Known the world over for his role in the television show The Dukes of Hazzard, James Best, the actor who played Hazzard County sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane passed away in hospice care yesterday after a brief illness and complications from pneumonia.
James Best was a veteran character actor, appearing in 83 movies and 600 television shows. His IMDb profile includes roles everything from film classics like The Caine Mutiny alongside Humphrey Bogart to cult B-movies like Forbidden Planet.
Best was a metalworker before joining the United States Army in 1944. He spent most of his time as a Military Police officer in Weisbaden, Germany following the end of hostilities. He was transferred to “Special Services” in Germany, where he began acting in stage plays for the troops stationed there.
Returning to the United States, Best started acting in stock companies and in road musicals. A scout from Universal Pictures put the young actor under contract, where he became a fixture in the dozens of westerns the studio churned out in the 1950s and 1960s. Best had a recurring role in several episodes of the Andy Griffith Show as Jim Lindsey, a budding rock and roll guitar player.
In the late 1970s, Best began acting in and producing several Burt Reynolds movies. He was an associate producer in the Reynolds movie The End. In 1979, he also appeared alongside Reynolds in the followup to Smokey and the Bandit, the stuntman comedy Hooper. Best was also a writer on the movie, but he didn’t receive credit for it.
Best was also recognized as an acting coach, training actors like Gary Busey, Clint Eastwood and Quentin Tarantino.
The multi-talented actor was also a painter and a musician. His artwork is featured on his website.
James Best’s most notable role was as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane, the bumbling sheriff of Hazzard County on The Dukes of Hazzard between 1979 and 1985. Despite being a regular fixture on the show, Best was a contentious figure in the production. He boycotted the series during the second season, and was briefly replaced by a handful of alternatives. The most notable was Sheriff Grady Bird, played by Dick Sargent, who appeared in two episodes, and also slipped right into the role of Darren Stevens in the show Bewitched.
According to a story in the Charlotte Observer, Best’s sidekick on the show — a sad-eyed basset hound named “Flash” — was completely Best’s idea. “Best rescued the dog from a pound and brought it to the set at the beginning of the third season, suggesting the sheriff needed a partner. Producers didn’t like the dog, but Best prevailed and she got a role.”
The storylines in The Dukes of Hazzard invariably included Best setting up some bogus roadblock and then chasing the Duke boys all over the countryside in a series of Dodge police cruisers, though in at least two episodes in the first season, Hazzard County Sheriff’s Department patrol cars are 1974 AMC Matadors.
In the pilot episode, Rosco drives a 1975 Dodge Monaco. Typically, Best’s character patrolled the roads in a 1977 Dodge Monaco.
In 2011, Best sued Warner Brothers for using his likeness in a range of Dukes of Hazzard memorabilia. Best claimed that in the 30 years since the series first aired, he’d only received $175,000 in merchandise royalties, despite his likeness being on everything from packaging to Christmas ornaments. His 1978 contract stated that he was due five percent of all merchandise royalties and Warner Brothers ended up settling the case for an undisclosed sum just a day before a court appearance in 2013.