Anthony James: a Most Original Artist

Born James Anthony and later reversing his name, Anthony James is one of those actors so inherently talented that is forever typecast after the very first appearance on stage or film.

James’ embodiment of Ralph the diner counterman in The Heat of the Night (1967) is not only incredibly chilling, it unfortunately forever typecast this truly gifted individual as a creepy, sleazy villain. While many may not know James by name, they have undoubtedly seen him in nearly 30 films and 60 television shows.

James was so good at being bad he is without question one of the most memorable bad guys seen in American film during the 1970s and 80s. His last role as Skinny Dubois in the Unforgiven (1992) capped his 28-year career as an actor. But this was not an end to James as an artist. Rather, it was a time of reflection, transition, and renewed creativity. Following James’ life offers us not only insight into how, as the saying goes, appearances can be deceiving but something of the manner in which true creativity can take many forms within and through a true artist.

On July 22,1942, he was born in Myrtle Beach, SC, the only child of George (1893-1951) and Marika Palla Anthony (1913-2008). In 1940, the newly wedded Anthony couple, in an incredible odyssey, escaped from wartorn Greece and eventually found themselves in what was then a very remote and rural section of South Carolina. Once settled, Marika bore her only child. Then, tragically, only eight years later, George died. In the blink of an eye, Marika Anthony went from being the grand hostess of her husband’s lavish parties to hotel maid. Yet, like many of her generation, Marika did not allow anything to deter her from raising and supporting her son. And so it was, that on an August morning in 1960, eighteen-year-old James and his mother took first a bus and then a train from South Carolina 3000 miles to Los Angeles, CA to realize his dream of an acting career. They possessed only $200, their courage, and an astonishing degree of naiveté.

At Marika’s urging, they found an apartment near the St. Sophia Greek Orthodox church in Los Angeles. In the course of his self-education as a professional actor, James was compelled by Screen Actors’ Guild regulations to reverse the given order of his name and surname for his acting career. Learning as he went it took six years before James to finally secured a role in the film, In The Heat of the Night. Given his riveting performance, James immediately began to appear in films, made-for-TV movies, TV shows, and even commercials as killers, psychopaths, and other twisted characters.

What follows is just a selected listing of James’ film performances over the next 28 years. Given the time period, James was (and remains) especially known for his work in TV Westerns. From 1967 onward, he appeared in nearly every television Western one can name, including The Big Valley; Bonanza; Cimarron Strip; The Culpepper Cattle Co.; Gunsmoke; The High Chaparral; and Outlaws.

James appeared in dozens of other films and shows, including the A-Team; Amazing Stories; Beauty and the Beast; Benji; Brown from Detroit; Buck Rogers in the 25th Century; Father Dowling Mysteries; Hunter; Ironside; Knight Rider; Man from Atlantis; Married with Children; Mod Squad; Quincy M.E.; Simon & Simon; Sledge Hammer! and Star Trek: the Next Generation.

His made-for-TV movies include Lady Mobster (1988); Prescription: Murder (1968); Rascals and Robbers: The Secret Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn (1968); and Victory at Entebbe (1976).

Finally, a select number of James’ feature films include High Plains Drifter (1973); Hearts of the West (1975); The Naked Gun 2½: The Smell of Fear (1991) and his final film (to date) Unforgiven as Skinny Dubois the saloon owner. Curiously, in the film Burnt Offerings (1976) James, though never saying one word of dialogue, is nevertheless credited with helping this film achieve cult-status.

As for commercials, James’ most notable performance, perhaps, is in an American Express Travelers Check commercial which features Karl Malden and James as a purse snatching thief.

Behind his menacing and memorable face, however, is a thoughtful, gentle man, one who muses deeply on the nature of art and creativity and on the family ties that have sustained him. Throughout his acting career, James sought out painting as a means to explore other facets of his inner quest. Aside from the sales of his individual paintings James’ art has seen publication in a volume of the work of 77 different actors, Actors as Artists by Jim McMullan and Dick Gautier (1994). As his current gallery reports: “the artwork of Anthony James is abstract on an emotional level; he paints from within ad the struggle between light and dark is evident on canvas. Though the subjects of the paintings are generally simplified to basic geometric shapes, the mix of colors creates an intricate pattern and a certain drama that overtakes the canvas. He continues to live and paint here in the Boston area (renjeau.com).”

In 1994, after his retirement from film work, James and his mother moved to Arlington, MA, where he concentrated on his painting and poetry. As his current gallery reports: “in the mid-1990s, James retired from acting and moved to Massachusetts to pursue his art career full time. His artwork has been well received and he has exhibited at galleries throughout the United States.”

It was in 1994, in fact when James published his first book of paintings and poetry, Language of the Heart.

Then, in 2008, James’ much-loved mother Marika died at 94. Clearly seeking for some resolution to his loss, James wrote the book, Acting My Face (2014), which has been described as “an unusual memoir, one that explores the true nature of a working life in Hollywood and how aspirations and personal devotion are forged into a career.” James attests that this account was written in large part to acknowledge the role his mother had played in his life. Curiously, publishers at first rejected this memoir because of James’ attention to his mother’s role.

As we learn, “after completing his autobiography in 2009, former actor Anthony James approached several book agents. Their recommendation was unanimous: “It’s a wonderful memoir, but take your mother out of it and we’ll represent you!” James would have none of it. As much as telling the story of his rise to become one of Hollywood’s most memorable bad guys in the ‘70s and ‘80s, he was unwavering in his determination to also honor the woman who supported his career.

After all those years of agents and publishers wanting to “throw Momma from the train, the book has just been published by the University of Mississippi Press,” said James from his home near Boston, where he has lived since departing Hollywood 20 years ago (upress.state.ms.us/books/1689).

Anthony James has proven himself over and over as an actor, painter and writer. His life is a testimony to the fact that ‘good looks’ are not the only path to success in American film or anywhere else. And who knows where James’ personal exploration in the arts will take him next?