IN CASTING A NEW WESTERN SERIES back in 1962, NBC seemed to be gambling like a card-playing sharpie at the Long Branch Saloon. For the lead, they chose the son of a New York University professor (his dad) and a writer (his mom) who had trained on Shakespeare and Shaw and whose TV credits were minimal. James Drury, though, went on to star for nine years as The Virginian, the laconic foreman of the Shiloh Ranch, and the program became TV’s third longest-running Western—after Bonanza and Gunsmoke.
After the series ended in 1971, Drury went back to stage acting for a while, briefly tried another series (Firehouse), but soon faded from view. These days, the 57-year-old TV veteran rides herd on a variety of business interests (ranging from oil and gas to hotel renovation and truck-stop construction) and is the spokesman for the American Chiropractic Association. “I never intended to retire,” he says of acting, “nor did I consider myself retired.”
Last month Drury proved it by donning his trademark black Virginian hat for a cameo in Kenny Rogers’s TV miniseries Gambler IV. If the western setting seemed familiar, a few things had changed. As TV’s first 90-minute Western with continuing characters, The Virginian required its cast to film at getaway pace, and “we worked two [camera] units at one time,” Drury recalls. “We would ride our horses back and forth between sets where we kept changes of clothes.” Still, he admits, “I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Now living in a Houston town house with Carl Ann, his wife of 12 years, Drury may soon try to rope in more TV projects and has even been shopping for an L.A. home. If a role comes along, he’ll be ready. In recent years, the TV cowpoke has been studying dressage and competing in charity cutting-horse contests. “Before, I was a guy riding a horse,” he says. “Now I’m a horseman.”