Date of Birth: 26 July 1926, Powderly, Kentucky, US
Birth Name: Jewel Franklin Guy
Nicknames: James Best
James Best was best known for his performance as Rosco P Coltrane, the childishly inept sheriff in the American television series The Dukes of Hazzard, which was a fixture of Saturday afternoons on the BBC during the early 1980s.
The role of Sheriff Coltrane probably did not do justice to Best’s talents as a serious actor, but the character with his rustic accent, high-pitched cackle and pet basset hound, Flash was well-loved by fans of the show. The highly formulaic plots typically featured Coltrane as the accomplice and comic foil of the show’s pantomime villain, the fat and avaricious county commissioner Boss Hogg.
Hogg’s criminal schemes brought him into conflict with the Duke family of good-natured country bumpkins Bo and Luke, their attractive cousin Daisy (known for her “short shorts” and played by Catherine Bach) and uncle Jesse giving a pretext for interminable car chases filmed in rural locations in Georgia and latterly in California.
The son of a Kentucky coal miner, James Best was born Jewel Franklin Guy in humble circumstances at Powderly, a settlement south of Nashville, on July 26 1926. He was the youngest of nine siblings, and the Everly Brothers, Don and Phil, were cousins. His mother died in 1929 and when his father struggled to support the family he spent time in an orphanage before being adopted, and renamed, by Esse and Armen Best, who brought him up at Corydon, Indiana.
Best began acting while stationed with the military police in Wiesbaden after the war, taking his first role, as a drunk, in My Sister Eileen, a play directed by Arthur Penn, later a leading Hollywood figure.
On his return to the US Best joined touring stock companies before being put under contract by Universal in 1949. Through the 1950s and 1960s he turned up in supporting roles in television series such as The Virginian, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Twilight Zone and The Andy Griffith Show. He also appeared in a number of films, including three notable westerns starring James Stewart, Winchester ’73 (1950), Shenandoah (1965), set during the Civil War, and Firecreek (1968). In The Left Handed Gun (1958), with Paul Newman, Best was reunited with the director Arthur Penn, making his debut as a feature film director.
In early 1979 Best appeared in the pilot episode of The Dukes of Hazzard, “One-Armed Bandits”. He enjoyed working on the show and formed a close bond with Sorrell Booke, the actor who played Boss Hogg; many of their scenes were improvised. The series ran until 1985, gaining large audiences in both Britain and America, with a film spinoff in 2005 and regular jamborees reuniting the cast members. However, Best fell out with the producers Time Warner reaching an undisclosed settlement over what he felt was his inadequate share of the multi-million dollar profits.
Best developed a sideline in teaching the technique of film acting; he had posts at the University of Mississippi in the 1970s and, some years later, at the University of Central Florida.
He continued working into old age. In Return of the Killer Shrews (2012) a remake of The Killer Shrews, a 1959 B-movie in which he had starred he played a ship’s captain hired by a reality television show to deliver passengers to an island populated by giant mutant shrews.
He wrote a play, Hell Bent for Good Times, a comedy about a family living through the Depression, and published a memoir, Best in Hollywood: The God, the Bad and the Beautiful (2009). James Best retired to Hickory, North Carolina, where he spent happy hours fishing on the lake.