In the new book, “Raised by the Stars,” Nick Thomas interviews nearly thirty children of actors from cinema’s Golden Age. They talk about the joys and difficulties of growing up in the shadow of the Hollywood spotlight.
One of those featured is the late character actor Jack Elam, who was born in Miami. Elam was best known for his villainous characters in Westerns, roles made even more malevolent by his squinting or rolling eyes.
Elam lived in Miami until he was nine, working at various jobs including picking cotton, and moved to California to live with his father who was an accountant. Initially, Elam also took to accounting, but soon turned to acting.
“He agreed to arrange the financing for three Westerns in exchange for a small part as a ‘heavy’ in each film,” Jackie explained. “Then, Daryl Zanuck was looking for an actor to play a ‘heavy’ in the picture, Rawhide, with Susan Hayward and Tyrone Power. It was the break my dad needed and the beginning of a long career.”
Many years later, Elam “switched sides” and began playing affable good guy sidekick roles such as alongside James Garner in Support Your Local Sheriff in 1969.
“Comedy became easier for him as he got older, because of the physical demands of Westerns,” said Jackie. “At a certain point, you just don’t want to do the hard, manual labor of an action film. In terms of material such as villain or comedy, I don’t think he had a preference. He just liked to work and really enjoyed the camaraderie of the set.”
Given the hectic lifestyle of living in the celebrity bubble, relationships between parent and child could sometimes be difficult. The lack of privacy due to constant media and fan attention, and the busy shooting and travel schedules could be tough on family life and sometimes left children feeling neglected or abandoned.
While some of the children interviewed in the book had somewhat rocky relationships with their famous parents, Elam and his daughter were always close. But Jackie had no real interest in acting.
“I dabbled with acting briefly in my early twenties, but ended up taking a different job path and am now an academic administrator at an arts college,” she said.
In fact, few of the children interviewed became actors. Many, however, did take an interest in arts or entertainment: Walter Matthau’s son became a director, Rex Harrison’s son is a writer, Errol Flynn’s daughter is a photographer, and Red Skelton’s daughter paints.
Others, like Jackie Elam, just didn’t inherit the acting genes. Jimmy Stewart’s daughter became an anthropologist and spent years living with gorillas in Rwanda, while Rosalind Russell’s son is a businessman.
“Once in a while I spot one of my dad’s films on a class syllabus – and it’s great to know that these films are still being watched and discussed,” said Jackie. “He remains a very cool dude.”
“Raised by the Stars” is published by McFarland, and includes interviews with the children of prominent actors such as Errol Flynn, Jimmy Stewart, Rex Harrison, Rosalind Russell, and Bing Crosby, as well as many supporting and character actors like Jack Elam who were popular in the 40s, 50s, and beyond.
More information at the website: www.raisedbythestars.com
Writer, photographer. Passionate foodie, lover of good books and storytelling. Lives in Globe. Plays in the historic district. Travels when possible.