rode an appaloosa horse known simply as "Joe." Dressed
in a black hat, vest and pants, and a red corduroy shirt, he
rode into our living rooms, into our imaginations and into our
hearts. And the funny thing was, no one to this day knows his
name. He doesn't even know it himself. He was known simply as
In 1962, a young actor from Salem, Oregon, was discovered
in a Hollywood casting studio. His name was James Drury. Out
of the many actors who tried out for the part of NBC television's
The Virginian, Drury seemed the obvious choice. Dark and tall,
slender and strikingly handsome, he cut a stunning picture in
the NBC studiosa picture NBC executives would be thankful
for years to have seen.
For the next nine years, the laconic, good looking foreman
of the Shilo Ranch shared his mysterious life with us. He never
gave us much of himselfjust enough to leave us wanting
to know more. The Virginian became the third longest running
Western series in the history of television. Very impressive,
especially in light of the fact that with The Virginian, NBC
had decided to step into new territory and a new, longer format,
making The Virginian the longest running hour and a half series
ever produced. These days, James Drury has found a new calling,
and once again he has quickly and almost magically risen to the
top. This time it is in the world of the audio book. What other
kind of book but a Western? And who better to help Drury on his
way back to the top than the area's most popular writer, Kirby
In November of 1998, just weeks after the release of his number
one best selling novel, Death of an Eagle, Kirby Jonas and his
wife, Debbie, responded to an invitation to come to Laughlin,
Nevada, to attend a Western celebrity gathering. Knowing that
James Drury would be there, Kirby and Debbie packed their bags
and headed south. "I remember James Drury from my days living
in Bear Canyon, Montana," Kirby tells me, as he sits comfortably
in his living room, surrounded by oil paintings and memorabilia
of the west. "The Virginian was the first show I remember.
I was three years old, sitting on the living room floor and watching
the first TV I had ever seen, and this dark cowboy came onto
the screen. I was taken immediately by him and I asked my mom
who it was. She said, That's James Drury. He's The Virginian.'"
And so began a lifetime of admiration that led Kirby to drive
500 miles to meet his childhood hero.
Kirby is the picture of a Westerner himself, standing six
foot two in his knee high boots, wearing wranglers and a wide-brimmed
black hat. With gray eyes narrowed as if by the sun, long, dark
hair curled radically in the back, a mustache and chin beard
reminiscent of Buffalo Bill, it isn't much of a stretch to imagine
Kirby riding out at the head of the Seventh Cavalry, in 1876,
or at least onto the movie screen in the 1960's, the heyday of
When I asked Kirby what he saw in James Drury, he said, "I
have little time for hero worship. It's not in me. But if ever
there was a man I wanted to emulate, it was The Virginian. He
was so calm about everything. Never got riled. I've never come
close to meeting that ideal. Maybe that's why I had to meet him.
I had to see if it was real." In Laughlin, Kirby and Debbie
registered at the desk and walked into a dim-lit reception room
full of people they didn't recognize. Unsure where to go from
there, they chose a table where a nice looking older couple sat
alone. Sitting down, they began to chat. It wasn't long before
the man informed Kirby the room was full of Western celebrities.
"Before I could ask which ones," says Kirby, "he
said, Right behind you is a man who used to play The Virginian,
back in the sixties.' I just about fell out of my chair!"
Excusing himself quickly, Kirby went to interrupt James Drury,
in conversation with his wife, CarlAnn, and six of their friends.
He presented him with a copy of his latest book, Death of an
Eagle, which two months later was to become the number one best
selling Western novel in the country. Showing Drury a passage
in the "About the Author" section that mentioned his
growing up watching The Virginian was proof enough to James Drury
that he was meeting more than just a passing fan. The two became
almost instant friends. Kirby laughs, his eyes turning to mere
slits in his mirth. "When we drove out of Nevada Debbie
and I never thought we'd see James Drury again. But one month
later, on Christmas morning, he called."
The reason for Drury's call was to tell Kirby he had read
the book and he had loved it. For half an hour they discussed
the book, until, in Kirby's words, "my head was about to
burst." Drury told him how the book had given him goosebumps,
and made him laugh and made him cry. He said it would make a
tremendous movie. And then he said the words that were destined
to change both of their lives forever. He said he would like
to narrate the books on tape if they could find someone who would
take them on.
To Kirby, it was like a huge door had opened before him. He
already had a major audio book publisher who wanted to produce
his books. It was only a matter of details. So Kirby promptly
put the two of them in touch with each other. Over the next year,
the negotiations went back and forth. At one time, it looked
as if Peter Breck, who once portrayed ABC television's Nick Barkley,
on The Big Valley, was going to be the one to read the books.
But at last, through Drury's persistence and faith in Kirby's
books, he landed the contract. Recording began in Spokane, Washington,
at Books in Motion's studio, in November 1999. Kirby and Debbie
were able to spend three days there with Drury and his wife while
the recording was underway.
"It never even entered the realm of reality," says
Kirby, shrugging his broad shoulders. "Every time I looked
into that studio to see my friend, James Drury, with the headset
on, reading my novels into that microphone, I just had to shake
my head. It wasn't enough that he had written my forward for
Legend of the Tumbleweed. Now here was my earliest childhood
herobesides my dadhaving so much faith in me and
my books that he drove clear up to Spokane from his home in Houston,
to read my books. Tell me there wasn't a greater hand in all
of this than either me or Jim. I don't believe that for a second.
I was guided in my decision to go to Laughlin. I have no doubt
tells me he recently returned from a successful tour of Texas,
signing books and tapes with Drury. Between the two of them,
they made just about every newspaper, radio station, and television
station within three hundred miles. They even made the National
Enquirer, a very flattering article which sent June book sales
at Amazon.com soaring.
In his fifth novel, Legend of the Tumbleweed, as a tribute
to his friend, Kirby wrote James Drury as a character. He also
painted him on the back cover, with a montage of the major characters.
"It was the least I could do. After all, I named the character
Flint Drury when I first wrote the book in the sixth grade. I
didn't just pull that name out of thin air."
That leads to my realization that the paintings on the wall
were all done by Kirby, mostly of characters in his books. He
has done all of his cover art, and he and Debbie have also done
all of the photography for the books. It turns out Kirby's talents
go far beyond writing, into executing beautiful oil paintings,
writing cowboy poetry, andI should have guessed itsinging
Western music in one of the clearest, most vibrant voices I have
ever heard perform this particular brand of song. Kirby has written
music, sometimes several songs, for each of his books. I am mesmerized
listening to them. I almost forget I am here for an interview.
Reluctantly, I bring the meeting back to the subject of writing,
and of books on tape. Not that I don't like talking about Kirby's
books. But it isn't every day I'm serenaded by such a masterful
voice. I watch with regret as he returns his 1956 Gibson guitar
to a case covered with bumper stickers from all of the places
he has peformed.
As we sit and talk about the rise and fall of the Western,
Kirby gets a twinkle in his eye. Of course I have to ask why.
"They say the Western is dead," he tells me. "If
that's true, why are my first two audio books, Death of an Eagle
and The Dansing Star, now the number one and two most listened
to books in Books in Motion's entire catalog, which includes
mystery, romance and science fiction? Don't tell me it's because
people who like Westerns are illiterate," he says with a
I ask where Kirby feels his relationship with Drury will take
him. He smiles and says the actor has already convinced him to
start work on a script that will revolve around Kirby's first
major character, Tappan Kittery, and his father, who disappeared
in the book when he was young. The elder Kitteryno surprisewill
be written as James Drury. Drury is at work right now discussing
movie possibilities with actor Bill Pullman, as well as several
other Hollywood agents and producers. "Last time I saw Jim
we were eating breakfast outside of Houston," says Kirby.
"He leaned across the table and told me, I'm not going
to lie to you. The chances of getting a western novel made into
a movie nowadays are slim and none. And the chances of Hollywood
picking me to play in it are slimmer and noner.' He laughed heartily
after he said it, but I know there was a lot of truth to his
words. When Jim left Hollywood he burned a lot of bridgesmany
for the better, in my opinion. But I would give almost anything
to bring him out in the public eye again in a major television
or big screen role. And I know by nowbelieve methat
anything is possible. Who knows? Maybe I'll even play Tappan
Kittery." And even though Kirby says it with a twinkle in
his eye, it isn't hard to see him as Tappan Kittery, who first
captured my imagination in 1994 as the hero of Kirby's first
novel, Season of theVigilante.
This is one of the most difficult interviews I've ever had
to end. My real inclination is to ask Kirby to pull out his guitar
again. But he has a wife and four children who need his attention
a little more than I do, so I unwillingly gather my notebook,
pen, and tape recorder. As the sun finally sets, I say goodbye
to Kirby Jonas with a twinge of regret. Yet I know not only I,
but the rest of the world, will be hearing a lot more of him
and hopefully also of James Drury, The Virginian.