James Gammon May not have been a household name but as consummate Hollywood character actor and grizzled veteran of cowboy westerns his presence was near unparalleled. With a raspy drawl and an essence that was one part hunter killer, one part leathered frontiersman with a touch of endearing teddy bear (he actually did voice a bear in one film, though it didn’t make this list) he always made a terrific impression and became one of my favourite ‘that guy’ actors as I began to discover cinema in my youth. Here are my top ten performances from his varied and fascinating career:
10. Roger Wayne in Luiso Berdejo’s The New Daughter
I included this moody Kevin Costner horror thriller because it was Gammon’s final film appearance before passing a few years ago. Costner plays a rural father whose adopted daughter (Pan’s Labyrinth star Ivana Baquero) begins to exhibit weird, possibly supernatural behaviour. He digs a little deeper into the mystery and comes across Roger, a man who dealt with the very same issue in his own children years ago and whose methods were… questionable. Gammon gives this homeless old dude a chilling edge in his curtain call appearance.
9. Ironbutt Garrett in Running Cool
This is the most lighthearted, benign biker flick you’ll probably ever see. Drifter Bone (Andrew Divoff) reunites with old pal Garrett to take down evil, prejudiced land developers threatening both their land and biker way of life. The camaraderie and friendship between the two is nicely illustrated with both, two epic cult actors sharing the screen. Plus, his name is fucking Ironbutt, how can you go wrong with that.
8. Sheriff Henderson in Eduardo Sanchez’s Altered
The creator of Blair Witch Project brought us this little seen alien horror flick combined with the classic cabin in the woods setting. Gammon plays a county Sheriff (one of many throughout his career) who comes knocking when weird sounds are heard and has what you’d call a ‘close encounter.’ His reaction upon being told that the thing that viciously attacked him is an extraterrestrial? “Shit. That’s fucked up.” He was capable of such wry, deadpan line delivery even in a tense, unnerving situation.
7. Esco Swanger in Anthony Minghella’s Cold Mountain
A frontier family man before the civil war, Esco resents the rabble rousing in his town and brings a subtle antiwar perspective to the large and varied cast. When one of of his kids declares proudly that he’s going to fight for the south, his boisterous retort: “Last I heard, the south was a direction!” He steals any scene he’s in here from a huge roster of supporting characters and makes a vivid impression in this beautiful but uneven war epic.
6. Sam Parker in Outlaw Trail: The Treasure Of Butch Cassidy
This is a low budget made for TV kids flick about a group of youngsters searching for gold buried by the legendary bandit. Gammon plays the grandfather of one of them and their lineage can be traced right back to Butch, which he’s none too pleased about. He resents illegal activity and sees his legacy as childish and pointless, until his grandson makes good on the treasure hunt and brightens everyone’s day. Silly flick overall but he gives his scenes a stormy, melancholic aura and plus it’s one of the only appearances in his career where he’s not sporting that moustache, kinda like Sam Elliott.
5. Nick Bridges in Nash Bridges
A flashy Don Johnson cop show, James plays his lovable but troublesome father, a retired longshoreman with slight dementia, an affinity for get rich quick schemes and the kind of rebellious nature that gets passed from father to son.
4. The Texan in Tony Scott’s Revenge
Kevin Costner’s bloodied up antihero meets many people on his journey to recovery and retribution in this sweaty, seedy south of the border melodrama, one of which is Texan, a mysterious horse trainer who meanders across Mexico, dying of some undisclosed illness and acting as a kind of soldier of fortune in between breaking colts. He helps Costner out in that laconic, weathered fashion that’s just south of nice guy and just the this side of badass.
3. FBI Agent Teddy Lee in Tarsem Singh’s The Cell
The hunt for elusive, spectral serial killer Stargher (Vincent D’Onofrio) has many procedural moving parts but Teddy essentially spies the clue that leads them right to his doorstep. The film is an austere, surreal and often heavy mood piece full of intense, hushed and introspective performances. It may seem counterintuitive of Singh to cast rambunctious, rowdy Gammon in a key supporting part but the offset works beautifully and he livens up an otherwise grim series of events in his brief screen time.
2. Lou Brown in Major League
Sassy coach to the dysfunctional Cleveland Indians, Lou is coaxed away from his apparently way more interesting job selling tires to put together a winning roster and kick the team out of a royal slump. He’s a take-no-shit, old school dude with enough grit and attitude to both get them into the winning streak and stir up all kinds of political trouble within the league while he’s at it.
1. California Joe in Walter Hill’s Wild Bill
A moody, fragmented look at the final few years in the life of Bill Hickock (played with sterling charm by Jeff Bridges), Gammon embodies Joe perfectly. He’s a hell-raiser, gunslinger, sidekick, friend and confidante to the legendary figure and provides many a memorable moment, in one of the most dynamic, front and centre roles he got in his career.