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Obituary: James Best


TALENTED: James Best as Rosco P Coltrane in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’

TALENTED: James Best as Rosco P Coltrane in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’

TALENTED: James Best as Rosco P Coltrane in ‘The Dukes of Hazzard’

James Best, the actor, who died last Monday aged 88, was best known for his performance as Rosco P Coltrane, the childishly inept sheriff in the American television series The Dukes of Hazzard.

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 formulaic plots typically featured Coltrane as the accomplice and comic foil of the show's pantomime villain, the fat, avaricious county commissioner Boss Hogg.

Hogg's criminal schemes brought him into conflict with the Duke family of good-natured country bumpkins - giving a pretext for interminable car chases.

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.

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, and Wagon Train. 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. 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 the US, with a film spin-off in 2005 and regular jamborees reuniting the cast. 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. James Best retired to Hickory, North Carolina, where he spent happy hours fishing on the lake.

He is survived by his wife, a son and two daughters.

Sunday Independent