Wednesday 21 March 2018

Obituary: Clifton James

Veteran actor who played comic Southern hick Sheriff JW Pepper in 1973 Bond film

Pure swagger: Clifton James in the 1973 James Bond film ‘Live and Let Die’. Photo: Danjaq/EON/UA/REX/Shutte​rstock
Pure swagger: Clifton James in the 1973 James Bond film ‘Live and Let Die’. Photo: Danjaq/EON/UA/REX/Shutte​rstock

Clifton James, who has died aged 96, was a reliably genial character actor who carved out a niche playing loud-mouthed Southerners, most famously the backward sheriff JW Pepper in two James Bond films.

His cheek bulging with tobacco and his paunch hanging over his gun holster (James wore a baseball umpire's chest protector under his uniform to enhance his natural stockiness), Pepper made free use of almost every Southern hick stereotype.

His role as a comic foil for Roger Moore's cool-headed Bond in Live and Let Die (1973) allowed James to eschew subtlety in favour of pure swagger. Lines such as: "You picked the wro-ong parish to haul ass through, boy," were delivered with drawling relish, while his flailing reaction to Bond's airborne speedboat stunts accorded with the scene's cartoonish approach to physics. Even the director Guy Hamilton was taken aback by the energy of the performance, declaring Pepper "the redneck sheriff to end all redneck sheriffs".

The character also went down well with the real-life Louisiana lawmen who gathered around the set during filming, none of whom took offence at seeing themselves portrayed in so crude a manner. United Artists, the American distributor of the Bond franchise, mounted an unsuccessful campaign promoting Clifton James for an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, and he reprised the role in The Man with the Golden Gun (1974) after his performance met with an enthusiastic response from audiences.

JW Pepper thus joined a select band of characters to have featured twice in the franchise (others include the villainous Jaws), but this time the part was considered to be less successful.

Pepper's sudden appearance in Bangkok, primarily to act as the wide-eyed passenger in Bond's pilfered red Hornet during a chase sequence, jarred with several critics - though others found a sly political satire behind the comic blustering. "Pepper, like America, is 'out of place' in the Vietnam era," wrote Lisa Funnell and Klaus Dodds in Geographies, Genders and Geopolitics of James Bond. "His clothing and mannerisms… are deliberately foregrounded to emphasise this sense of cultural and physical dislocation."

The oldest of five children and the only son, Clifton James was born in Spokane, Washington, on May 29, 1920. His father, Harry, was a journalist and his mother, Grace, worked as a teacher. When the Great Depression hit, his family moved to live near his maternal grandparents' house in Gladstone, Oregon.

During the 1930s, Clifton joined the Civilian Conservation Corps - a public work relief programme for unemployed, unmarried men - and enlisted in the US Army in 1942. He served in the Pacific, receiving two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star and a Silver Star. The Purple Hearts, awarded to soldiers killed or wounded while serving, were for two separate injuries; a bullet that split his nose and a shrapnel blast that knocked out several teeth. After demobilisation James attended the University of Oregon, where he developed a love of acting. He had several minor television roles during the 1950s and 1960s, usually in crime dramas, before landing a memorable turn as the cigar-chomping prison floorwalker in Cool Hand Luke (1967). James's speech to the assembled prisoners, listing the infractions that will earn them "a night in the box", has since been affectionately spoofed in films such as Toy Story 3 (2010).

James put numerous spins on the sheriff role in films which included The Reivers (1969), Silver Streak (1976) and Superman II (1980). In Eight Men Out (1988) he was the exploitative owner of the Chicago White Sox, a baseball team embroiled in a notorious match-fixing scandal in 1919. His last screen appearance was in the comedy-drama Raising Flagg (2006).

Clifton James married, first, Donna Lea Beach. The marriage was dissolved, and in 1951 he married Laurie Harper. She died in 2015. He is survived by five children.

Clifton James died on April 15.

© Telegraph

Entertainment Newsletter

Going out? Staying in? From great gigs to film reviews and listings, entertainment has you covered.

Editors Choice

Also in Entertainment