once I decided I was going to be an actor, I wanted to be the best character actor I could be. I didn’t want to be a leading man. I told them, ‘Let me play a character man,’ and I’m 83 and still acting.”

Of his film work, he is most pleased with his westerns, such as “The Left-Handed Gun” with Paul Newman and “Winchester '73," “Firecreek” and “Shenandoah,” all with Stewart.

“Westerns were difficult, because in those days they didn’t double you as much as they do now. It was really tough. You did your own horsebacking, and if you fell off that was just tough. I did over 200 westerns and there was not one of them that I didn’t draw blood somewhere.”

Best appeared as a guest in dozens of television shows such as “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “The Twilight Zone,” “Gunsmoke” and “The Andy Griffith Show.”

He said, “After 600 TV shows and 83 movies, there are three things that fans ask me about: ‘The Dukes of Hazzard,’ ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ and my Achilles heel, ‘The Killer Shrews.’”

The latter, a low-budget horror flick of the late 1950s, is more laughable than scary.

“We’re going to shoot a sequel to ‘Killer Shrews,’ probably this spring,” Best announced, adding that his wife, Dorothy, will produce it in tandem with director Steve Latshaw. “Steve believes in ‘Killer Shrews.’ He thinks it will make a fortune because of its cult following.”

Best left Los Angeles in the late 1960s to raise his two daughters in Jackson, Miss. For seven years he served as artist-in-residence at Ole Miss where he taught acting and worked in location films, such as “Ode to Billy Joe.”

After “Dukes of Hazzard” had its run, Best resettled in Florida, but tornados three years back chased him out of the Sunshine State, so today he makes his home in Hickory, N.C., where he fishes and paints. This week he will be angling for smallmouth bass at Dale Hollow Lake before he heads to Lebanon and Nashville for his Sherlock's bookstore appearances.

The actor is scheduled for an interview between 8:40 and 9 a.m. Friday on Bill Cody‘s morning show on WSM Radio (650 AM) and then will be a guest on “Talk of the Town” between 11 a.m. and noon on WTVF-Channel 5 with host Meryll Rose.

Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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