Tuesday, April 7, 2015

James Best: Remembering Rosco

I have already posted that Comfort TV is not a place for obituaries, but I felt compelled to write a few words about James Best, whose death was announced today. I don’t want to break my own rule, so let’s call this a remembrance instead.

When I wrote my book on The Dukes of Hazzard back in 1998, James Best was the only actor involved with the show who asked whether he would be paid for doing an interview. I’m not saying this to disparage the man so close to his passing – because then, as now, I understood why he felt entitled to ask that question.

Like so many television stars of that era, who watched with disbelief as the cast of Friends negotiated themselves a deal that paid each of them $1 million per episode, Jimmie Best always felt that he was not fairly compensated for his talent and his contribution to a classic and much-loved television series.

We’re not comparing shows from the 1950s to those 30 years later, when such salary escalation would be expected: Dukes ended in 1985; Friends debuted in 1994. There is less than ten years between them. And now that both have ended their runs we think of them in the same terms, even if they appeal to different fan bases – classic, long-running shows, that still air on TV every day, and that still make us happy every time we get a chance to be reacquainted with old friends. 

How much of the enduring love for The Dukes of Hazzard can be attributed to James Best? I was a teenager when the show debuted, so for me at first it was all about the Dukes themselves. Bo and Luke, so cool, fighting the good fight, outrunning the hapless Hazzard cops, jumping the General Lee over rivers and trains and whatever else stood in their way to clearing their names following yet another crime they did not commit.

And then there was Daisy. No explanation needed for the impact she made on a young man at the time.

But when I revisited the show as an adult, in preparation for writing the book, I gained a renewed appreciation for Best’s remarkable, ever-sputtering portrayal of Sheriff Rosco. Together with Sorrell Booke as Boss Hogg, the pair was one of the most underappreciated comedy teams that television ever produced.

I’m sure I thought they were funny the first time around – but then those scenes played more like filler between car chases and hot pants sightings. Today, they are the highlight of every episode. The timing, the physical comedy bits, the way Rosco’s affection for Boss never wavered despite the treatment he received. Boss and Rosco were a redneck version of Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton – frequently at each other’s throats but the best of friends beneath the bluster. 

One need look no further than the season two episode “Granny Annie”  to appreciate Rosco’s affection for his “little fat buddy.” Boss has been kidnapped and Rosco tied up at the sheriff’s station, but he gets to the CB radio and pleads with Bo and Luke to rescue his friend, despite all the trouble Boss has inflicted on the Duke family. 

It’s a poignant and beautiful moment in a show that never liked to get too sentimental. And it’s a reminder of what actors can bring to scripts that don’t have much else going for them. No other series illustrated this more clearly than The Dukes of Hazzard. The show’s writing was generally weak and the plots mind-numbingly repetitive. But we never got tired of watching as long as it was Boss and Rosco (and Enos) taking on Bo, Luke, Daisy and Uncle Jesse. 

When John Schneider and Tom Wopat walked out for most of the series’ fifth season, and were replaced by two lookalike actors, the show became almost unwatchable. Likewise, when James Best decided he was tired of driving squad cars into lakes and not being given such basic accommodations as protective clothing and ear drops to prevent infection (once again, he was right), he left the show until his demands were met. A parade of substitute sheriffs (Dick Sargent, Clifton James, James Hampton) could not even approach the unique comedic talent Best brought to the role. 

So when James Best asked if he would be paid for an interview, he was saying, “I created a character that millions of people still love. I brought something to this show that no one else likely could have. I didn’t get a cut of the merchandising on a show that inspired thousands of products, and even though you can still watch me play Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane every day on television, the checks from that job stopped coming a long time ago.”

I got it. My book’s publisher predictably refused the request, but Jimmie ultimately came around and did the interview anyway. He wanted to be a part of the book. He wanted to say some kind words about Sorrell Booke, who had passed away. He wanted the fans to know that he loved Rosco, too.

Underpaid? Absolutely. But who can put a price on what is now 40 years of happy memories shared by millions of fans? Even those Friends salaries don’t come close.


  1. He also had multiple appearances on my favorite TV show "The Twilight Zone". Each was outstanding.

  2. He also had multiple appearances on my favorite TV show "The Twilight Zone". Each was outstanding.

  3. I saw an episode of the Andy Griffith show, "The Guitar Player". I wonderedg who the handsome talented actor was was that played Jim Lindsey. It was James Best. I have a feeling that in all of his television appearances audiences only saw mere glimpses of a very talented person.

  4. Yup, I remember JB on the AG Show! He was a great comedic character actor!