Posts Tagged ‘James Best’

“In Jailhouse Rock, he’s everything rockabilly’s about. I mean, he is rockabilly: mean, surly, nasty, rude.”
Clarence on Elvis in True Romance
Written by Quentin Tarantino

Last Friday was the anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death and since I’ve been running a string of posts on Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood this seems like a fitting place to touch on Elvis in Quentin Tarantino’s world.

“All right, Scotty, next time I see you, it’ll be on Tennessee time.”
(Bruce Willis)
Pulp Fiction written by Quentin Tarantino

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Elvis died in Memphis, Tennessee in 1977 and Tarantino was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1963. Tarantino has more than passing interest in the King of Rock ‘n Roll.

“When I was about eighteen-years-old, I got waaaay into rockabilly music. I was like the second coming of Elvis Presley. I dyed my hair black. I wore it in a big ole pompadour.”
Quentin Tarantino

That fascination with Elvis helped Tarantino land a bit part as an Elvis imitator when he was trying to launch an acting career.

Tarantino was obsessed with movies from a young age and got involved with Torrance Community Theater. Around 1981 he pursued studying  acting with James Best—an actor perhaps best known for his role as Sheriff Rosco on The Duke’s of Hazard. But whose credits go back to 1950 and include an impressive and eclectic list: The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, Mod Squad and Sounder. 

“Quentin walked into my class one day and said, ‘Mr. Best, I want to meet you. You worked in my favorite movie of all time.’ Really what’s that that? I asked. ‘Rolling Thunder… Quentin started quoting lines from the picture. Then, he mentioned other movies that I made and quoted dialogue from them, too. What a memory he had. It helped that he had managed a video store. He obviously liked movies of all kinds. When Quentin got onstage, he was less than adequate….I went to Quentin and told him. ‘You’re a lousy actor. You should take up writing.’”
James Best
Best In Hollywood, The Good, the Bad, and the Beautiful

Tarantino’s actor friend, Craig Hamann, remembers things differently.

“[Tarantino] was the most talented actor in the class, and probably the least appreciated, which really used to anger me. I mean, here’s a guy with a wealth of knowledge about movies., who clearly knew more than any of the instructors. But in acting schools, in my view, the instructors become gurus, and the students do things a certain way to please the gurus, but Quentin wouldn’t do that. Within a matter of months he outgrew the school.”
Craig Hamann
Quentin Tarantino, The Man and His Movies 

Hamann and Tarantino became friends and wrote the script for the low-budget My Best Friend’s Birthday. And the experience at James Best Theater didn’t discourage Tarantino of continuing studying acting. In 1985, Tarantino began studying with actor Allen Garfield after Garfield left the Lee Strasberg Theater Institute to start the Actors’ Shelter.

“Quentin sought me out because he had seen the first two films I had done in New York with De Niro and De Palma called Greetings and Hi, Mom! And so Quentin, being enamored of those films, sought me out to study acting, writing and directing. He told me he wanted to work with the actor who had worked with Brian De Palma . . . . From the inception what I had in front of my eyes was a very beautiful, pure, raw, unharnessed talent. And also a fellow who has all of the hunger to act, write, and direct, not knowing if he would be accepted in the marketplace at any time because of his feeling that he marched to such a different drummer.”
Allen Garfield
Quentin Tarantino, The Man and His Movies , page 52

In was in Garfield’s classes that Tarantino started writing “all of these rambling, uncharted monologues” that he’s refined into his own distinctive Oscar-winning screenwriting style.

Hamann went on to work as an assistant for manager for Cathryn Jaymes and Jaymes went on to represent Tarantino for the first 10 years of his career. When she met Tarantino he was 25-years-old and had no credits and no acting reel, but she saw something in him.

“I wasn’t sure what he had but he was so charming. He was this compelling oddball.”
Cathryn Jaymes
Rebels on the Backlot by Sharon Waxman

Jaymes got Tarantino a walk-on part on The Golden Girls as an Elvis imitator.

Tarantino finished the script for True Romance in 1987 and Jaymes sent the script to over 100 producers and got nothing but rejection for over a year. One of the rejections letters read, The action is not exciting and the characters are under-developed and unbelievable. True Romance is one long hollow adventure.”

To make a long story short True Romance eventually got sold and produced, as did Tarantino’s script Natural Born Killers. And both of those paved the way for Tarantino to finally direct his script for Reservoir Dogs. 

The takeaway there is it wasn’t a smooth, conflict free path for Tarantino. There were a few people that connected with him and helped him along the way. And it was path full of persistence and resilience.

P.S. Another Elvis connection to Tarantino is his connection with Kurt Russell who has a small part Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, as well as larger roles in Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight and Death Proof. Russell not only played Elvis in the TV movie Elvis, but he did a scene with Elvis in It Happened at the World’s Fair (1963). 

P.P.S. Like me, James Best moved from L.A. to Orlando in 1987 with the hopes of taking part in Hollywood East. He opened the James Best Theater in Longwood, Florida and my wife actually played Goldilocks in a children’s play of Goldilocks and the Three Bears that was performed there in 1988. Best didn’t direct that play and I never had the opportunity to meet him. But I heard stories about his long time acting friends Burt Renyolds and Paul Newman visiting him while he lived here. He died in 2015.


My wife as Goldilocks in the play Goldilocks and the Three Bears performed at The James Best Theater in 1988

…and to end with a song, here’s the late, great Steve Goodman with his song Elvis Imitator.

Scott W. Smith





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