Actor James Best, who played the show’s goofy and slapstick Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, passed away at the age of 88 on Monday.
According to his family’s spokesman Steve Latshaw, Best passed away in hospice care in Hickory, NC due to pneumonia-related complications. He is survived by his third wife Dorothy, as well as his son Gary Allen Best, his daughters JoJami Best Tyler and Janeen Damian, and three grandchildren.
Best began his acting career in 1950 with uncredited bit parts, but cemented his fame with the seminal southern TV show when it began in 1979. He was also featured on notable programs such as The Twilight Zone, Gunsmoke, and Bonanza. (Check out his IMDB page for a full list of credits.)
John Schneider, who played half of Dukes of Hazzard‘s dynamic duo Bo Duke, was saddened by the news. “I laughed and learned more from Jimmie in one hour than from anyone else in a whole year,” he said in a statement.
Actor Burt Reynolds offered his own sentiments as well. “It’s such a shame to hear of the loss of James Best. 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.” Reynolds considered himself a close friend of Best ever since their days together on Gunsmoke.
However, Best’s priority wasn’t always fame. Despite his hundreds of film and television credits, he was never one whose goal was a packed trophy case. In a 2009 interview with the Charlotte Observer, he said, “I acted the part as good as I could . Rosco — let’s face it — was a charmer. It was a fun thing.” After Dukes stopped filming, Best and his wife left Hollywood to move to Florida after apparently having been “burned out” on the industry. “It’s a job. It’s different than most people’s job, but it’s a job,” he told the Star in a 2014 interview. “You work four to five days on one project and then move on to the next.”
But the acting bug was a lifelong one for Best, and he continued his creative endeavors through writing. After leaving Hollywood, he began teaching acting, and for a short while he was an instructor at the University of Central Florida. He ended up with star students like Reynolds, Gary Busey, Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino. “I know what the hell I’m doing, and they respect me down there [in Florida],” he told The Times, “whether Hollywood does or not.”
He also turned his focus to writing during this time. His original play “Hell Bent for Good Times” is a family dramedy set during the Great Depression, and it drew on Best’s own experience growing up during the era. Born on July 26, 1926 in Powderly, KY, Best — nee Jewel Franklin Guy — was the youngest of nine children to his parents Lena Mae Everly Guy and Larkin Jasper Guy. As you can imagine, times were tough.
After his mother passed in 1929, Best lived in an orphanage for a short while before being adopted by Essa and Armen Best of Corydon, IN. He asked them if he could change his name to Jimmie, and James Best was (re)born. He graduated from high school in 1944 and joined the U.S. Army Air Corps, eventually serving as a military police officer in Germany. After watching some fellow servicemen perform skits for the weary troops, Best realized that acting was his true passion. “I’m sitting in the audience, old country boy, and the curtain goes up and I’m like a kid in Disneyland. 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 told 12 Stars Media in a 2010 interview.
He went on to join his troop’s theatre company, and after WWII ended, he traveled to New York to pursue his silver screen dreams. He gained a contract with Universal Studios and went on to become absurdly prolific – according to the Shelby, N.C., Star newspaper, he had roles in at least 87 films and more than 600 TV shows.
Even though he tried many times to retire to the good life – fishing in Hickory with his wife, after the two moved there in 2006 – he never quite knew how to quit. His most recent role was in the 2013 Hallmark movie The Sweeter Side of Life, which was written and produced by his daughter Janeen Damian and her husband Michael. He was also in pre-production for a 2015 film called Old Soldiers, appropriately about three WWII veterans and their final road trip to visit the war’s memorial in Washington, D.C.
Best didn’t always approve of how things are done in today’s entertainment business, though. “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 said to 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.” And in the previously mentioned 12 Stars Media interview, he also lamented how Hollywood seems to prefer reality television over true talent.
Speaking to the Star last year, Best said, “From the time I was adopted when I was four years old up to now, my life has been like a roller coaster. There have been more ups than downs and I have been enjoying everything. I thank God every day for it.”
Through his acting and teaching, Best enriched countless lives. You can read his obituary here, courtesy of his family. We’ll miss you, Jimmie.