Who’s Jack Elam?
Miles spotted me at the drinks table and began winding his way across the crowded room. Most of tonight’s players were costumed as Nazis, and one after the other of the uniformed men reached around me to grab papercups of the watery punch. Having no experience with Nazis or with most of the twentieth century, for that matter, I was surprised the uniforms still raised the hair on my neck. Funny how motifs like that caught on at Dreams. Tomorrow it might be gladiators or librarians. Carl Jung had his ideas about dreams but I had my own. Mine said there was a sale on German uniforms somewhere.
“I know what you’re gonna say, Miles,” I said before he could utter a word. “Give it up or drive yourself nuts. Your contract spelled out the terms, same as mine.”
“You can’t imagine the parts they gave me tonight, Frankie.” Miles’ voice, high-pitched for someone 6”4, worked against him achieving star status. He was background material, same as me.
“How long you been here, Miles? Fifteen-twenty years? Well, I’ve been here twice as long. See me playing something better than bits?” I picked up an iced tea and held it to my cheek. “Hot in here, isn’t it? If you wanna complain, complain about that.”
“Like we’re going form a union with these head-knockers around.” Rolling his eyes, Miles continued, “Played a busboy in the first bit. My only line was, ‘Can I take your plate?’”
“Least you got a line.” What had I played? It was always like that at Dreams. Did they put something in the punch?
“Second bit, I played a math teacher. Old chestnut where the subject thinks he skipped math class but shows up for the final.”
I nodded, happy to have my memory jogged. “Played a student in that one last week. Different dreamer probably.”
“They’ve got you pegged, old boy. You’ll never climb out of that hole you dug yourself.” Miles patted my shoulder. “In the last one, the only part of me the dreamer saw was my arm reaching out through a car window. Handing out a flyer about some rally. Sixties, I think. I’ll be glad when these sixties’ dreams come to an end.”
“Was it the one-legged geezer who always dreams about the war? I’ve dug a manhole with him—is that what they called it—once. Out in the rice paddies. Korea?”
“Vietnam and it’s called a foxhole,” Miles said. “Your memory stinks, Frankie. How long you been at Dreams?”
“You don’t want to know.” Truth was, I couldn’t remember. “So you gonna go to the bosses and whine again?” I asked, moving toward the dessert cart. A woman had just put out a dozen plates of banana cream pie. I watched her waddle back inside before grabbing one. She didn’t like it when the bit players moved in first. Stars got treated better, even by the likes of her.
GET ME JACK ELAM.
“Nope, I’m done with that pussy stuff.” Miles tossed his cup in the trashcan. “I got some ideas percolating, don’t worry. Guys with half my looks are playing leads.”
I wondered if he saw the same face I did. “Last time you caused trouble, you got a two-week suspension,” I said, helping myself to a second piece of pie. An arm reached out to grab it before I took a bite.
“Just you wait,” he called over his shoulder. “I’ll get my just desserts.”
I had Monday nights off and settled into the darker recesses of the set to see what Miles would do. The company could mount hundreds of dreams at a time in this studio and Miles usually put on a good show, hopping from one set to another. He was a comic at heart, but very few dreams took that turn. So the directors employed him for what remained of his swarthy good looks and his ability to convey a lot of feeling with his eyes. Few actors got speaking parts at DREAMS. Mostly westerns and war stories got cast here though and we were the kind of men used in barroom scenes, posse members, lynch mobs, combat zones. Miles was underused given his talent, but it was hard to move up in this racket. The roles were cast in stone since no one was going anywhere.
In Miles’ first piece, the dreamer was being chased through a series of caves. Jack Elam played the villain. See what Miles was up against? Dressed like a cowboy, Jack was whooping it up as he bore down on the subject, gun in hand. Miles would never play better parts with Elam and Elisha Cook around. And he died too late to play leads. Car crash victims were the future stars at DREAMS.
Suddenly, a foot came out of the shadows and tripped Elam. The veteran actor went flying, and Miles stepped out of the darkness and took his place, barely missing a beat. In fact, he was too quick and ran the dreamer down, screwing up the light bars and knocking over a prop or two. More disastrously, he woke the subject.
Had anyone seen the foot beside me? I nearly swallowed my tongue.
GET ME SOMEONE LIKE JACK ELAM
“Great save,” the director yelled, “but if you’re gonna jump in, Miles, you gotta match
your pace to his. You okay, Jack?”
Jack stood up and brushed himself off. “Nobody trips for no reason, Maestro.” He
looked around suspiciously. “You boys keeping the set clear?” The prop guys nodded.
“Wanna try it again?” Elam asked. Everyone snickered. Some of the newer guys on the
lot forgot it wasn’t a regular set; there were no second takes. Elam had only been around
five or six years.
“Subject’s up and taking a shower, Jack,” the director said, his voice soothing. “No
retakes.” The set was wheeled into the hangar and another wheeled out. Elam was
swigging a root beer off to the side, doing that thing with his eye. Nobody liked to look at
him head on. Never knew when he’d throw a punch.
“Jack, why don’t you take a minute? Rest up. Someone can spell you in the next one.”
“You want me to rest, you say. Sure, I can rest.” He trained his eye on Miles and stepped
out of the light.
GET ME A YOUNGER JACK ELAM.
“Do I get to play his part?” Miles asked, panting with anticipation.
The director looked Miles over. “Give him the costume. He earned it.” The set was a dark alley.
“Am I gonna play a cowboy?” Miles asked, walking around like the Duke.
“Does this look like a Western set?”
“What’s it gonna be then?”
“Dreams don’t always progress in predictable ways,” the Maestro said. “I have a script, but…” He shrugged. “There’s just no telling with dreamers like this one.”
WHO IS JACK ELAM?
Miles swaggered out minutes later, wearing the garb of a middle-eastern prince. “What the heck is this about?” he asked Maestro, fabric swirling around him. “What kind of a guy wears purple bunting?”
“Jack doesn’t always play cowboys. I told you that.”
“I thought you meant I’d play a thug. Or a lovable uncle in a comedic piece. Something like that.”
I could see Maestro getting angry. “Look at the dreamer, Miles. Does he look like he dreams about either of those things?” The dreamer was projected on a screen above the set and we all looked up. Am embroidered kufi sat on the table next to the bed; a jubba hung from a padded hanger. Only Miles seemed perplexed.
Miles picked up the script. “You mean I gotta climb into that jar and make like a genie.” The jar was barely big enough to contain him.
“Dreamer’s gonna find the jar in that alley in about ten seconds. Get inside.” Miles scrambled in and waited, but the dreamer didn’t rub the jar. Instead, he rolled it down the alley, finally smashing it with a sledgehammer. I could imagine what Miles was feeling inside. We all could, having been in this guys’ dreams once or twice ourselves.
I heard Elam laughing from somewhere. “It’s KISMET,” he yelled.
Jack Elam died in 2003. This five lines in bold were attributed to him. Jack played in the film KISMET in 1955.
Patricia Abbott is the author many print and online crime fiction stories. Forthcoming stories will appear in DAMN NEAR DEAD 2, BEAT TO THE PULP-ROUND ONE, BY HOOK OR BY CROOK, BATS IN THE BELFRY, and CRIMEFACTORY. She is the co-editor of MEGAMART NOIR and won the Derringer Award for her story, “My Hero.”