Effingham Daily News, Effingham, IL

July 14, 2013

'The Virginian' appearance draws fans

Bill Grimes Daily News
Effingham Daily News

---- — There was a cowboy shooting event at the Effingham County Sportsman’s Club near Lake Sara Saturday. But Brian and Diane Littrell didn’t drive 200 miles from the central Missouri village of Cuba for any shooting.

The Littrells drove to Effingham County to see actor James Drury, whose Virginian character was one of the most iconic figures in 1960s television.

“This was a once-in-a-lifetime chance to get to meet him (Drury),” Littrell said. “‘The Virginian’ was always one of my favorite programs, and he (Drury) is my favorite actor.”

Drury, who starred in all 249 episodes of the iconic series, spent several hours signing autographs and posing for photographs.

“I’m sure glad we got to work this out,” he said.

Drury, the son of a New York University professor, spent a lot of time growing up on his family’s Oregon ranch. But after attending NYU in the mid 1950s, he went to California with no intention of becoming a Western star.

“I had been trained as a classical actor, but when I got to California, they put a gun in my hand and said ‘Get on that horse and don’t get off.’” he said.

Drury said he had originally aspired to be a different kind of leading man.

“I went out to California with the aspiration of starring with Elizabeth Taylor, but they gave that role to Montgomery Clift,” he said.

Seven pictures and 12 lines later, Drury tested for the role for which he became famous — after losing 40 pounds at the behest of the studio.

“They told me on a Friday night that I had the role,” he recalled. “I had a weekend to prepare for a nine-year show.”

Drury said life on “The Virginian” set was hectic at times.

“We would often have multiple units on the lot,” he said. “There was one time we shot parts of five different (episodes) in one day.”

While Drury hasn’t acted for several years, he makes about 30 public appearances a year, even though he is approaching 80 years old.

“It’s very gratifying to me that people still watch the show,” he said. The show is shown several times a week on the Inspire channel.

“It’s particularly gratifying that young people are watching the show now,” he added. “Westerns are a morality play where good triumphs over evil.

“Young people can’t get that message anywhere else.”

Drury was drawn to Effingham through his friendship with area horseman Tom Hennigh.

“I’ve known Drury for a long time,” Hennigh said. “He was coming through anyway.

“This was sort of a test to see if we would have enough people participate,” he added. “If there is, we might bring him back again next year.”

Sportsman’s Club president Lyle Kruger said Drury’s appearance was an opportunity to showcase the club, which is located on a dead-end road east of the Lake Sara dam.

“We’re one of the best-kept secrets in Effingham County,” Kruger said. “But this event has drawn shooters from several states.”

Visitors were treated to an authentic cowboy shoot, as well as whip and knife demonstrations.