Clifton James, the character actor best known for his role as the frustrated, fast-talking Sheriff J.W. Pepper in two James Bond films, has died at the age of 96.
James died Saturday morning in one of his daughter’s homes in Gladstone, Oregon due to complications from diabetes, his daughter, Lynn James, confirmed to the Associated Press.
Though he would make numerous stage and television appearances, his most memorable role came as bumbling Southern Sheriff J.W. Pepper opposite Roger Moore in Live and Let Die (1973) and The Man With the Golden Gun (1974). Indeed, his performance was so memorable that the Bond writers added a plot line for him in The Man With the Golden Gun as the same sheriff on vacation in Thailand who famously gets pushed into water by a baby elephant.
“He wasn’t supposed to actually go in,” his daughter told the Associated Press. “They gave him sugar in his pocket to feed the elephant. But he wasn’t giving it to the elephant fast enough.”
To prepare to play the Louisiana sheriff, James met with real southern sheriffs to get a sense of the job and its responsibilities. The research would serve him well throughout his career, not only earning him a reprise as Sheriff Pepper, but many similar roles as lawmen in films like Silver Streak and Superman II.
George Clifton James was born on May 20, 1920 in Spokane, Washington, the eldest of Grace and Harry James’ five children. His family relocated to just outside of Portland, Oregon during the Great Depression. James served with the U.S. Army in the South Pacific in World War II and, according to his family, earned two Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star.
Following the war, James became interested in acting after appearing in plays at the University of Oregon. He moved to New York and began his professional career on the stage, making his debut in The Time of Your Life. He enjoyed success on Broadway, appearing in several plays, including the Pulitzer Prize-winning drama All the Way Home.
Though he was born and raised in the Pacific Northwest, James rose to onscreen fame playing another southerner, the cigar-chomping penitentiary floor-walker Carr in 1967’s Cool Hand Luke. He also made memorable onscreen appearances in many films and television shows, including Eight Men Out, The Untouchables, The Bonfire of the Vanities, and Dukes of Hazzard.
James is preceded in death by his wife Laurie, who died in 2015. He is survived by two sisters, five children, 14 grandchildren, and four great grandchildren.