“I played 12 of the major roles in Shakespeare before I was 20 years old,” he told the Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel in 2000. “I got to Hollywood expecting to be somewhat of a classical actor, but they put a gun in my hand and said, ‘Get on that horse, and don’t get off.’ ”
Mr. Drury was a frequent guest star on TV westerns such as “Gunsmoke,” “Have Gun — Will Travel” and “Rawhide” and appeared in several films, including Sam Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country” (1962), which starred Joel McCrea.
Sixteen years earlier, McCrea had portrayed “The Virginian” on film, reprising a character that had been a part of popular culture since Owen Wister’s novel of the same name published in 1902. It was made into films several times, including a 1929 production starring Gary Cooper.
In his first attempt at “The Virginian,” in a 1958 TV pilot, Mr. Drury played the character as a dandy with a lace shirt and a Southern accent. Four years later, when the series premiered on NBC-TV, Mr. Drury brought more restraint to the part, playing a laconic foreman of the Shiloh ranch in 1890s Wyoming.
He usually wore a black hat and leather vest in the series, which also featured Doug McClure as Trampas, a high-spirited and sometimes comical ranch hand. Although Mr. Drury’s horse had a name — Joe D — his character did not.
“When you hear this is a character who never gave his right name, then you assume this is a man who may have been on the wrong side of the law at one time in his life,” Mr. Drury told the News-Sentinel. “I always thought it was a great plus as a character to carry this aura of mystery with you. All you had to do is walk into a room, be called ‘the Virginian’ and all of a sudden you are mysterious.”
Slow to anger but quick with a gun when he had to be, Mr. Drury’s character was a moral arbiter in a rough, untamed land.
“The Virginian” was the small screen’s first 90-minute western, giving it a dramatic heft rare in television of the time. Mr. Drury said it was almost like making a movie each week. Several episodes were in production at the same time, requiring him to ride his horse from one set to another during taping.
“Because of the 90-minute format,” he told the Tulsa World in 1996, “our writers would write well-developed, interesting, guest-star character roles, and big-name people would be attracted because of the size and depth of the parts. So Robert Redford, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, George C. Scott and Colleen Dewhurst all came and played guest roles on ‘The Virginian.’ ”
The series enjoyed good ratings for most of its nine years, making it the third-longest-running TV western ever, after “Gunsmoke” and “Bonanza.” In its final season, which ended in 1971, the show was renamed “The Men From Shiloh.”
Mr. Drury also starred as a fire department captain in “Firehouse,” which was canceled in 1974 after one season. He had occasional roles in westerns in later years, including a cameo appearance in a 2000 TV movie remake of “The Virginian,” directed by and starring Bill Pullman.
James Child Drury was born April 18, 1934, in New York City. His father was a marketing professor at New York University. His mother grew up on a ranch near Salem, Ore., where Mr. Drury spent much of his childhood, learning to shoot, ride horses and live in the outdoors.
“I patterned my Virginian character after my maternal grandfather, John Hezekiah Crawford, an Oregon dirt farmer and rancher who raised cattle,” Mr. Drury told the Salem (Ore.) Capital Press in 2014. “He came out to Oregon with a wagon train. . . . I’ve always called it the Cowboy Way: 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 embodies the philosophy of ‘The Virginian.’ ”
Mr. Drury studied theater at NYU for three years before moving to Hollywood. His early movie credits included “The Blackboard Jungle” and “The Tender Trap” — he had one line in each film — and guest appearances on TV westerns and dramas, including “Playhouse 90,” “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” and “Death Valley Days.”
He had the distinction of playing the older brother of two 1950s pop stars — Elvis Presley and Pat Boone — in their first major movie roles, Presley’s “Love Me Tender” (1956) and Boone’s “Bernardine” (1957).
In the 1970s, Mr. Drury settled in Houston and also had a ranch in Oklahoma. He remained an active horseman, playing polo and participating in roping contests for many years, and had other business interests, including oil and real estate.
He frequently appeared at TV nostalgia conventions and lectured on the idea of “the hero.” He almost always appeared in public wearing a black cowboy hat and a leather vest.
His marriages to Cristall Orton and Phyllis Mitchell ended in divorce. His wife of 40 years, the former Carl Ann Head, died in 2019. Survivors include two sons from his first marriage; three stepchildren; four grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.
Mr. Drury’s best-known character, the Virginian, was a loner who never quite managed to have a romantic relationship with a woman that lasted beyond the closing credits.
“In the 1960s, cowboy leads had to remain single,” he explained to the Tampa Tribune in 2000, “so if I ever got serious about a woman, she’d have to die of some mysterious illness, or get shot, or trampled in a stampede.”
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