Despite having played some of the orneriest bad guys in films and on television for over four decades, actor James Best was forever ingrained in the minds of audiences as the bumbling Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on "The Dukes of Hazzard" (CBS, 1979-1985). A World War II veteran, he fell in love with acting while serving in Europe, and became a Universal contract player in the early 1950s. Scores of small film roles led to steady work in television and films, frequently as villainous cowpokes in "Ride Lonesome" (1959) and "Shenandoah" (1965). The bumbling Roscoe P. Coltrane showcased Best's rarely-seen comic side to its fullest, and if it typecast him for the remainder of his career, he did not seem to mind. A respected acting teacher and occasional producer-director, he settled into independent film production and enjoyed the minor immortality afforded by nostalgia and television reruns.
Born Jules Guy on July 26, 1926 in Powderly, KY, he was first cousin to Don and Phil Everly, better known as the pop group the Everly Brothers, through his mother's side of the family. One of nine children, Best's family was torn apart by his father's alcoholism and the financial devastation of the Great Depression. When his mother died in 1929, Best and his siblings were given up for adoption. The three-year-old was adopted by Armen and Essy Best and raised in Corydon, IN. After high school, he was a metalworker before joining the U.S. Army to serve in World War II; Best served on Army Air Corps B-17s and as a military policeman in postwar Germany. A chance encounter with a USO performer inspired him to audition for Army Special Services, which sent him across Europe as an actor in the play "My Sister Eileen." His director was Arthur Penn, who later enjoyed fame for helming "Bonnie and Clyde" (1967).
After his discharge, Best headed for New York City to try his hand as a professional actor. Like many others, he landed small parts without much consistency, and supplemented his income by working as a model. When an opportunity arose to audition for a Universal Studios talent representative, Best gave his all and was signed to a contract. There, alongside such fellow up-and-comers as Clint Eastwood, Shelley Winters and Tony Curtis, he was given bit and supporting parts in features, starting in 1950 with an uncredited turn in "One Way Street" (1950). A friendship with decorated World War II vet-turned-actor Audie Murphy led to more substantial roles in "Kansas Raiders" (1950) and a growing fan base of starstruck females. But an ill-timed dalliance with the girlfriend of a Universal executive put an end to his contract, and he was back to bit parts in films like "The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms" (1953).
Cowboy star Gene Autry took a liking to Best, casting him in several of his kid-oriented Western series, including "Annie Oakley" (syndicated, 1953-56) and "The Gene Autry Show" (CBS, 1950-56). Time and patience eventually elevated him from background player in films like "Forbidden Planet" (1956) to a character actor specializing in intense, often unhinged Southern men like the psychopathic lead in "Man on the Prowl" (1957); "The Left-Handed Gun" (1958) as a wild sidekick to Paul Newman's Billy the Kid; and the vicious outlaw targeted by bounty hunter Randolph Scott in Budd Boetticher's "Ride Lonesome" (1959). There were protagonists on Best's résumé as well, like the cult favorite "The Killer Shrews" (1959) and a rare lead in "Verboten!" (1959), a gritty drama by Samuel Fuller about an American GI in postwar Germany that bore similarities to Best's own military experience.
Television became Best's steadiest source of income in the early 1960s; Westerns were of course a natural destination, but he was also memorably featured in three episodes of "The Twilight Zone" (CBS, 1959-1964) and twice on "The Andy Griffith Show" (CBS, 1960-68) as Jim Lindsay, a talented musician who needs a little guidance from Andy. Features during this period were few, though "Shock Corridor" (1963), his second film for Samuel Fuller, provided him with a show-stopping part as a shell-shocked Korean War vet who believes himself to be Confederate colonel Jeb Stuart. Best also turned up in the Jerry Lewis comedy "Three on a Couch" (1966), which featured the screen credit "Introducing James Best," and the Westerns "Shenandoah" (1965) and "Firecreek" (1968), both starring his acting hero, James Stewart.
In 1964, Best established his own acting school in Los Angeles. He soon became known as one of the best teachers in the city, and counted such talents as Farrah Fawcett, Gary Busey, Teri Garr and his children's babysitter, Lindsay Wagner, among his pupils. He maintained the school until 1971, when he relocated with his family to Mississippi, where he became the artist-in-residence at the University of Mississippi and continued to teach drama, in addition to helping to establish the Mississippi Film Commission.
In the years prior to "The Dukes of Hazzard," Best ironically played some of his darkest roles in films and on television; he was the racist sheriff who arrests Paul Winfield, separating him from his family, in "Sounder" (1972); a cross-dressing lumber mill owner who seduces Robby Benson in "Ode to Billy Joe" (1976); and a venal thief who mutilates traumatized Vietnam War vet William Devane, setting off a brutal revenge streak in the Paul Schrader-penned "Rolling Thunder" (1977). Best also began his career behind the camera on several films for longtime friend Burt Reynolds, including "Gator" (1976) and "The End" (1978). Best served as associate producer on the former, and uncredited director on both films; his role was to direct the scenes when Reynolds, the credited director, was on camera. The pair also appeared together in Peter Bogdanovich's "Silent Movie" (1976) and "Hooper" (1978).
The following year, Best received the part that became his calling card for the next three decades - that of Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on "The Dukes of Hazzard." Initially, the role was darker and more in tone with some of Best's previous bad guy parts; in one early episode, Coltrane even murdered a man. But when the network discovered that children were tuning into the series, the focus - and Best's character - was given a more cartoonish feel. Inept, utterly corrupt and borderline idiotic, Coltrane became one of the show's most popular characters, providing much of the laughs in his interaction with main villain Boss Hogg (Sorrell Booke), who was also his brother-in-law. Best improvised much of his dialogue with Booke in their scenes together, and also gave the character his famous pinched delivery and stuttering laugh; it was reportedly a voice he used when playing with his children.
Best stayed with "The Dukes" for its entire network run, and even reprised his role on the animated spin-off, "The Dukes" (CBS, 1983). He also co-wrote and rewrote numerous episodes, and directed three between 1981 and 1984. In 1997, he reunited with his original castmates for "The Dukes of Hazzard: Reunion" (CBS), which saw Coltrane promoted to town boss, and "Hazzard in Hollywood" (CBS, 2000), as well as several "Dukes"-related video games. Rosco P. Coltrane would eventually come to dominate Best's career; though he had been an actor for over four decades, and the role had made him financially sound, producers and casting directors could not see him as anyone but the silly sheriff. Aside from a few appearances on episodic television and in independent films - one of which, "Death Mask" (1998), he also wrote - Best retired from acting. A resident of Florida since 1987, he taught acting at the University of Central Florida and served on the Advisory Council for the Motion Picture, Television and Recording Industry of the state. With his second wife, actress Dorothy Best, he established a production company, Best Friend Films, which offered high definition production services for independent producers.