R.I.P. James Drury, star of The Virginian and TV Western icon

The prolific Western actor also appeared in movies alongside Elvis and Frank Sinatra.

Image: Everett Collection

James Drury was born to play a cowboy. He spent much of his youth on family farms and ranches outside Salem, Oregon. His grandfather established one of those ranches when he traveled west along the Oregon trail in the late 1800s.

Drury revealed in a 2014 interview how his childhood inspired and shaped his future career.

"I patterned my Virginian character after my maternal grandfather, John Hezekiah Crawford, an Oregon dirt farmer and rancher who raised cattle. He came out to Oregon with a wagon train in 1880 or 1875." Drury even noted, "Granddad put me on my first horse when I was in diapers."

His experience and skill with horses was put to great use as an adult. Drury acted in over fifteen different Western television series before landing the lead role on The Virginian. He appeared in multiple episodes of Gunsmoke, Rawhide, The Rifleman and Wagon Train. On Gunsmoke, he was memorably the titular outlaw in "Johnny Red" (1959), as well as a romantic rancher named Jerry Cass with a dubious love interest in "Change of Heart." Or perhaps you remember him as Cole Crawford in "The Cole Crawford Story" on Wagon Train, or a gunslinger named Rance on Rawhide. He could also be seen on Trackdown, Have Gun - Will Travel, Bronco, Cheyenne, The Revel, The Rifleman and more Western gems.

Before television, Drury appeared on the big screen alongside famous singers Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley and Pat Boone. Drury's first credited role was in The Tender Trap starring Sinatra opposite Debbie Reynolds. A year later, Drury played Elvis Presley's brother in Love Me Tender. It was Presley's film debut. Coincidentally, Drury was also in Pat Boone's first film, Bernadine.

Of course, James Drury is best known as the unnamed title character on the NBC western series The Virginian. He and fellow cast member Doug McClure (who played Trampas) were the only ones to act in all 249 episodes of the show.

Not only was the program incredibly successful, running for nine seasons from 1962 to 1971, it was a remarkable technical feat. Each episode filled a 90-minutes slot, which meant that, without commercials, the show had to produce almost 80 minutes of television every week.

In a 2016 interview, Drury explained, "It was like doing a movie every week. We had 79 minutes and 30 seconds worth of film, which was as long as a lot of feature films of the day. It was a very radical concept.”

Drury’s no-nonsense yet courageous portrayal of the foreman of Shiloh Ranch is an iconic part of television history. He imbued the character with his grandfather’s cowboy philosophy, “If it's not true don’t say it. If it's not yours don’t take it and if it’s not right don’t do it.”

James Drury passed away of natural causes at the age of 85.

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MikefromJersey 4 months ago
“If it's not true don’t say it. If it's not yours don’t take it and if it’s not right don’t do it.”
That should be put in marble on the White House lawn and in front of every Governor's
Mansion.
Well you know Trump would ignore it! He proably has a plaque on his desk that says "The buck goes in my pocket"...LOL!!!
AlF 4 months ago
Loved that show when I was a kid. Doug McClure was my favorite of the two, though.
FrankCollins 4 months ago
The longest running western, of course, was Gunsmoke, which lasted 20 seasons. Western trivia buffs will also know the name of the second longest running western, which of course was Bonanza, which lasted 14 seasons. Which western was third? It was The Virginian, which lasted 9 seasons.
cperrynaples FrankCollins 4 months ago
Yes and because I'm THAT GUY, I will point out that the last season was called The Men From Shiloh, reportedly to give Stewart Granger equal billing with Drury! Fun Fact: In the first pilot, Drury wore skintight pants and lace cuffs while carrying a tiny pistol! Were the producers trying to make him a "gay blade"...LOL!!
spur 4 months ago
Rest in peace on your final round up
Josie92 4 months ago
Huge Virginian fan and Gunsmoke. I get to watch it on INSP everyday. Don't always get MeTV, wish I could though. RIP Mr. Drury
milauskas 4 months ago
I watched the Virginian in reruns as a kid, then really got into it a couple years ago (thanks to stations like MeTV). I thought, hey I should try to get his autograph. I found his website and ordered an autographed photo. It's James Drury with Doug McClure. So glad I did. It's even more special to me now. RIP James.
Samuel 4 months ago
I seem to remember he also appeared in the 1960 Disney film POLLYANNA with Jane Wyman , Karl Malden and Hayley Mills.
tpac 4 months ago
James Drury was a cowboys cowboy just fitting he rode into the sunset 🙏 for his family
TheMaskedheel 4 months ago
Mr. Drury came and spoke at my Jr. High in Dayton, Texas in 1987. None of us knew who he was and it was 20 years before the reruns would pop up in my area. I understood a few years later how big of a star he was though. RIP JD.
DebbieVanDusenStone 4 months ago
I loved that my sister, Judy Shafer, put together, for a few years, Cowboy Up in Swanton. We had such fun, meeting with all of the stars. My sister, loved, loved James Drury and when she landed him and his cast to come, it was a dream come true. We also met Dan Haggerty there. Rest in peace Mr. Drury....you are the Virginian.....
SUPmike 4 months ago
I was actually watching The Virginian when I saw the news about James Drury in my news feed. Sorry to hear.
Angela 4 months ago
Awww. R.I.P. Virginian. You were the real deal and that was one of my favorite Westerns - quality all the way. ❤
janner 4 months ago
Rest in Peace Virginian❤🐎🐃😞😢
BrittReid 4 months ago
R.I.P. Mr. Drury, a great western star and genuine hard guy.
Moody 4 months ago
RIP Mr. Drury. The Virginian is one of my favorite tv westerns. I'd love to see it on METV.
cperrynaples Moody 4 months ago
It's already on Grit and can be seen on the Starz app! BTW, anyone else notice the irony that one of today's Gunsmokes featured a young Drury? It was previously scheduled and became an instant tribute!
Angela Moody 4 months ago
Oh, I would love to see this show again on MeTv!
cperrynaples Angela 4 months ago
Well, it can't be on MeTV if it's on these other places! Really people if you can get MeTV, chances are you can find Grit, which is full of classic Westerns!
Moody cperrynaples 4 months ago
You know, there's nothing wrong with wanting a certain show on their favorite network. Most of us realize that it may not be available for METV to air just now but we can hope for it without criticism from others. Hopefully this is a show METV can acquire in the future. And, Grit is not available in all markets including mine.
SITKA 4 months ago
RIP, Mr. Drury A great Western Star!!
cperrynaples 4 months ago
Bonus Question: Who is the only other performer to work opposite Elvis & Pat Boone [Blue Suede & White Bucks...LOL]? Hint: She's still alive!
BrittReid cperrynaples 4 months ago
Ann Margaret....
cperrynaples BrittReid 4 months ago
Yep, Viva Las Vegas and State Fair!
BrianMoore 4 months ago
RIP, Mr. Drury, and happy trails.
Andrea 4 months ago
RIPP ALL OF YOU. 🙏♥️
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