From Deadwood to Justified: Acknowledging Jim Beaver’s awesomeness

From Deadwood to Justified: Acknowledging Jim Beaver’s awesomeness

The conclusion of Justified’s fourth season brings down the curtain—for now, anyway—on the story of Drew Thompson, the man who improved on the legend of D. B. Cooper. Three decades ago, Thompson shot the fearsome mob boss Theo Tonin, then faked his own death by throwing another man out of a plane. As U.S. Marshal Art Mullen explains it, Thompson then proceeded to parachute “into Harlan County with enough coke and cash to jumpstart the economy of a small country.” Thompson then laid low for 30 years, though he did have “the balls to get a job in law enforcement not once, but two times,” and in his capacity as local sheriff spent the last few days before his alias was blown riding around with Raylan Givens trying to find out which of the aging Kentucky shit-kickers in their jurisdiction might be the mysterious Drew Thompson. Givens, angry at being duped, just wants to chase the bastard down. But Mullen, older and wiser, instructs him to cool his jets and take a moment to reflect: “The first thing we’re gonna do is acknowledge that this guy’s awesome.”

The character who was ultimately revealed to be the likeable super-villain Drew Thompson was originally introduced as Shelby Parlow, who at first glance appeared to be the most underwhelming character on Jim Beaver’s vast résumé of aging, pathetic-looking guys who are happy to be underestimated. Shelby seemed to be a mild-mannered burnout who hillbilly crime lord Boyd Crowder installed as sheriff after the previous, crooked-as-hell holder of that office proved too difficult to work with. When Shelby was working as a security officer for the local mining company, Boyd saved him from being murdered during an attempted heist. After he was downsized, the chance to run for sheriff saved him from the indignity of working as a greeter. He seemed to be a basically honest man who was grateful to Boyd and knew which side his bread was buttered on. His fatalistic, somewhat defeated nature was partially explained when he announced that he was dying of liver cancer. (He was lying, or he got better, or the writers forgot about it.)

The signs that Shelby might have it in him to be more than Boyd’s puppet built up slowly but steadily. He began to show signs of devotion to duty, warning Boyd that whatever he was about to do for him was the last time he could help him out with his criminal enterprises. “The way I see it,” he said, “this is my last chance to make something of myself before I head to the wrong side of the grass.” Then Shelby began to seem cagier, and when he started helping Raylan out with the Drew Thompson investigation, it was as if a first-rate lawman had been buried deep inside the crumbling wreckage and was beginning to stir. When the truth came out about his identity, it became clear that Shelby/Drew was perhaps the smartest person on a very smart show, and that he had been dazzling his colleagues with his proficiency while using his proximity to gauge how close he was to being exposed. No wonder Raylan was so pissed, and that the close-to-retirement Art could only flex his eyebrows with admiration, and maybe a little bit of envy.

The big revelation that Shelby was Drew Thompson set off the usual flurry of activity among the character-continuity nerds. Had the writers always had the Drew Thompson story in the back of their minds, and had every line and action he’d ever delivered been meant to serve the moment when his backstory would be revealed? That seems doubtful, to put it gently—but it makes perfect sense in the context of Jim Beaver’s career. Shelby/Drew Thompson is a Jim Beaver character—which doesn’t just mean that the character is played by Jim Beaver. Beaver, who is 62, has been playing characters in movies and on TV since the late ’70s, and he had a career in theater, both as an actor and playwright, before that. (He has also written TV scripts and books, and is said to be working on a long-in-the-making biography of George Reeves, TV’s Superman.) But the first “Jim Beaver character” was probably Whitney Ellsworth on Deadwood, which debuted in 2004. He has also played other roles since 2004, such as the gun dealer on Breaking Bad, who aren’t really Jim Beaver characters in the iconic sense—at least not yet. Part of what defines the type is that they take time to reveal their true depths.

Few characters have had worse long-term prospects, right from the moment they were introduced, than Ellsworth. (He didn’t even have a first name until Beaver suggested it.) A lonely but expert prospector, Ellsworth witnesses a murder committed by Al Swearengen’s chief cutthroat, Dan Dority, and essentially gives himself up for dead. Like Shelby, Ellsworth has a dead-man-walking manner, and a face like a crumpled-up road map. The only sign the early episodes can provide that there may be some magic to this man is Dority’s reluctance to simply kill him; he’s overjoyed when they reach an understanding that enables him to leave the prospector alive without feeling that he’s betrayed his employer. 

Ellsworth’s transformation from barely socialized town drunk with a good eye for gold to the dependable, super-competent manager of Alma Garret’s affairs is one of the more heartening story threads running through Deadwood, and it’s the kind of thing that can only happen in series TV. On a movie set, it’s less likely that anyone would have cast a working actor like Beaver in a small part like Ellsworth and then noticed the extraordinary audience rapport that he can develop, given the time and opportunity. Nor would a moviemaker be likely to have the chance to reshape the direction of a project to take advantage of that rapport, even if he did notice it. Ellsworth began to develop the backstory of a good but ruined man—someone who had lost a family and walked away from a career in commercial mining out of disgust with the chances that the bosses take with their employees’ lives. Everything about him that first seemed off began to take on an air of dignity, and he went from being a man grateful for not being murdered to a pillar of self-reliance and independence. “I may have fucked my life up flatter’n hammered shit,” he once said, “but I stand here before you today beholden to no human cocksucker.” Say that line in a room full of Deadwood fanatics, and the effect will be not unlike the scene in Casablanca where all the French people at Rick’s Café Americain proudly and defiantly sing “Le Marseillaise.”

Ellsworth’s downfall began when he allowed himself to become sufficiently entangled with his friends’ and employers’ lives to compromise his lonely self-reliance. For propriety’s sake, he agreed to a marriage of convenience with the pregnant Alma, but Alma, a recovering laudanum addict, fell off the wagon in the hopes that it would enable her to consummate the marriage—a real “I think I’m gonna go sleep in a gorge tonight, Honey” moment for even the most secure of men. He was finally summarily executed by agents of the rancid mining magnate George Hearst, who paid him the tribute of seeing him as the one person strong and principled enough to get, and stay, in Hearst’s way. When Ellsworth’s corpse was brought into town, Deadwood’s heart virtually stopped. It was a show about the last stand of a self-made community against the arrival of vampire capitalism, and Ellsworth had become the best part of the community, the man who refused to be bought off or get innocent blood on his hands.

Besides Ellsworth and Drew Thompson, Beaver’s greatest character was Bobby Singer on Supernatural. Even more than Ellsworth, Bobby seems like a character that was created for the show’s convenience but became its heart and soul. (Jeffrey Dean Morgan, who had played the father of the heroes, wanted to concentrate on his movie career, and the show needed a paternal figure with long-standing family ties who could mentor the boys and feed them exposition.) Supernatural is built around the conceit that the human race is under constant bombardment from monsters, ranging from vampires looking for their next feeding to 800-pound gorillas looking to bring about the apocalypse; all that keeps mankind alive is the work of “hunters” who know the score, operate in secret, and, naturally, look and sound a lot like paranoid gun nuts. 

It’s meant to be a seamy subculture: Hunters have given up hope of living normal lives to keep the rest of us safe. But main characters Sam and Dean Winchester are still youthful and have sex appeal. Beaver’s character is cantankerous—his preferred term of endearment is “idjit”—and he looks like the guy in line at the DMV who won’t shut up about the black helicopters. Like Ellsworth, he’s a widower, and he is said to be a mite too fond of the grape. He lives alone in a shitbox, with his bottles, his arsenal, and his memories, where he is constantly besieged by other hunters who know they can always count on him for advice, information, or backup. 

He is, in short, the character who validates the show’s conceit, the one who has visibly given up any chance at peace or happiness to devote himself to his calling. Beaver has said that he never assumed the character would last for more than an episode or two, but it’s easy to see why he stuck around for years. When Bobby hurt, the audience felt it. The writers even put him in a wheelchair for a while, though they eventually pulled out a miracle to get him out of it. Then, midway through last season, they killed him off, and then, still unable to let go, brought him back as a ghost. He finally left this plane by the end of the season, and if the writers have any sense, they’ll let him stay gone and not sully his final sacrifice. But I know fans of the show who can’t think of a reason to watch it anymore.

Beaver has a rare gift for illuminating the special, hidden qualities of men you wouldn’t give a second look on the street, and might not look at a second time on TV if his shows didn’t insist that you do. It’s a hard-won quality that he might never have developed as an actor if he’d had more breaks earlier in his career. But it gives his characters a special meaning right now, at a time when changes in the workplace are leaving more and more people stranded when they’re at a point in their lives where it feels too late to start over, and, for the first time in this country’s history, a majority of young people are telling pollsters that they don’t believe they’ll have it better than their parents did. Again and again, he sidles in, quietly assumes the mantle of the person even people older than him feel they’d like to be when they grow up, and then goes to his reward—whether it’s federal prison or bleeding out in the mud—without complaint, like an adult who knows that he made his own choices. (Even when he was a ghost on Supernatural, his reasons for refusing to accept death were self-sacrificing: He could have used the rest, but wanted to keep watch over his honorary sons.) 

Beaver has been lucky to have these roles—roles that came to exist because the creative teams on these shows saw how lucky they were to have him, and elected to make the most of the opportunity. He’s become one of those character actors, like Warren Oates and Harry Dean Stanton, who have legions of fans, each of whom must assume that they’re the only person on Earth who’d take a bullet for him. It’s impossible to know what the future holds for the actor, or whether he’ll get his Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia or Paris, Texas—his chance to carry the ball—or even if he wants it. But at the least he deserves a career retrospective, maybe a Random Roles interview, and a paycheck big enough to allow him to take a year off and maybe finish his damn George Reeves book. But for now, the first thing we need to do is acknowledge what Art Mullen did: This guy’s awesome.

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