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‘The Virginian’ turns 80, recalls Oregon roots

Dan Wheat

Capital Press

Ranchers and farmers, particularly those over 50, grew up watching James Drury as "The Virginian" on television. The actor turned 80 and talked to Capital Press about growing up on his family's ranch in Salem.

He’s probably the last actor alive who portrayed a lead character in the golden age of the Western series on television. James Drury, who starred in “The Virginian” on NBC from 1962 to 1971, turns 80 on April 18.

The show, based on Owen Wister’s novel of the same name and set in Medicine Bow, Wyo., still airs on INSP, the Inspiration Network, on Saturdays. In honor of his birthday, the network was to air two of Drury’s favorite episodes and never-before-seen footage of him discussing those episodes, from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. EDT, April 18. An encore is set for 8 p.m. EDT, April 19.

Drury has lived in Houston, Texas, with his wife, Carl Ann, for 40 years. He was born in New York City, but grew up on his parents’ farms and ranches in Oregon in the 1930s and 40s.

Most of that time was on a 100-acre ranch on Bunker Hill Road, just south of Salem that is still owned by his nephew, Victor Cobos.

“I patterned my Virginian character after my maternal grandfather, John Hezekiah Crawford, an Oregon dirt farmer and rancher who raised cattle. He came out to Oregon with a wagon train in 1880 or 1875,” Drury told Capital Press in an April 15 interview.

“He lived with us and I was close to him as my father worked in New York City,” Drury said. “Granddad put me on my first horse when I was in diapers. He had a big team of Belgian draft horses. He put me on one and I stayed up there all day. I’ve been crazy about horses ever since.”

His grandfather instilled in him honesty and work, values he portrayed in “The Virginian.”

“I’ve always called it The Cowboy Way — If it’s not true don’t say it. If it’s not yours don’t take it and if it’s not right don’t do it. That embodies the philosophy of ‘The Virginian,’” Drury said.

Drury’s mother was born on her father’s vegetable farm on Browns Island, south of Salem, in 1895. She met James Drury, Sr., while taking courses at New York University where he was a marketing professor.

Before young James was born, the Drurys bought a beach house at Agate Beach north of Newport, Ore. About the time he was born, they bought a 48-acre blueberry farm just south of Newport’s south jetty.

Drury’s mother raised him, his sister and brother there with their grandfather while their father taught in New York and spent summers and holidays with them in Oregon.

“I was six years old when the war (World War II) started,” Drury said. “My grandfather and I patrolled the beach for Japanese submarines. I was already carrying a Winchester that he had taught me to use.”

Drury attended McKinley Elementary School and Leslie Junior High in Salem. He did some acting in school and some professional acting at age 12. His mother moved them to Los Angeles in an effort to make Drury and his younger brother child movie stars.

“She took us to all kinds of auditions. We never got a job, which was great because child movie stars usually don’t turn out that well,” he said.

Drury trained as a classical actor at New York University and worked in theater before going to Hollywood in 1954. He had guest roles in many Westerns before and after his nine years as “The Virginian.”

After the show, he honed his horseman skills in Texas. He attends Western events and festivals.

On April 11, Drury’s colleague from “The Virginian,” the late actor Doug McClure, who played Trampas, was inducted into the Hall of Great Western Performers at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City. Drury, who himself was inducted several years earlier, presented the posthumous award to McClure’s daughter.



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