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Nostalgia May 2012

James Drury Recalls Glory Days as ‘The Virginian’ Marks 50th Anniversary

By Dee Long

In a recent interview from his home in Houston, Texas, Drury admits “I’m very proud of the show and I believe in the Cowboy Way it represents: If it isn’t true, don’t say it. If it isn’t yours, don’t take it. If it isn’t right, don’t do it.

vr_longjamesdruryIt comes as no surprise to James Drury that millions of fans worldwide continue to enjoy watching reruns of a television series that left the airwaves back in 1971. That series is “The Virginian.” premiering 50 years ago on NBC-TV in the fall of 1962 with actor Drury in the title role of Owen Wister’s mysterious cowboy turned ranch foreman who never revealed his name.

In a recent interview from his home in Houston, Texas, Drury admits “I’m very proud of the show and I believe in the Cowboy Way it represents: If it isn’t true, don’t say it. If it isn’t yours, don’t take it. If it isn’t right, don’t do it. “The Virginian” continues to give people a catharsis, a sense of completion by the end of each episode. It manages to leave an indelible impression on the audience. My friend and fellow actor Richard Farnsworth called the western ‘our American Camelot.’”

Studio executives originally told Drury he was “too fat” for the role after he originally tested for the part and was told to lose ten pounds: “I did 3 screen tests within 35 days, all in full costume and make-up, and was ultimately told to lose another 20 pounds. I was overweight and lost 30 pounds in 30 days and they told me and Doug McClure that we both had won our roles on the Friday night prior to starting shooting that coming Monday morning.”

Life for Drury throughout the 9 years that “The Virginian” aired on NBC, the last year renamed as “The Men from Shiloh,” was plenty of hard work from sun up to sun down. He recalls “working from 5 or 6 in the morning until 9 or 10 o’clock at night 5 days a week. Hard to believe now that we did it, but nobody told us that we couldn’t! Some days I was shooting 5 different episodes directed by 5 different units, all in the same day.”

Drury reveals that the famed Shiloh Ranch, consisting of a lavish home, stables, horse paddock and bunkhouse, was actually built on the back lot of Universal Studios some 100 yards from the 101 Freeway. “You couldn’t see the freeway because they had built a high berm, but you could hear it” recalls Drury. “Sometimes the smog was so terrible, so hot and thick during summers that you couldn’t see across the road from the main house to the bunkhouse.”

Drury believes it was the great stories that each episode told, along with an exciting guest star line-up, that has managed to keep the series popular among loyal fans and their children and grandchildren who are now the new generation of “Virginian” fans. “We were fortunate that our 90 minutes format allowed us to tell interesting and complex stories. “The Virginian” told great stories and that’s what makes for great television. It allowed our writers the room to offer up some juicy guest star roles that people were willing to walk over glass barefoot to get a part. George C. Scott, Bette Davis and Robert Redford were just a few of the stars who guested on our show.”

How did a city boy born in New York develop an affinity for horses? Laughs Drury, “My grandfather put me on my first horse while I was still in diapers. Although my father was an NYU professor, my mother was from Oregon and I was raised on the family ranch part of the year. Had my first horse at the age of 12 and he taught me a lot about horses. In the show, I rode the same red roan appaloosa for the first 8 seasons, and then changed to a different horse for the 9th season when we became ‘The Men from Shiloh.’ I did most of my own stunts except for falls when they called in professional stuntmen because the studio couldn’t afford to be shut down in case I was injured.”

Drury, who turns 78 in April, continues to enjoy making personal appearances around the USA, driving to each event with wife Carl Ann to enjoy seeing some of America along the way. His 2012 schedule includes a Charity Ride for Veterans in Swanton, Ohio, and the Memphis Film Festival in May. Drury will be joined by other surviving cast members Roberta Shore, Gary Clarke, L. Q. Jones, Randy Boone, Don Quine and Sara Lane for a gala 50th anniversary celebration of “The Virginian” that is open to the public on September 22 at the Autry National Museum in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park.

“I haven’t done as much acting as I would have liked since “The Virginian” ended” he admits. But Drury clearly relishes every opportunity to speak to the fans at special events, fairs and festivals. He notes with excitement that “the first 5 seasons of the show, as well as the 9th, are now available on DVD ( with the 6th premiering in May and the 7th and 8th by the end of this year.”


Dee Long is a freelance journalist based in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.