Anthony James, Actor in 'Unforgiven' and 'In the Heat of the Night,' Dies at 77

Anthony James - Photofest - H 2020

He often played bad guys in a career bookended by those two appearances in Oscar-winning best pictures.

Anthony James, the lanky character actor who played sleazy, menacing types in such films as In the Heat of the NightUnforgiven and High Plains Drifter, has died. He was 77.

James died Tuesday of cancer, according to an obituary announcement posted by a funeral home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Remarkably, James' career was bookended by appearances in two best picture Oscar winners: He made his big-screen debut as Ralph Henshaw, a racist manning a diner counter, in Norman Jewison's In the Heat of the Night (1967), then wrapped things up as Skinny Dubois, a hostile owner of a bordello, in Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven (1992). 

In between, the 6-foot-6 James appeared in Vanishing Point (1971), Hearts of the West (1975), as a spooky chauffeur in Burnt Offerings (1976), Blue Thunder (1983) and The Naked Gun 2 1/2: The Smell of Fear (1991), in which he parodied his evil image in an over-the-top performance.

An only child, James Anthony was born to Greek immigrants on July 22, 1942, in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. His father, George, built and owned a restaurant called The Mayflower but died when the boy was just 8.

When he was 18, he and his mother, Marika, took a train to Union Station in Los Angeles after selling all of the family possessions. He cleaned bathrooms to pay for acting lessons, then made his onscreen debut with a one-line role on a 1966 episode of NBC's T.H.E. Cat, starring Robert Loggia.

(He took the stage name Anthony James when he discovered there was another actor known as Jimmy Anthony.)

James appeared seven times on Gunsmoke — four as Elbert Moses — and also appeared on The Big ValleyHawaii Five-OMod SquadPolice StoryStarsky and HutchBuck Rogers in the 25th CenturyThe A-TeamSimon & SimonStar Trek: The Next Generation and Married … With Children.

After retiring from acting in the mid-'90s, James, who never married, moved to the Boston area to focus on a career as an artist, and his abstract paintings were shown across the U.S. (He gifted one to Eastwood.) A book of his artwork and poems, Language of the Heart, was published in 1994. 

In 2014, James published his memoirs, Acting My Face, which he dedicated to his mom. "I never considered myself a celebrity, just a sometime recognizable face," he said.

Donations in his memory can be made to St. Jude Children's Research Hospital or to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.