The American actor, who was best known for playing sleazy or menacing villain characters in Westerns and other well-known films and tv series, passed away from cancer on Tuesday (May 26) according to an obituary shared by theTribute Archive, a funeral home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Remarkably, James’ career was bookended by appearances in two best picture Oscar winners: He made his big-screen debut as Ralph Henshaw, a racist manning a diner counter, in Norman Jewison’s In the Heat of the Night (1967), then wrapped things up as Skinny Dubois, a hostile owner of a bordello, in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992).
In between, the 6-foot-6 James appeared in Vanishing Point (1971), Hearts of the West (1975), as a spooky chauffeur in Burnt Offerings (1976), Blue Thunder (1983) and The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991), in which he parodied his evil image in an over-the-top performance.
James appeared seven times on Gunsmoke — four as Elbert Moses — and also appeared on The Big Valley, Hawaii Five-O, Mod Squad, Police Story, Starsky and Hutch, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, The A-Team, Simon & Simon, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Married … With Children.
After retiring from acting in the mid-’90s, James, who never married, moved to the Boston area to focus on a career as an artist, and his abstract paintings were shown across the U.S. (He gifted one to Eastwood.) A book of his artwork and poems, Language of the Heart, was published in 1994.
In 2014, James published his memoirs, Acting My Face, which he dedicated to his mom. “I never considered myself a celebrity, just a sometime recognizable face,” he said.