How Deadwood’s Jim Beaver embodies his Marine Corps values in all he does
Jim Beaver is a former Marine Corporal and a highly successful working actor in Hollywood with a deep love of his time in the Corps.
Beaver is most likely known for his roles as Bobby Singer in the TV show Supernatural, Whitney Ellsworth in the HBO Western drama Deadwood, and for his role as Sheriff Shelby Parlow in Justified. He began his career in acting post his service in the Marines, first on stage in Oklahoma and then doing Shakespeare in Dallas. He wrote plays such as Spades, Sidekicks and Semper Fi as well during his early stage career. In our sit-down discussion with him, he covers his upbringing, time in the Corps and how much his service positively impacted his future career and life.
Beaver said, “I have been told I am the most famous actor to have come out of Wyoming. I am not sure that means much because there are only about 12 people in Wyoming.” He was born in Wyoming, yet grew up in Texas around the Dallas-Fort Worth area. His father was a minister for the Church of Christ and a CPA. His childhood was spent mostly in Irving, a suburb of Dallas. He stated, “I had a great time growing up there. It was a typical suburban life with kids riding their bikes around and playing Army at the house of the kid with the biggest yard…catching frogs and snakes…pretty typical cliché American childhood.” He has three younger sisters and spent time with a gang of friends who graduated in 1967 and he graduated in 1968.
In 1967 several of his close friends joined the Marines post-graduation, which made Beaver jealous as he still had another year to go to finish school. He shared, “I remember getting letters from them in boot camp and later from Vietnam. The letters basically said, ‘Whatever you do man, don’t join the Marines.' I thought they meant the runt of the litter couldn’t hack it. They may also have been trying to protect me from something hard.” He joined the Marines after graduating high school and headed to Marine Corps Recruit Depot (MCRD) San Diego. Beaver said, “…about 11 seconds after getting off the bus at MCRD I grasped what my friends had been telling me, that this was going to be hard…Boot camp was certainly the toughest thing I had ever done up to that point, but I got through it.”
Beaver spoke further about graduating boot camp: “It is one of the things I am most proud of in life.” Beaver notes that, “… however you add us up, there is a comparatively limited number of people that have been through it (boot camp). I am very proud of having gone through the process of becoming a Marine.” In his recollection of why he joined the Corps, “...I don’t remember going in from any enormous patriotic fervor or political position…it just seems like a good thing to do. By and large it was…I came out of the Corps quite a different person from where I was -- always kind of a timid kid who was shy and not assertive…the Marine Corps changed that.”
Beaver elaborated, “It gave me an enormous amount of confidence, and it revealed to me that I could do more than I thought I could and I had a certain position of strength to rely on when asserting myself.” He credits the Corps with teaching him about responsibility, fulfilling his part as a member of a team and of being a person who stood for something. He doesn’t consider himself a brave person. He, “…came out of the Marines knowing to stand up when no one else will, where you don’t do it because you are brave but because it is your duty.” He looks back fondly on his time in the Corps and shares, “…If I hadn’t been a Marine, I probably wouldn’t have stood up for the right thing in this moment or that moment…it taught me to stand for something.”
“I had patriotic fervor by the time I got out of the Corps," Beaver shared, "born from seeing what went on in other countries that didn’t have some of the rights that we have in our country, and also what went on when people in the ’right’ behaved in a way that wasn’t right.” He came out of the Corps with a stronger sense of loyalty to the country and with a desire always to be a part in making it better. He wanted to help the country, “…live up to its potential. As a veteran and civilian, [I wanted to help] make this country what it can be and to point out when it doesn’t live up to its own standard.”
Beaver has made an effort to be educated in political and current matters as well. He came out of the Marines evaluating authority and questioning whether or not the government was doing the “right thing." He looks at the Constitution now more than ever and questions if what we are doing is living up to the document. He fights against things he believes go against the Constitution. Beaver shared, “A lot of us came out of the Corps with an ongoing duty even after we were discharged, to continue standing for what we believed in for our country.”
He credits the Corps with improving his physical fitness and inner self-confidence. The Corps expanded his horizons exponentially and taught him to keep fighting and not give up. He believes, "12 weeks in San Diego or Parris Island wouldn’t hurt an awful lot of people.” His service helped him psychologically in leadership, teamwork and in being a good follower. He recalls a story from Vietnam to where he had been there for almost a year and no one in his company had been promoted after a long time in grade. His fellow Marines were surprised at how hard it was to get promoted. At the time Beaver was two-and-a half years in grade as a lance corporal, which then was a long time to be an E-3.
There was a company formation at their camp and all of the Marines stood in formation, uneasy about it as the hills surrounding the site were not all friendly held territory. A chopper came in with the company commander and first sergeant. The company commander announced there would be a promotion, which excited the Marines present. However, the company dog, “Chicom”, was promoted to gunnery sergeant. Beaver said, “He (the dog) was the first and only member of the unit to be promoted during our first ten months ‘in country’.” The intention of the dog getting promoted was to be a morale booster, but it had the opposite effect on the unit. After two-and-a-half years and after having successfully stood a Commanding General’s Inspection (CGI), Beaver was finally promoted Corporal. He earned the chevrons through being the only section head to pass the CGI at his unit in Da Nang while “in country.”
Beaver commented, “I did my job, worked the radio as I was supposed to, and only shot when shot at. I came through it a lot easier than a lot of folks.” He shares, “When a chopper was coming in with MEDEVACs it was all hands-on deck regardless of your duty station or why you were there.” He unloaded a chopper with wounded and he got intimate experience seeing grunts injured from being out in the bush. He saw both tracer colors, US and VC, and returned stateside with all of his faculties and extremities. He is “….grateful for that. I am grateful for the sacrifices of my fellow Marines who didn’t come back with all of their digits.”
Beaver recalls how he went to a football game in Los Angeles during his time on active duty and attended the game in uniform. He was met in the parking lot by some rough characters. One of them was very angry at Beaver. He shares, “His (angry man’s) buddy grabbed the guy’s arm and pulled him back and said, ‘Hey man, watch out, he’s a Marine.” Beaver shared, “It was the uniform, as they could have mopped the floor with me pretty easily.” The situation and the result amused Beaver and he said, “There is something about the Corps where I really love the traditions of wearing the uniform and saluting….there is something about being a part of an organization and living up to your part in it.” He stated, “I am most proud of making it through boot camp where there were guys who were stronger than me and more devoted than me who didn’t make it.
"I did my three years active and five years in the reserves as faithfully as I could. I went where my country asked me to go and did what it asked me to do, and to me that’s nothing terribly extraordinary, but something worthy of pride…I don’t have any memories in particular that I go, ‘Oh I did this one really great thing.” I was just there and didn’t fail in my duty. I’m perfectly happy if you put that on my tombstone. Someday, not now.”
He brought the value of perseverance over to Hollywood from the Corps. Beaver shared, “It (Hollywood) is not a place that gives rewards easily or lightly. A certain amount of patience and stick-to-it-ness is required, especially if you look like a potato, like I do!” The Corps provided him with a sense of doing the hard work to succeed. The Corps also provided the courage to stand up for himself when he wasn’t being treated with respect. His advice for young actors is that he has two rules, “Never, ever hold up production and never, ever make anyone sorry you got hired.” The first one is directly from his experience in the Corps and he said, “Never be the problem. Do what you are required to do…Word can get around Hollywood if you are not pulling your weight.” Beaver also shares advice to actors, “Always take roles in successful shows….problem is no one ever knows what will be successful….my greatest piece of advice is be lucky!”
He explained, “Pulling my weight and helping others pull theirs is definitely from my time in the Corps. A chain is only as strong as its weakest members, both in the Corps and in film production, where I am supposed to be as strong as I can in order to pull the weight of the unit so that the ones that are having difficulty get dragged along with us.”
He is most proud of having worked in “Deadwood." He stated,
“‘Deadwood’ would have been my favorite show on television even if I had not been in it. ‘Deadwood’ is always in the argument for the greatest TV show in history….I was absolutely blessed to get that role, to play it, and to experience the joy of that character and of those scripts, particularly the camaraderie of the cast and crew on that show. It has been fourteen years since I finished the show, and I am still very close with everybody on it….we have a bond very few actors get.”
He found working with the cast to be helpful while he was dealing with difficult personal issues during the filming. He shares, “I wonder how I would have survived those difficulties if I didn’t have the cast of ‘Deadwood’ to turn to.” His wife Cecily was diagnosed with lung cancer while he was filming season one, and she died right after season one shooting was completed. He was supported by the cast and crew and found joy in working with them even when it was hard to do so. He considers his part, “…one of the best ever written.” He considers the cast and crew to be a second family.
Beaver stated, “In certain ways going to Vietnam was the perfect career move.” When he got to Los Angeles and was looking for work in the mid-1980s the Hollywood industry was beginning to deal with the Vietnam War. The industry was looking for veterans who could write about the war. He shares, “I would never have gotten those (writing gigs) opportunities if I had not been to Vietnam….we could write from a certain authenticity the average TV writer could not have.” He got his start in writing TV programs mainly about the Vietnam War, and around that time he got a part in the film In Country that stars Bruce Willis and was directed by Norman Jewison. Beaver went to the audition with Jewison carrying a photo of himself in Vietnam. Beaver was the only principal role actor in the film who had been in Vietnam and the military. He wore his own Marine Corps jacket in the film in his role. He felt like he was representing his tribe by wearing it. He shares, “That film, I thought is a beautiful and extraordinary film for veterans and non-veterans alike. I think it had a real impact on those people who saw it.” The film pushed Beaver into the field of working actors as he played Bruce Willis’ best friend.
The success of In Country pushed him into quality roles and projects to work on such as Sister Act and Sliver. Beaver credits Deadwood with boosting his career to new heights. He said, “Deadwood is the thing that put me on the map. I would walk into auditions and people would say, ‘You are Ellsworth from Deadwood.,’ They knew who I was without being told.” Getting one quality role opened the door to even more quality roles. He stated, “You want to work with people you know and people that you respect…I have been incredibly fortunate from leapfrogging from one quality project to the next.” He has since worked in Justified, Breaking Bad and many more. He went from Deadwood to Supernatural. The show is wrapping 15 years on the air. Beaver has been with the show for 15 years as well. He is very happy to have been able to work on highly acclaimed award-nominated shows and shows that just have a large fan base.
He stated about his career,
“A lot of it is luck, whether you are available when they need you…other times it is something like can you believably speak a phrase in German, where it has nothing to do with talent. I know 100 actors more talented than me that can’t get a job. If they had walked through some of the doors I’ve had you would be speaking to them. It has been a career of good fortune.”
Beaver stated that the director, “Guillermo del Toro is one of the best people I have ever met in my life. He is one of two certifiable geniuses that I have ever worked with. He and David Milch, of Deadwood, are the two people I look at and think, these are minds that think so much beyond what most of us work at.” He describes del Toro as, “…a lovely, sweet man.” Del Toro shoots all day and edits all night and he comes in the next morning to show the day-before shooting with music. Beaver asks, “How did he do that and when does he sleep?”
Del Toro is an artist of the first order to Beaver. He states, “….I adore working for him.” He credits his work on “Deadwood” for being cast by Del Toro in “Crimson Peak.” Del Toro fought to have Beaver cast in the film against executives’ wishes. He states, “Del Toro went out of his way to make sure I was an important part of the picture….I would gladly spend the rest of my life working for him.”
Beaver said the best leadership lesson he draws from the Corps is, “Run towards the sound of the firing.” The phrase means to him “…Don’t run from a challenge. Embrace it. If you have something hard to do, get at it. Because waiting or hiding from a responsibility leaves you waiting and fearing. You still have to face it.” He is tempted to duck problems, but he pushes past that reaction. He stated, “…You have to attack them (problems) and overcome them.”
Beaver’s first wife, Cecily Adams, was the daughter of a famous TV actor and fellow former Marine Don Adams. Adams, most known for the lead role of Maxwell Smart in Get Smart, served in the Corps during World War II. Beaver connected with Adams over their shared love of classic film trivia and them having both served in the Corps. Adams was on Guadalcanal in 1942 as a Marine. Beaver shared, “As he (Don) told it, he was the only person from his platoon to survive. He wasn’t wounded, but he spent a year in the hospital with blackwater fever contracted on Guadalcanal. He lost a lot of buddies and I know that it had a deep impact on him.” He states, “He (Don) was one of the funniest human beings I ever met….I liked him, and I think he liked me.” Beaver was a little intimidated when he first started dating Don's daughter. He commented, “I am grateful to Don because he gave me Cecily which in turn led to our daughter, so I have a lot of respect for the man.”
Beaver discussed getting more Marine stories told in the Hollywood arena:
“I think it is particularly difficult at this point in time….the big studios are uninterested in really serious stories. They are much more interested in guys who can fly and see through walls. I always thought that there was a good place in Hollywood for superhero stories, but it never occurred to me that they would take over the business and push out the dramas I enjoyed…it is a lot easier to get a superhero movie made than getting a movie on a topic like civil rights or social injustice or the military experience. If there is a scandal in the news….you can get a pretty strong Oscar-bait movie out of something like that. Serious subjects, comparatively speaking, are in the minority in big studio pictures…serious drama has really turned things around in television with the flourishing streaming and cable networks…There is a TV production company for almost any kind of story that is serious and thought provoking, which is quite the reverse from 30 or 40 years ago. I think it is there (TV) that you will find an audience ready to hear a dramatic or fascinating story….The key to it is to get Marines, active or veteran, to write about their experiences….you will find that a good solid proportion of them (great war films) were written by veterans of the wars they depict. The great World War I aerial film, Wings, was written…and directed by William Wellman (World War I veteran and pilot). The great war movie Battleground about the Battle of Bulge was written by a soldier (Robert Pirosh) who had fought in the Battle of the Bulge.”
Beaver is most proud of, “A beautiful 19-year-old daughter I raised successfully. I am enormously proud of her and she has overcome a lot of difficulties in life….Being a prolific working actor is an astonishing accomplishment not because I did it, but because it happens to so few. The single accomplishment I am most proud of is my book titled, Life’s That Way, which chronicled how my wife Cecily suffered from lung cancer and the aftermath of her death and all of things going on in my life at that time. It was written not as a book, but as a real-time night-by-night email newsletter to family and friends about what was happening to us day-to-day from the day we discovered she was ill. It covers exactly one year….it ended up being a journal of the experience…Here is what happened today, and here is what will happen tomorrow and here is what today felt like…here is what we hope…here is the thing we weren’t expecting that came and blindsided us.
"A lot of people urged me to turn it into a book…I was not initially excited by that idea because it seemed far too personal. I had heard back from several thousand people who ended up reading the nightly newsletter and I realized that a lot of people I didn’t even know were following it. So, I finally put it together as a book, and it turned out to be something I wasn’t really expecting, it turned out to be a real help to people who had gone through something similar or were currently going through something similar. I had thought it was just kind of a personal story, but what it ended up being was a way for people to feel like they were not alone in their experience….You may feel like you are the only one going through it or …that you may be ashamed of it. I had loud arguments with my wife just a few days before her death. To look back on that, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, the one time in my life I should never have fought with her, I did…to read about that and discover you’re not the only one, then maybe 'I am not so bad.' We carry a lot of guilt around in a situation like that.”
Beaver has had people come up and tell him his book was their “guidebook” in dealing with grief and the loss of a loved one. He takes these comments seriously and is appreciative of them. Lessons learned through his experience and journal have changed Beaver forever. He is, of course, proud of being a Marine as well. The book’s website is Lifesthatway.com.