James Best, a veteran character actor best known as Sheriff Rosco P. Coltrane on CBS’ action-comedy series The Dukes Of Hazzard, died Monday of pneumonia. He was 88. Best appeared in dozens of films and TV series during a 55-year career, including a role in the upcoming indie dramedy Old Soldiers.
Born July 26, 1926, and raised in Indiana, he moved to New York after a stint in the Army during World War II. While working as a fashion model, Best was noticed by a casting director — which led to his becoming a contract player for Universal Studios. He appeared in several films during the early 1950s including Winchester ’73 starring Jimmy Stewart and The Cimmaron Kid with Audie Murphy before segueing to the burgeoning world of television. He worked steadily in both mediums during the 1950s and ’60s, appearing on the big screen opposite the likes of Paul Newman, Leslie Nielsen and Ann Sheridan and guesting on such memorable series as Wagon Train, Have Gun – Will Travel and three episodes of The Twilight Zone.
Best continued to pile up film and TV credits through the 1970s before landing the roles that would bring him a taste of enduring TV stardom. The Dukes Of Hazzard was a throwback of sorts to CBS’ signature rural comedies of 1960s, this time packed with car chases, banjo music and Waylon Jennings’ narration. Best played the dimwitted but enduring Sheriff Coltrane opposite Sorrell Booke’s Boss Hogg for the series’ entire six-season run and more than 140 episodes. Every week he was on the trail of those wild Duke boys — Luke (Tom Wopat) and Bo (John Schneider). It premiered in January 1979 as the lead-in to CBS’ Dallas, and both shows became massive hits. Dukes was among the top 10 primetime programs for three consecutive years and was the No. 2 show behind Dallas for the 1980-81 season. The series wrapped in 1985 but not before launching a subgenre of imitations including Harper Valley P.T.A., Lobo and the spinoff Enos.
Best worked sporadically during the 1990s and 2000s, including a few Dukes Of Hazzard TV and video game projects.