James Drury, best known for starring in the long-running Western series “The Virginian,” died Monday of natural causes. He was 85.
His assistant, Karen Lindsey, posted the news on Facebook: “It is with immense sadness that I let you all know that James Drury, our beloved Virginian and dear friend passed away this morning of natural causes, Monday, April 6, 2020. He will be missed so much. It is beyond words. Memorial service to be determined later.”
Drury was born April 18, 1934 in New York City. During his childhood, the family made multiple trips to the family ranch in Oregon, where he developed a love for horses and the outdoor life. He first appeared on stage at the age of 8 when he played King Herod in a children’s Christmas play. He made his professional acting debut at the age of 12 in a touring company of “Life With Father.”
Drury was trained as an actor at New York University and credited with 12 Shakespeare roles. He went to Hollywood in 1954 and worked on “Blackboard Jungle,” “Forbidden Planet,” “The Tender Trap,” “Love Me Tender,” and “Pollyanna.” He guest starred on “Playhouse 90,” “Gunsmoke,” “Cheyenne,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents,” “Wagon Train,” “Rawhide” and “Death Valley Days” before being cast in the lead role of “The Virginian” in 1962.
Drury’s quiet character, who always wore a black cowboy hat, had no name other than “The Virginian.” He portrayed the tough foreman of the fictional Shiloh Ranch set in the latter part of the 19th century in the Wyoming Territory. Many of the 249 episodes, airing over nine seasons until 1971, involved his character fending off outlaws and rustlers. Each episode would run for 90 minutes.
“There were times when we had five ‘Virginian’ episodes shooting on the same day,” Drury recalled in his biography on his official web site. “I would literally ride on horseback from set to set to give two lines here, three lines there, then over here to do 10 pages of script.”
“The Virginian,” which aired on NBC, had the third-longest run of any TV Western, topped only by CBS’s “Gunsmoke” (20 seasons) and NBC’s “Bonanza” (14). Drury and co-star Doug McClure appearsed on all 249 episodes. The series was loosely based on Owen Wister’s 1902 novel “The Virginian, A Horseman of the Plains,” in which the name of the main character was never revealed.
In its last year, the TV show was re-titled “The Men From Shiloh.” In the book “A History of Television’s The Virginian, 1962-1971,” Drury said he was sad that the show was canceled and added, “I would have gone on for another 10 years.”
Drury starred in the ABC series “Firehouse” and appeared on series “Alias Smith and Jones,” “The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.,” “The Fall Guy” and “Walker, Texas Ranger.” In recent years, he had maintained an extensive traveling schedule to Western events, festivals and autograph shows across the country “speaking about the West and how cowboy values shaped our country and how those values still hold true to those who will adhere to them.”
His third wife, Carl Ann, died in August.