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TINSELTOWN TALKS

Anthony James: so good at being bad

Actor made a career out of villainous screen roles

Monday, April 21, 2014 - 12:01 am

After completing his autobiography in 2009, former actor Anthony James approached several book agents. Their recommendation was unanimous: “It's a wonderful memoir, but take your mother out of it and we'll represent you!”

James would have none of it. As much as telling the story of his rise to become one of Hollywood's most memorable “bad guys” in the 1970s and 1980s, he was unwavering in his determination to also honor the woman who supported his career.

“After all those years of agents and publishers wanting to 'throw Momma from the train,' the book has just been published by the University of Mississippi Press,” said James from his home near Boston, where he has lived since departing Hollywood 20 years ago. (See www.upress.state.ms.us/books/1689).

The title, “Acting My Face,” seemed appropriate to the lanky, swarthy James, who is widely recognized for playing psychopathic killers and other disturbed characters. “I have to remind people that I did play love scenes, it's just that they were at knifepoint!”

After she sold all their possessions and moved from South Carolina to Hollywood in 1960, James says his widowed Greek mother, Marika Palla Anthony (1913–2008), immediately began working to support him.

“She took a job as a factory steam presser while I tried to start my career,” recalled James. “Those first years in Hollywood were difficult and scary.”

With persistence, luck, and the encouragement of a devoted mother, James landed a small, but pivotal role in “In the Heat of the Night” (Best Picture Oscar, 1968), six years after arriving in Hollywood.

After playing sleazy diner counterman Ralph Henshaw, James was immediately typecast as a villain.

“My mother wasn't thrilled – she always thought of me as the heroic romantic lead – but eventually accepted it.”

In “Burnt Offerings” (1976), James was memorable as a creepy chauffeur although he never uttered a word on screen.

Off-set, he was more vocal, and recalls his first encounter with costar Bette Davis.

“For one scene, she was made up to appear over a hundred years old which was done in her hotel room for her convenience,” said James. “I was staying in the same hotel and met her in the lobby as she came down in character as an old woman. I said 'It's a pleasure to meet you Ms. Davis ….. we should probably get over to the set because it will take a long time to get your makeup on!'”

Davis's entourage froze with shock, says James. “But she got the joke. Two years later we did 'Return from Witch Mountain,' and during the 9 weeks of filming had all our scenes together. Director John Hough and I were the only people she would allow in her dressing room!”

James worked in two Clint Eastwood westerns, and didn't fare well at the hands of the famous cowboy.

In “High Plains Drifter” (1973) Clint shot off his ear, before extracting final retribution with a whip, and in “Unforgiven” James was blasted with a shotgun just before the credits rolled.

“Unforgiven” won Best Picture Oscar in 1992, and would be James' final acting job after nearly 100 film and TV roles.

An abstract artist of many years, James retired to the East Coast where, today, he continues to paint.

He published a book of art and poetry, 'Language of the Heart,' in 1994, and his works are sold through Renjeau Gallery ( www.renjeau.com) in Natick, Mass.

Bookending his acting career with a pair of Best Picture films is an accomplishment which James views modestly.

“I never considered myself a celebrity, just a sometime recognizable face. I hope people will laugh out loud at some of the book's Hollywood tales and are moved by my mother's story.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery, Ala., and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 400 magazines and newspapers. Web site: www.getnickt.com