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Anthony James, memorable film villain who traded acting for being an artist, dies at 77

Mr. James played the villain trade in films and TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” “The A-Team,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and a memorably comic turn in “The Naked Gun 2 ½.”
Mr. James played the villain trade in films and TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” “The A-Team,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and a memorably comic turn in “The Naked Gun 2 ½.”Karen Watson

With an angular face that Hollywood found menacing, Anthony James made a steady living as an actor, cast for more than a quarter century as a villain — the kind of character he never was in real life.

And so at 50 he walked away, trading Los Angeles and movie sets for Arlington and an art studio, where he created abstract paintings that let his soul to speak.

“The art is the unburdening of the heart,” he told the Globe in 1995. “I know that’s a little saccharine, too sweet. But it is emotional — a struggle to unburden oneself.”

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Mr. James, who began and ended his film career in Oscar-winning movies, died May 26 of cancer. He was 77 and had lived in Arlington since the early 1990s.

Arriving in Los Angeles at the outset of the 1960s, not long after he graduated from high school, Mr. James became the center of coterie of actors who aspired to greatness.

With support from his mother, who had traveled with him from his South Carolina hometown, he even provided other actors with a place to meet and talk and hone their performances.

“He was just an extraordinary light for many of us,” said his longtime friend Talia Shire, who is known for her roles in the “Godfather” and “Rocky” movies.

“We were intoxicated with the possibility of being an artist,” she added. “He had a sense of art and beauty and discipline that gave us — all of us — a sense that we could do things, too.”

For Mr. James, part of that journey meant changing his name. He was born James Anthony, but there was already an actor by that name, so he flipped his to become Anthony James.

His face, meanwhile, was his calling card on the screen, beginning with his first film role as a villain in 1967’s “In the Heat of the Night” and ending with his portrayal of brothel owner Skinny Dubois in 1992’s “Unforgiven” — two films that won the Academy Award for best picture.

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“In film, we speak shorthand,” Clint Eastwood, who directed “Unforgiven” and had first met Mr. James on the set of 1973’s “High Plains Drifter,” told the Globe in 1995.

“With Anthony, for better or worse, his face communicated evil to an audience,” Eastwood added. “He was the villain.”

Mr. James played the villain trade in films and TV shows such as “Gunsmoke,” “Buck Rogers in the 25th Century,” “The A-Team,” “Star Trek: The Next Generation,” and a memorably comic turn in “The Naked Gun 2 ½.”

But even in Hollywood, Mr. James was a visual artist.

“He did a portrait of me. He did a portrait of all his friends,” said Robert E. Brown, a writer and longtime communications professor who met Mr. James in Los Angeles when they were in their 20s. “He kept painting. He loved painting.”

The son of Greek immigrants, Mr. James read extensively, and his love of literature informed his art.

“In the paintings, there is a sort of lament because, when you're young, you do believe that everything’s going to lead to something,” he told the Globe in 1995.

“When you come to the conclusion that life doesn’t, that’s the tragedy,” he added. “Even if the supposition was based on a fantasy, the loss of a fantasy is just as tragic as if it had been real. The irony is that you can feel a sense of perpetual loss for something that never was. So a lot of the work has that sense of homesickness for a home that never was.”

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An only child, James Anthony was born on July 22, 1942, and grew up in Myrtle Beach, S.C.

His parents, George Anthony and Marika Palla, had met and married in Greece before moving to the United States. Mr. James was a boy when he became acquainted with loss.

“My father died when I was 8,” he told the Globe. “Let’s just say that things were pretty tough for my mother and I. My mother had too much pride to go back to Greece. But she worked very hard to take care of me. Even when I was 18 and wanted to go to Los Angeles to become an actor, she came along to support me. She’s an extraordinary woman.”

At 6-foot-6, he had played football in high school, where he also was an award-winning artist, an accomplished dancer, and a gifted singer.

After Mr. James graduated, he and his mother traveled to Los Angeles by train and bus, a couple of hundred dollars in their pockets. He landed jobs through his disciplined approach to studying acting, and also because of his unforgettable presence.

“The skin stretches tightly over his skull, like a translucent canvas pulled taut over a frame, suggesting the sort of image Edvard Munch might have envisioned for ‘The Scream,’” the Globe’s Michael Blowen wrote in the 1995 profile.

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Mr. James called his 2014 memoir “Acting My Face,” and used as a cover photo a headshot with the look that kept drawing acting offers long after he left Hollywood.

Inside, Mr. James couldn’t have been more distant from the characters he portrayed.

“His heart was so big and his focus was always on the most marginalized, the most vulnerable among us,” Roanne Edwards of Medford, his closest friend in his years after he moved to Arlington.

Though film and TV directors rarely offered him the chance, Mr. James was also a deft comic actor, a talent friends valued.

“He was very funny and so witty and made me laugh all the time,” Edwards said.

“He had an extraordinary sense of humor,” said Shire, recalling his performances in “Naked Gun” and a set of comedic turns in the TV series “Gunsmoke.”

Eventually, acting in films lost its allure, particularly the logistics of unappealing locations.

“I didn’t want to wake up at 4:30 in the morning in Natchez, Mississippi, in some godforsaken swamp, to put eyeliner on and go out and strangle somebody,” Mr. James said in 1995 of his villain roles. “The people who really succeed in the movie business are the ones who really love it. I never did. To me, the process was like chewing ground glass.”

Marika Anthony, his beloved mother, died in 2008. Mr. James leaves no immediate survivors.

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“The loss of his mother was spectacularly hard,” Shire said. “She was a vital part of all of our lives.”

His friends will announce a memorial gathering in the future.

Mr. James also wrote poetry and penned the text for a glossy book of his paintings, when they were exhibited in a New York City gallery. His tastes in literature ranged from Greek tragedies to the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and beyond.

“He was constantly reading,” Shire said. “In conversation, everything was wonderful and elegant. He was very articulate. He had the ability to put it all together with philosophic references.”

Edwards recalled that Mr. James often quoted favorite passages, among them “I’m in mourning for my life,” from Anton Chekhov’s “The Seagull.”

“To the very last he was quoting that line,” she said.

“I never take anything for granted. Everything’s ephemeral,” Mr. James had told the Globe. “It’s one thing to know, as T.S. Eliot said, that every beginning contains its end. But to feel it in your muscles and bones and your sinew is an entirely different matter.”


Bryan Marquard can be reached at bryan.marquard@globe.com.