James Best, known for playing the bumbling Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on the 1980s comedy “The Dukes of Hazzard,” has died. He was 88.
Best died Monday night at a hospice center in Hickory, N.C., after a brief illness following complications from pneumonia, according to a statement from Steve Latshaw, a spokesman for the family.
Best got his start in acting in the 1950s, taking small parts in TV shows and Western films, before being cast as the sheriff for “The Dukes of Hazzard,” which ran from 1979 to 1985.
"I laughed and learned more from Jimmie in one hour than from anyone else in a whole year," said John Schneider, who played Bo Duke on the series, in a statement.
Best acted in hundreds of TV episodes, including episodes of “The Twilight Zone,” “The Andy Griffith Show” and “Gunsmoke.”
But he became best known for his role as Rosco P. Coltrane, the twangy-toned, often-outwitted sheriff on “Dukes of Hazzard.”
“I acted the part as good as I could,” said Best in a 2009 interview with the Charlotte Observer. “Rosco -- let's face it -- was a charmer. It was a fun thing.”
In a more than 60-year career, Best racked up hundreds of performances on both the silver and small screens, working next to some of the biggest names of his time, but won few awards and never became fully entrenched in the Hollywood establishment, partly by choice.
"It's such a shame to hear of the loss of James Best," said Burt Reynolds in a statement, adding that he had considered Best a friend since their days on the set of "Gunsmoke" in the early 1960s. "Onset or off, behind the scenes, in front of a class or just as a friend, his name was so fitting because he was truly the 'best' at whatever he did."
Best and his wife left Hollywood right after "The Dukes of Hazzard" stopped shooting. He was burned out on Hollywood, he told The Times in 1992, and as he said, Florida was where "I'd put it all together."
He later wrote a play called “Hell Bent for Good Times,” a comedy-drama about an Ozark family laughing their way through the Great Depression. Best, drawing from his experience growing up impoverished in the Depression, also directed the production and played the lead, co-starring with Peg Stewart.
He taught acting and film technique, and his students over the years included Burt Reynolds, Clint Eastwood, Gary Busey and Quentin Tarantino, the AP reported. For a time, he taught at the University of Central Florida.
“I know what the hell I'm doing, and they respect me down there,” Best told The Times, “whether Hollywood does or not.”
He was born Jewel Franklin Guy in Powderly, Ky., on July 26, 1926, the youngest of nine children to Lena Mae Everly Guy and Larkin Jasper Guy, according to an obituary released by his family.
Best was sent to live in an orphanage after his mother died in 1929, and spent a short time there before being adopted by Essa and Armen Best from Corydon, Ind. Best told his adoptive parents he wanted to be called Jimmie.
Best graduated high school in 1944, enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps and later served in the military police in Germany.
In an interview posted on YouTube, Best described the first time he saw servicemen acting in the military theater company. "I'm sitting in the audience, old country boy, and the curtain goes up and I'm like a kid in Disneyland," he told 12 Stars Media. "I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm getting shot at every night, and these guys are traveling around with pretty girls. I'm in the wrong outfit!'"
He joined the military theater group soon after.
After World War II, he hitchhiked to New York City to pursue theater, and later moved to Hollywood, where he was a contract actor for Universal Studios, according to the obituary.
He built a prolific career, acting in at least 87 films and making more than 600 TV show appearances, according to the Shelby, N.C., Star newspaper. Best acted alongside some of the biggest names of his era, including James Stewart, Paul Newman and Jerry Lewis.
But, Best admitted, he was never fully enamored of Hollywood. "It's a job. It's different than most people's job, but it's a job," he said in a 2014 interview with the Star. "You work four to five days on one project and then move on to the next."
Still, he longed for what he called the "golden days" of Hollywood, "when they used talent instead of reality stars," he said in an interview in recent years.
"I get a little tired of watching these people getting interviewed, putting their feet on a desk and acting like they are a mega-star when they can't even spell mega," he told the AP in 2003. "These young people think they know it all but all they can do is make sequels with more four-letter words in them."
He married Dorothy Collier, his third wife, in 1986. He lived with her in Florida for decades before moving to Hickory, N.C., in 2006, in part to enjoy the fishing, according to Latshaw.
"From the time I was adopted when I was four years old up to now, my life has been like a roller coaster," Best told the Star last year. "There have been more ups than downs and I have been enjoying everything. I thank God every day for it."
Best kept trying to retire, Latshaw said, but it never really stuck; his last film was “The Sweeter Side of Life,” a 2013 Hallmark movie written and produced by his daughter.
In addition to his wife, Dorothy, survivors include his son, Gary Allen Best, daughters, JoJami Best Tyler and Janeen Damian, and three grandchildren.
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