Who'd be a movie sheriff? The pay is lousy, the hours long, the banter surly, the spittoon pinging continuous, and retirement? Well that’s just asking for a bullet.
Bearing this job description in mind, you won’t be too shocked to learn that some of these filmic lawmen are snakier than the varmints they’re paid to apprehend, others better willed, and then some, well, they mean well but just break the rules anyway.
Now coldly blowing the barrel tip on our six-shooter, we’ve combed the Old West and everything else between on the big screen to list the good, the bad, and the not very nice of memorable move sheriffs.
Note: we're also including Marshals and Rangers
[Images: All Star, YouTube]
Earl McGraw - Kill Bill Vol.1 [and various]
You know the face. Doubtless the sunglasses, too. Cinematic lawmen rarely come more iconic than Michael Parks’ Earl McGraw, the magnificently named and acerbically tongued Marshall found scouring the plains of numerous Quentin Tarantino productions. The character's greatest appearance came at the crime scene of The Bride’s massacre in Kill Bill Vol. 1, where, for the first time since we saw him getting his brains splattered across the counter of a gas station in the opening scene of 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn, we were reintroduced to the wily lawman via a dashboard full of aviators. Add to this his natural chemistry with “son number one” deputy Edgar (played by real-life son James Parks), and you have one of QT's best characters yet.
Freddy Heflin - Cop Land
Sylvester Stallone allegedly has an IQ of 160, making him a genius in the eyes of Mensa. Though you wouldn't know it judging by his most critically acclaimed film roles, habitually sluggish oafs, with Freddy Heflin, the partially deaf and nebbish lead in Cop Land, no exception. A desk-hugging sheriff in a New Jersey town infested with corrupt NYPD types, he’s forever unwittingly manipulated by those around him until he gets wise to a major shooting and man-hunt cover-up, forcing him to wake up and smell the donuts and take down the whole shady operation. What he lacks in smarts he makes up for in courage; the ear-ringing final shootout testament of that.
Little Bill - Unforgiven
You can count the likeable characters in Unforgiven on one finger. Heck, even Clint Eastwood’s aging outlaw William Munny (“That’s right, I've killed women and children, I've killed just about everything that walks or crawled at one time or another”) pushes the term anti-hero to its limits, barely redeemed by a final act of vengeance against bullying sheriff Little Bill (Gene Hackman) who kills Munny’s fellow assassin to uphold his oppressive rule – if he doesn’t bore you to death with stories of his gun-fighting days, Bill would surely put a pistol in your belly and fill it full of lead if you ever threatened the citizens of Big Whiskey – and it’s this misplaced sense of morality which makes him such a brilliant character, and why he ranks among Hackman’s fiercest performances.
Ed Bell - No Country For Old Men
Cantankerously natured, adept at wearing cowboy hats, never shy of calling someone ‘slick’ – if any actor were born to play a pensive sheriff in the Lone Star State, it’s Tommy Lee Jones. The actor's hangdog expression certainly casts the right shadow for this Coen Brothers classic, where his aging lawman bookends proceedings with wistful poise, mulling over the horrors he’s witnessed while on the trail of Javier Bardem’s cattle prod carrying hit-man. We don’t merely see a man with a badge staring blankly into the landscape, we see a man staring at the bleak horizon of life itself, grappling with the thought of whether he’s justified following in his father’s footsteps. For what screen time he has, Jones burns with intensity.
Teasle - Rambo: First Blood
Arguably closer in spirit to The Deer Hunter and Coming Home than it was to its bicep-pumping, trigger-happy sequels, Rambo: First Blood was as much psychological thriller as it was action flick. The post-traumatic stress disorders in Sylvester Stallone’s titular wandering vet must surely have reopened raw wounds of the American psyche on release in 1982; while in dastardly sheriff Teasle (Brian Dennehy) we have the perfect incarnation of the public animosity which met those returning troops from America's most unpopular war. It's Teasle's goading that sends Rambo running to the hills where he wages war on an entire police department. He might have been a menace, but Dennehy gave us a great hick town sheriff.
Bart - Blazing Saddles
Had Mel Brooks gotten his way, this famous send-up of the Western genre would have seen Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder continuing their cinematic bromance. Warner Brothers, concerned about Pryor’s well-publicised drug and drink problems, had other ideas, instead casting Cleavon Little as the unlikely black sheriff who raises as many eyebrows and firearms in the backwards town of Rock Ridge, assisted by Wilder’s quick-drawing drunken gunslinger The Waco Kid in winning the town over. Dapperly trimmed, ice cool, eloquent, Little’s quick-witted protagonist gave the role a sparkle Pryor wouldn’t have been capable of, with his expert physical comedy ensured not even Brooks could balk at the result.
Walt Coogan - Coogan’s Bluff
There’s something of the Bill And Ted’s Excellent Adventure to Coogan’s Bluff. So comically out of his depth is Clint Eastwood’s deputy sent from Arizona to catch a perp in the bright lights of Manhattan, it might as well be Billy The Kid running amok in ‘80s California. Not even wearing a cowboy hat to a discothèque will stop this country bumpkin from catching his man (a pistol-happy sociopath), and probably an STI, too. Yes, he's a bit of a philanderer is our Walt.
Woody – Toy Story
He just had to make the list, didn't he? Want someone to reach for the sky? He’s your man. Snake in the boots? He’s got one. Similar to the cinematic sheriffs we see incarnated in the modern westerns of today, Woody is threatened by technology and modernity yet remains a reliable stead-fast classic and shorthand for the good old days. If more traits were needed...he's handy on horseback, capable of lassoing and voiced by one of the greatest American actors of his generation. In short, more than qualified when it comes to the realm of great fictional sheriffs.