POWDERLY, Ky. (9/17/13) – There was no doubt Saturday night at the Merle Travis Music Center that James Best, AKA Sheriff Roscoe P. Coltrane of the hit T.V. series "The Dukes of Hazzard,” was happy to be back home in Muhlenberg County. There was also no doubt the nearly sold out crowd was delighted to spend the evening with this native of Powderly, who has starred in over 600 T.V. shows and 87 movies since 1949.
Prior to Best taking the stage, the audience received a surprise warm up from Muhlenberg natives and friends of Best, thumbpickers Paul Moseley, Michael Moseley, Al Hudson, and Joe Hudson.
At age 87, Best still tours the country with his one-man show, still acts in at least one movie a year, paints and sells breathtaking oil paintings, and still knows how to have an audience rolling in the aisles.
However, Best's show this year started on a somewhat somber note. He addressed the crowd with the following words:
"My mother, who was the sister of Ike Everly, father of the Everly Brothers, died at an early age. So I was sent to an orphanage in Louisville when I was about 3 years old. Armen and Essa Best of Corydon, Indiana happened to be at the orphanage and I walked up to the fence said 'Please take me home with you', and they did! They didn't know what they were in for, did they?" Best laughed.
After serving in World War II, Best ended up in Germany as a Civilian Actor Technician (CAT), which entertained the troops.
During that period, Best met CAT director Arthur Penn, who went on to direct smash hits including "The Miracle Worker" and "Bonnie and Clyde.” Penn encouraged Best to pursue an acting career, and the rest is history.
From there, Best explained his experience working for cowboy legend Gene Autry.
"Gene didn't care who he hired as long as they worked cheap," Best joked, adding that with Autry, "You even did your own stunts unless he thought you were going to get killed, and then he'd use a double.”
Over the next two hours Best showed numerous clips from some of the hundreds of television shows and movies he's starred in, making comments on some.
"One thing you'll notice as we show these clips is a running strain, and that is that I often don't live through the end of the movie.... but, hey, the pay is good," Best said.
One particularly funny clip was from the Rock Hudson movie "Seminole".
"These idiot filmmakers…the plot was for us to go into Seminole Indian territory with a cannon, trying to sneak up on the Indians. Ridiculous! Rock is the big hero, I'm a soldier, the cannon runs over my arm as they tied me to the top of it, and then the cannon, with me on top, gets stuck in quick sand. The director told me to put an air hose in my mouth, and Rock is supposed to jump in and save me," Best laughed, adding the only problem was one of the crewmen forgot to turn the air hose on. "Well, I almost drowned, but at least I didn't have to bath for two or three weeks. I've gotten killed so many times in movies I can't even keep track!"
Best went on to show clips working with Paul Newman, Randolph Scott, Jerry Lewis, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and The Andy Griffith Show.
"The producers of ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ called me and asked if I could play guitar, and I said 'Are you kidding? I have two guitars'... which I did, I just couldn't play them. So I get on the set and they give me the sheet music for the song I was supposed to play, and I said 'I can't play that.' They said, 'You liar; you said you could play guitar,’ and I said, 'No I said I had two guitars, but I can finger the chords and you can dub it in so no one will know the difference.’ So I’ve been asked probably about two or three thousand times if I played guitar on the Andy Griffith Show. I'll let you all in on a little secret. I did not," Best laughed.
Turning to his more serious work, Best presented short clips from the three “Twilight Zone” episodes he starred in, noting that "the show was a training ground for so many future big stars. For example, I appeared in one episode called ‘The Grave,’ which starred three unknowns, Lee Marvin, Lee Van Cleef (from "The Good, The Bad & The Ugly), and this idiot named James Best."
Turning to the more serious side of James Best, he has enjoyed a second career teaching acting at various schools and universities in California and North Carolina.
"I taught acting for more than 35 years in California, and one of the requirements to being in my class was that if you could not 'go to tear' (the technical term for crying in a scene on cue) within sixty seconds, I would kick them out of the class," Best noted.
During his teaching days Best taught such stars as "Gary Busey, Lindsay Wagner, Teri Garr, and Quentin Tarantino (Pulp Fiction). Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood would sit in on classes now and then."
Best had nothing but kind words for James Stewart, with whom he made several movies.
"He was talented. He was kind. He was generous. He had no ego. Ego is for those who have no talent." Best observed.
After several more film clips, some laughs, and a montage of the best of "The Dukes of Hazzard,” Best showed a side much of the crowd may not have seen before by reading an original poem titled "The Breath of God".
The following is the poem:
The warm and gentle breeze, that shakes the brilliant autumn leaves— Could this be the breath of God? And the wind that blows and causes The breaking waves of the Emerald Sea, I just wonder sometimes, could it be? The breath of God? A child’s kite against a bright blue sky. I just wonder, what really makes it fly? Could it be the breath of God? And what holds up my plane so it can fly? What could it be? I wonder why. Could it be the breath of God? All have felt the touch of a gentle breeze, And seen its strength against the trees. But we cannot see or smell the wind, But know its strength when strong trees bend. It’s a simple faith we all can share, To know that God is always there. So many times, He tries to say, Just follow me. I know the way.
With those words, the 87 year old James Best left the stage with a smile on his face that showed this legendary actor was happy and at peace to be back home in Muhlenberg County.