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(From Old Corral collection)
James 'Jimmy' 'Shamrock' Ellison

Real name: James Ellison Smith

1910 - 1993

Two tall, good lookin' range riders became personal friends as well as memorable sidekicks to Hopalong Cassidy. And in 1950, they came together for a series of six low budget oaters for Lippert Pictures. They are Pate Lucid (Russell Hayden) who hailed from Chico, California and James Ellison Smith (Jimmy Ellison) from Guthrie Center, Iowa.

In the 1930s, Ellison did some early bit parts at Warners/First National, MGM and Republic. Hayden's Hollywood experience began with several jobs as a production crew member. Both were working at Paramount in the mid 1930s.

In 1935, James Ellison signed with producer Harry "Pop" Sherman for Paramount's new Hopalong Cassidy series, and he appeared in eight of the early Cassidys. His first significant role in a major film was as Buffalo Bill Cody in Cecil B. Demille's THE PLAINSMAN (Paramount, 1936), which had Gary Cooper as Wild Bill Hickok.

After about a year and half portraying Hoppy's saddle pal "Johnny Nelson", Ellison left with hopes of becoming a leading man in classier, higher budgeted films (some reports note that "Pop" Sherman sold Ellison and his contract to RKO). Replacing Ellison as William Boyd's helper was Russell Hayden and he would portray "Lucky Jenkins" in 27 consecutive Cassidy adventures released from 1937 - 1941. (Want to see the complete Hopalong Cassidy filmography with Ellison, Hayden, Hayes, others? Click HERE and a separate window will open.)

Ellison did some good but sporadic work over the next ten or so years at RKO and 20th Century Fox ... but he never achieved star status. There were RKO romantic comedies; he's Jimmy Stewart's cousin in VIVACIOUS LADY (RKO, 1938) with Ginger Rogers as the titled gal; and Ellison gets married to Lucille Ball (in Lucy's first starring film) in the Garson Kanin directed NEXT TIME I MARRY (RKO, 1938) which has a plot similar to the Gable/Colbert IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT. He did another romantic comedy with Lucy, YOU CAN'T FOOL YOUR WIFE (RKO, 1940). Ellison also did horror flicks including the lead in THE UNDYING MONSTER (20th Century Fox, 1942) with Heather Angel and John Howard and I WALKED WITH A ZOMBIE (RKO, 1943) with Frances Dee and Tom Conway. One of his better support roles was as the military hero who is engaged to pretty Sheila Ryan - but falls in love with Alice Faye - in the Busby Berkeley Technicolor extravaganza, THE GANG'S ALL HERE (20th Century Fox, 1943). Les Adams added some further info on Ellison: "he was the intended lead in Columbia's 1944 THE DESERT HAWK serial and, for whatever reason, was replaced by Gilbert Roland. It got as far as the advertising. Hold up an original one-sheet poster to the light and you'll find Roland's billing pasted over Ellison's."

During the second half of the 1940s, Ellison worked in only a half dozen or so films. Perhaps this was the period when he became involved in California real estate and home contracting/construction. More about that below.

Circa 1950, both Russell Hayden and Ellison were about forty years of age. The pair signed on with producer Ron Ormond for a group of six oaters with Republic Pictures veteran Thomas Carr directing and Lippert Pictures handled the film releasing. The impetus for the series may have been the television broadcasts of the Hoppy films. Because of that TV exposure, someone may have figured that partnering up the former Cassidy sidekicks could generate box office success. Producer Ron Ormond was responsible for some other sagebrush flicks during the closing years of the B western programmer - click HERE for an example.

In the Ormond/Lippert series, Russ 'Lucky' Hayden put on chaps and a blue jean jacket while Jimmy 'Shamrock' Ellison wore buckskins, high-top moccasins, and a brace of six-shooters. These were very different costumes from what they wore in the Hoppy films; and Ellison's buckskins remind me of his outfit in THE PLAINSMAN. All six of the films were shot together over a one month period using the same cast - Raymond Hatton and Fuzzy Knight were there along with Dennis Moore, Tom Tyler, John Cason, I. Stanford Jolley, George J. Lewis, and a few other familiar faces. Pretty Julie Adams (then billed as Betty Adams) was the heroine - remember her as the female lead in THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. Once shooting was completed, Tommy Carr and his crew edited the miles of film into six respectable B westerns.

Johnny Mack Brown and stuntman Dave Sharpe were among a few Hollywood gun handlers that could spin and twirl a sixgun and flip it in the air and over their shoulder. While not as proficient as Brown and Sharpe, Hayden and Ellison demonstrate their gun twirlin' talents beginning around the 32 minute mark in MARSHAL OF HELDORADO (Lippert, 1950), the best of their half dozen adventures for Carr and Ormond. And for those into trivia and minutiae, there is an error with the Ellison credits. In the lobby cards shown in this piece, you'll see that Jimmy 'Shamrock' Ellison is first billed over Hayden. The opening of all six films have the titles and credits superimposed over a scene of Raymond Hatton, Hayden, Ellison and Fuzzy Knight riding together. Ellison still gets first billing ... but the film credits list him as Jimmie 'Shamrock' Ellison.

Ellison had a few more film jobs, including the heroic military officer in I KILLED GERONIMO (Eagle-Lion, 1950). And there was the dreadful THE TEXAN MEETS CALAMITY JANE (Ande Lamb/Screencraft/Columbia, 1950) which featured onetime Universal "scream queen" Evelyn Ankers as Calamity. Then he returned to helper duties supporting Johnny Mack Brown in six 1951 - 1952 films for Monogram. Jimmy was in his early forties. Johnny Mack was older and his career was nearing the end of the trail.

Circa 1952, Ellison left the acting profession and became a success in California real estate and contracting/home construction. There's an Ellison Drive in Beverly Hills named for him. (Want to take a look at homes in Beverly Hills on Ellison Drive? Go to the Google search engine, and in the search box, enter: "Beverly Hills" +"Ellison Drive".)

Ellison passed away in 1993 from a broken neck suffered in a fall (more on that below). You may want to go to the In Search Of ... page on the Old Corral and then to the California Death Records database and Social Security Death Index (SSDI). There you will find records for: James Ellison, born 5/4/1910 in Iowa, Mother's maiden name of Ellis, Father's name of Smith, and he passed away on 12/23/1993.

James Ellison was talented and his Hollywood career consisted of about 70 movies over a twenty year period, from approximately 1932 - 1952. About a third of his films are westerns. Today, most western film fans remember him for his role in THE PLAINSMAN and being one of "Hoppy's helpers".

  Although some of the data is incomplete or inaccurate, the Internet Movie Database (IMDb) has information on James Ellison:

The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s.  With a few exceptions, the annual poll results would list the "Top Ten" (or "Top Five") cowboy film stars.  In most cases, the winners were what you would expect - Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc.  Ellison was able to garner a ranking during his sidekick days in the Hopalong Cassidy films.

Popularity Rankings of James Ellison
Year Motion Picture Herald Poll Ranking Boxoffice Poll Ranking
1937 . 9th

(Courtesy of Bill Sasser)
Above - James Ellison, circa 1990.

(Courtesy of Bill Sasser)
Above - James Ellison at the podium during the 1991 Charlotte Film Fair.

Jerry Schneider, who has the Movie-Making Locations Guide website on Hollywood film locations, located several newspaper articles relative to Ellison's death in 1993 and the accounts mention the accident occurred at his Montecito, California home. Am not going to reprint the entire article(s), but following are some excerpts and quotes:

  • "... died on Dec. 23 after breaking his neck in a fall ... He was 83."
  • After retiring from the screen around 1952, Ellison got into California real estate and contracting. One of the articles had the following quote from Ellison - "I think I'll be remembered more for Ellison Drive, which I developed in Beverly Hills, than for any of my pictures."
  • "Ellison's first wife, Gertrude Durkin, died in 1970 after 33 years of marriage. He is survived by his second wife, former ballerina Shelly Keats, a son, two stepdaughters and five grandchildren."

Over the years, a couple folks have questioned the newspaper reports that Ellison's fall happened at his Montecito, California home. Some recalled that the accident occurred at a health club.

In late August, 2009, Jeff Whitmore e-mailed with an answer. Following are excerpts from Jeff's messages:

"Ellison broke his neck at a Monterey, California health club on December 23, 1993, and was declared dead at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula that day. Even the New York Times obit says he died in Montecito, but that's incorrect. I was there at the health club when he broke his neck. I have the obituary from the Monterey Herald (now called the Monterey County Herald). I didn't know him but saw him frequently at the health club. When the obit appeared a few weeks after his death, I realized he'd been one of my childhood idols. In the 1940s my grandfather often took me to the movies, more often than not Westerns. THE PLAINSMAN was one of them. From then on, when we played cowboys, other kids might elect to be Roy Rogers or Gene Autry, but I was either Wild Bill Hickok or Buffalo Bill."

If someone wants a copy of the obituary from Jeff, shoot the Old Corral webmaster an e-mail and I'll forward to you.

The obituary mentions that Ellison was cremated at the Little Chapel-By-The-Sea in Pacific Grove, California and his ashes were scattered at sea.

(Courtesy of Ed Phillips)

Above are Muriel Evans and James Ellison in a scene from THREE ON THE TRAIL (1936). Muriel Evans was also the female lead in CALL OF THE PRAIRIE (1936).

(From Old Corral collection)

Above - Ellison as Hoppy sidekick "Johnny Nelson" circa 1936.

(From Old Corral collection)

Above is the title lobby card for FAST ON THE DRAW (Lippert, 1950), one of the six quickies that Hayden and Ellison made for producer Ron Ormond and director Thomas Carr. The five other films were: COLORADO RANGER, HOSTILE COUNTRY, MARSHAL OF HELDORADO, WEST OF THE BRAZOS and CROOKED RIVER. Note that Ellison gets top billed over Hayden.

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