Gladstone hometown hero Clifton James fondly remembered
Clifton James, Gladstone's hometown hero for his World War II bravery and extensive acting career spanning nearly six decades, died last month at the age of 96.
James grew up in Gladstone, a town that he always loved. After studying drama at the University of Oregon, he lived in New York and Los Angeles for most of his life, but his sisters lived in Gladstone, so he would often visit them along with his nieces and nephews. He moved in with his daughter, Gladstone resident Mary James, for the final years of his life before succumbing to diabetes on April 15.
James' memorial service with full military honors is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 25, at Willamette National Cemetery, 11800 S.E. Mt Scott Blvd., Portland.
"He almost always played that tough, Southern sheriff type," said James' sister Bev Anslow of his successful acting career that included more than 50 film credits.
James made his Broadway stage debut as a construction foreman in "The Cave Dwellers" (1958). He was involved in a lot of off-Broadway shows, where he played various roles, including starring with Al Pacino in "American Buffalo" from 1980-81, which was turned into a 1997 film production starring Dustin Hoffman.
James played a floor walker in the classic film "Cool Hand Luke" (1967). His most famous role was fast-talking Louisiana Sheriff JW Pepper in two James Bond films opposite Roger Moore: 1973's "Live and Let Die" and 1974's "The Man with the Golden Gun." Anslow said an elephant was supposed to knock James' stunt double, not James himself as JW Pepper, into a Southeast Asian river during a memorable scene in "The Man with the Golden Gun."
Moore paid tribute to James on Twitter: "Terribly sad to hear Clifton James has left us. As JW Pepper he gave my first two Bond films a great, fun character."
As a character actor, James was called upon to reprise variations on JW Pepper many times. Did he mind being type-cast?
"It didn't bother him, and he rather liked it," Anslow said. "He was an actor's actor, and he would act whatever part was given to him and genuinely enjoy the work."
James loved putting on a show throughout his long life. He was a well-known character around Gladstone, often seen with an unlit cigar in his mouth or taking out his false teeth to scare children.
James' mother taught grade school in Woodland, Washington, and would organize local drama productions, including at the old Gladstone Grade School, which which was K-8 at that time. James went to school in Gladstone through the eighth grade and graduated from Milwaukie High School.
James was one of the last survivors of WWII's 41st Division, composed of National Guard units from Idaho, Montana, Oregon, North Dakota and Washington state. Serving in the U.S. Army for 42 months in the South Pacific during WWII, he was awarded the Silver Star for his bravery in combat on April 21, 1945.
During the spring of '45, James served as a staff sergeant leading a combat patrol to determine the strength of enemy entrenchments on several ridges on the Philippines' Jolo Island, where previous U.S. attacks had been repulsed. Rather than endanger the whole patrol on April 21, he asked them to stay under cover and watch him try to crawl undetected toward an enemy's trench system. James came under "heavy automatic fire" once he crawled within 20 yards of the trench.
"Then, with complete disregard for his life, [James] charged the position, killing its occupants," a now-declassified military document says. "Continuing on his mission, he crawled to a vantage point, where he could observe the activity of the enemy on the next ridge. With this valuable information gained, the forthcoming attack was a success."
More information about James' military service and letters he sent home to family is available in copies of "Gladstone, Oregon: A History" by Gladstone historian Herbert K. Beals available at City Hall. James suffered various injuries during WWII, including the loss of his front teeth. He graduated from the University of Oregon with a drama degree in 1950.
In 1951, James married Laurie Harper, who died in 2015. He is survived by six children, 14 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.