Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

Shiloh west of the Shannon

Something that many, if not most, Americans (and presumably other non-Irish people) eventually have to get used to, if they spend much time at all in rural Ireland, is The Stare.

Now, I do not mean to suggest that people are constantly staring at you in the country if you are a stranger. Indeed, it is more like the opposite. If people do not know you in a small place, you could darn near start to feel invisible. People who have a warm, heartfelt greeting for someone they haven’t seen in half an hour will look right through you as if you were thin air if they don’t know who you are. One particularly feels this simulated non-existence in small shops when the cashier spends what seems like hours chatting about anything and everything with the customer they know well while you are left standing there like some misplaced garden gnome.

But when you enter a public place (like a pub or a shop or a church), there will always be the odd (and I mean that in pretty much every sense of the word) person or persons who will gape at you with their mouth open if they have never seen you before. It is sometimes enough to make you check to make sure you haven’t grown a second head.

One man was introduced to The West of Ireland Stare last month when he was innocently brought into a pub for a drink. You see, my wife has a routine on a certain night of the week, which includes visiting her father in the nursing home in a nearby town and bringing her brother Joseph along with her. This invariably involves a visit to the pub for a pot of tea, and on this particular evening they followed a 74-year-old American into the place. The Missus couldn’t exactly place him but she knew instinctively that he was famous. With all the maturity of ten-year-olds lacking adult supervision, they began whispering and laughing and trying to figure out who he was. Finally, the Missus told Joseph to go to the men’s room (or the “gents” or the “loo,” as it’s more likely to be referred to here) so that he could get a better look at the mystery man. As she described it, Joseph walked across the room slowly and deliberately with his head turned in one of those obvious, sidelong stares that are so familiar to us Yanks in rural Ireland that the poor man probably worried for his safety. Then Joseph did a repeat performance on his way back from the loo to his seat. It’s a miracle that the visitor didn’t immediately ring for the gardai.

Anyway, when she got home that night, I could tell her who they had been gawking at. It had been, after all, in the local papers. It was the Virginian. One of the pubs in her home village is called Finnertys, and the brother of the man who has that pub emigrated years ago to Texas, where he started a whole string of Irish pubs. One of his best customers turned out to be an actor by the name of James Drury. This summer the two realized a longtime project when Eamon Finnerty brought Drury and his wife to the west of Ireland for nine days of visits to his distant relatives, a myriad of local events, the experience of the Galway Races and general interaction with fans and autograph hounds. While in Mayo, Drury and his wife also celebrated their wedding anniversary in a local hotel. This is why the road through the Missus’s home village was bedecked with Old Glory, as I described last week.

Drury also gave interviews on the local radio station as well as on a national Irish radio program. What was an eye-opener for me was how vividly and fondly everyone in Ireland seems to remember the TV series The Virginian. It still airs five days a week on one of the Irish channels, and everybody seems to have watched it in their youth. Everyone’s first question about Drury, when they heard he was here, was, was he Trampas? Trampas seems to have been everybody’s favorite character on the series—especially the women. Trampas was played by Doug McClure who, sadly, died in 1995. This web site will offer a major prize to anyone who can tell us the name of the character Drury played on the series. Ha! That was a trick. The foreman of the Shiloh Ranch in Wyoming, played by Drury, was never referred to as anything but “the Virginian.” As far as I know or can find out, his actual name was never mentioned.

In his RTÉ radio interview, Drury recounted how the series, which ran for nine seasons beginning in 1962, was the first to fill a regular 90-minute time slot and how its movie-length format attracted major Hollywood stars in guest roles. Old-timers like Charles Bickford, Pat O’Brien and Burgess Meredith showed up, but so did rising or future stars like Robert Redford and Harrison Ford. Interestingly, the three lead actors from the original Star Trek series (William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley) all did guest appearances. Drury joked that the Virginian never had a love interest that lasted until the end of an episode. Getting romantically involved with him was pretty much the kiss of death. Another eye-opener in hearing him interviewed was realizing just how many roles he has had over the years. His first film roles were uncredited ones in Blackboard Jungle (as a hospital attendant) and Love Me or Leave Me (with Doris Day), where he had one line as an assistant director. He went on to supporting roles in movies like The Tender Trap (with Frank Sinatra), Forbidden Planet (as a crewman) and Love Me Tender (with Elvis Presley). He reckoned that Elvis was a really good actor who could have done more serious roles, but he wasn’t allowed to by his manager, Colonel Tom Parker.

Drury has had a slew of guest appearances over the years, not surprisingly often in westerns. One of the most memorable ones (to me anyway) was as one of a group of railroad barons who hire the title character in the pilot episode of The Adventures of Brisco County Jr.. The others were played by Stuart Whitman (Marshal Jim crown in Cimarron Strip), Rayford Barnes (a familiar face from Maverick, Laramie and Have Gun – Will Travel), Paul Brinegar (Wishbone in Rawhide) and Robert Fuller (Jess Harper in Laramie and Cooper Smith in Wagon Train). While often sought for guest roles in Tv and movies over the years, Drury said that a lot of his later career was in dinner theater.

All of this nostalgic revisiting of the Old West got me a’hankering after those great TV and movie western themes, including the theme for The Virginian. That led me to a very complete collection of these great and stirring melodies on a four-disc box set called The Magnificent Westerns by City of Prague Philharmonic. It’s got just about all the great western themes you could think of, from Elmer Bernstein’s immortal music for The Magnificent Seven to the great melodies that Ennio Morricone composed for the spaghetti westerns. It even included the theme song for Blazing Saddles, written by Mel Brooks and originally sung by Frankie Laine. This got me to thinking that Blazing Saddles really deserves to be mentioned as some sort of addendum to our discussion three weeks ago about African-American presidents in the movies. Now, Cleavon Little did not actually play a U.S. president in Blazing Saddles, but he did play a ground-breaking role as an authority figure, who happened to be African-American—albeit in a purely comedic and satirical context.

Strangely, the movie’s theme song put me in mind of Barack Obama. He might even want to adopt it as his new campaign song. (Or does it sound too messianic?) Its stirring refrain:

He conquered fear and he conquered hate
He turned dark night into day
He made his blazing saddle a torch to light the way

-S.L., 28 August 2008

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive