Anthony James Dies: ‘Unforgiven’ & ‘In The Heat Of The Night’ Actor Was 77

Erik Pedersen

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Anthony James, an instantly recognizable character actor who often played the creepy guy including in Best Picture Oscar winners In the Heat of the Night and Unforgiven, died May 26 of cancer. He was 77.

James had made a single brief appearance on a TV series before Norman Jewison cast him as the killer Ralph in 1967’s In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger. The film went on to win five Oscars, including Best Picture.

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He would bookend his career with a key role in Unforgiven as the slimy brothel owner Skinny Dubois, who ends up on the losing end of Bill Munny’s gun. That 1992 pic starring and helmed by Eastwood won four Academy Awards, including the marquee prize, and would be James’ final screen credit.

It was the second time an Eastwood character would dispatch James in a revenge Western. Two decades earlier, his Cole Carlin was whipped then rope-strangled in the street by the Stranger in High Plains Drifter, which Eastwood also directed.

James appeared in scores of TV shows and movies, even playing a comical crook who again is shuffled off this mortal coil by the Good Guy. That time it was Leslie Nielsen’s Lt. Frank Drebin, who kills James’ Hector Savage with a firehose stream to the mouth in the 1991 sequel The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear. It would be James’ penultimate film role in a big-screen career that also included Blue Thunder, Hearts of the West, Return to Witch Mountain, Burnt Offerings and Vanishing Point.  

But James worked most in TV, guesting on some of the most popular drama series of the 1970s and ’80s, and a few from the ’60s including Gunsmoke and The Big Valley. During the Me Decade, he appeared on such shows as Quincy, M.E., Vega$, Starsky and Hutch, Charlie’s Angels, S.W.A.T., Police Story, The Streets of San Francisco and Ironside. His Reagan-era TV credits include The A-Team, Simon & Simon, Hunter, Riptide, The Fall Guy, Knight Rider, Star Trek: The Next Generation and the all-in comedy Sledge Hammer!

Music fans might recognize James as the skeevy and handsy manager/boyfriend in the video for Poison’s 1988 single “Fallen Angel.”

Born Jimmy Anthony on July 22, 1942, in Myrtle Beach, SC, he reversed his name to avoid confusing with another actor. After high school, he and his mother took a train to Los Angeles, where he pursued acting. After his screen days, James focused on painting, and more than 100 of his works were sold at galleries in Boston, New York, San Francisco, Santa Fe, NM, and Japan.

The bookish James also wrote poetry and published Language of the Heart, a book of his paintings and poetry, in 1994. His memoir, Acting My Face — a title borrowed from an oft-told story about his acting idol Marlon Brando — was published in 2014.

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