He 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 "The Virginian."
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 studios—a 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 himself—just 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 Jonas?
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 the Western.
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 hero—besides my dad—having 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 of it."
Kirby 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, and—I should have guessed it—singing 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 laugh.
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 Kittery—no surprise—will 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 bridges—many 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 now—believe me—that 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.