James Best, best known as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on The Dukes of Hazzard, has died, at the age of 88.
Best was a wonderfully versatile actor within a self-imposed narrow range—a Southerner who could be wily or stupid, sometimes both and a bit more. He was a gifted musician and acting teacher as well as an actor.
Born Jewel Franklin Guy in Powderly, Kentucky, Best came by his show business career naturally–his mother was the sister of Ike Everly, the father of the Everly Brothers.
Most people know him as Roscoe P. Coltrane, a bumbler who was the butt of jokes and pranks by Bo and Luke Duke on The Dukes of Hazzard (1979-85).
Best said in an interview that the Dukes writing staff had mostly come from another sitcom, McHale’s Navy, and didn’t know how to write for a Southern-bumpkin sort of character, so Best improvised quite a bit of his dialogue, peppering it with expressions he knew from boyhood.
Pre- and post-Dukes, Best appeared in a lot of television and many movies. You can see him pull a rifle on Randolph Scott in this trailer for the very fine 1959 Budd Boetticher Western Ride Lonesome, in which he played a squeaky-voiced, cowardly outlaw.
Before Roscoe, the TV role Best was probably best known for were his two appearances on The Andy Griffith Show as guitar player Jim Lindsay, whom Sheriff Andy took a shine to.
Best was a cult-movie star as well. Working with his friend, director Ray Kellogg, he starred in 1959’s The Killer Shrews, a perfectly awful horror film that lived on, as an entry in the Mystery Science Theater 3000 series, and in an even more cheerfully dreadful 2012 sequel Return of the Killer Shrews.
Best wrote hundreds of songs; wrote, directed and starred in numerous stage plays; and ran an acting class starting in the 1970s whose students included Farrah Fawcett, Burt Reynolds, and Quentin Tarantino. Always underestimated and under-appreciated, Best was a consistently charming character actor and man, both on-screen and off.
Image credit: Getty