James Drury, taciturn star of ‘The Virginian’

NEW YORK — James Drury, an actor best remembered as the stolid, black-hatted title character of the long-running NBC western “The Virginian,” died on Monday at his home in Houston. He was 85.

Karen Lindsey, his assistant, confirmed the death in an e-mail but did not specify a cause.

Mr. Drury, who had iceberg-blue eyes and a no-nonsense mien befitting a frontier hero, appeared on television westerns such as “Broken Arrow,” “Cheyenne,” and “Wagon Train” before he landed the role on “The Virginian.” The show, which was loosely based on Owen Wister’s novel “The Virginian: A Horseman of the Plains” (1902), began airing in 1962.


Mr. Drury’s character, the tough but fair foreman of the Shiloh Ranch in Wyoming, was never named, and little of his history was revealed. He tussled with cattle rustlers and other outlaws threatening the ranch until “The Virginian” was canceled in 1971, after 249 episodes.

Only two other television westerns, “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza,” lasted longer (“Gunsmoke” the longest).

“The Virginian’s” weekly episodes were, unusual for a primetime series, 90 minutes long, requiring a grueling shooting schedule that Mr. Drury, speaking to Cowboys & Indians magazine in 2016, compared to “making a movie a week.”

The show featured many stunts, including tricky riding sequences and fistfights, that Mr. Drury sometimes took part in himself rather than having a stuntman take his place.

This had its advantages, such as allowing Mr. Drury’s face to appear in action shots, and its disadvantages, risking injuries. In one choreographed fight, a stuntman threw an extra punch, “which was not in the script and hit me in the temple like a Missouri mule,” Mr. Drury said in an oral history interview.

“The Virginian’s” cast, which rotated over the years, included Lee J. Cobb, Clu Gulager, Roberta Shore, and Charles Bickford.


The show also featured a host of guest stars, such as Bette Davis, Lee Marvin, Joan Crawford, Robert Redford, Leonard Nimoy, and Harrison Ford. Mr. Drury and Doug McClure, who played the lighthearted cowhand Trampas, were the only actors to stay with the series for its entire run.

In 2018, Mr. Drury told the Oklahoma newspaper The Daily Ardmoreite that he was grateful for his years as the Virginian, even though the role defined the rest of his career.

“The Virginian was an indelible character,” he said. “I had a great deal of issues getting past being seen as the man in the black hat.”

James Child Drury Jr. was born on April 18, 1934, in New York City to James and Beatrice Drury. His father was a professor of marketing at New York University, and his mother’s family owned a ranch in Salem, Ore.

He spent much of his childhood on the ranch, learning horseback riding, marksmanship, and other skills that would prove useful to his career in westerns. He started acting in the theater when he was 8.

Mr. Drury attended New York University but left after signing a contract with MGM. He appeared in films such as “Forbidden Planet” (1956); “Love Me Tender” (1956), Elvis Presley’s first feature film; and “Bernardine” (1957), Pat Boone’s first feature.