From the outlaw Roy Suggs in “Lonesome Dove” to his recent role as the judge presiding over Jack Black’s trial with Matthew McConaughey as the prosecutor in “Bernie,” Hunt County’s preeminent actor Jerry Biggs gave a series of finely honed performances during more than 30 years as a card-carrying member of the Screen Actors Guild.
Biggs, who died on March 30 in Commerce, remained a working actor while giving back to his community. He often spoke to students, clubs and organizations and gave a number of acting seminars.
His volunteer activities included reading to pre-K students in Honey Grove as part of a SAG Foundation program called Book PALS. Beginning nearly 20 years ago, he began interviewing North Texas area World War II and Vietnam veterans for an oral and video history research project for Texas A&M-Commerce University.
Despite his success in films, on stage and television, the native Texan continued to keep his permanent residence in North Texas.
“He preferred this part of the world,” Biggs’ longtime friend and founder of the veteran’s history program Dr. James Conrad said. “He didn’t want to live in Hollywood. Even though his career might have flourished there, he liked living here.
“He had attended college in Commerce where he learned his craft. He had great respect for drama teacher Dr. Curtis Pope. He considered Pope a tough taskmaster, but also a friend.
“Jerry is really going to be missed. He was a kind and very humble person and always dedicated to his craft of acting. He took great pride in his preparation for each role.”
According to Biggs’ wife Judy, various facets of his personality were revealed in his roles, whether intense or comic.
“Acting takes in the whole person,” she said. “His ability to do good and his willingness to help others were part of him. He was a loving person with a gentle, kind spirit and a sense of humor. He liked to talk to people; almost everyone was a friend. He also loved animals.”
Biggs’ TV credits include the original “Dallas” series, “Houston: The Legend of Texas,” “North and South,” “Ned Blessing: The Story of My Life and Times” and four episodes of “Walker, Texas Ranger.” In 2012 Biggs’ sideline comments added to the hilarity of the Snickers/Leon Lett award-winning commercial called “The Man Who Played Literally Hungry.”
A raconteur with a collection of anecdotes about the fascinating and sometimes wacky world of filmmaking, Biggs enjoyed sharing his filming experiences.
“I played another one of my sleazeball roles as manager of a New Mexico greasy spoon on a film called ‘Tennessee’ with Mariah Carey,” Biggs said during a 2011 interview. “Since I was playing her nasty boss, she kept her distance from me while filming, but afterwards, she was extremely gracious. She jumped up and hugged me just when we were about to wrap production.”
During the 14-hour days of shooting “Bernie” in Bastrop, Biggs spent long periods waiting in the law library with Jack Black and actor and comedian Richard Robichaux, who played Lloyd Horbuckler.
“We were told to go in there and relax between scenes,” Biggs told the Herald-Banner in 2012. “I was not that familiar with Jack Black’s work, but I soon found out how funny he is. Black and Robichaux tried to outdo each other doing standup comedy with me as the only audience member.”
One of his fellow actors on the “Bernie” set was Ann Taylor Reeves, who had been his drama teacher at Grayson County Junior College back in the 1970s.
Biggs felt privileged to have worked with a number of talented filmmakers, including Louis Malle who directed “Alamo Bay,” Simon Wincer who helmed the blockbuster TV miniseries “Lonesome Dove,” Lawrence Kasdan, who co-wrote and directed “Silverado” and Bruce Beresford who directed “Curse of the Starving Class” and ”Tender Mercies.” Richard Linklater, the co-writer and director of “Bernie,” praised Biggs’ work as the judge and discussed a potential upcoming role.
The actor especially appreciated being cast in the dramas, “1918” and “Tender Mercies,” both written by literary icon Horton Foote, an Oscar and Pulitzer Prize winner. A few years ago Biggs was honored to serve as actor-in-residence at the Horton Foote Film Festival.
Besides receiving numerous plaudits for his acting skills, Biggs also worked as a writer, director and acting coach.
When he taught a film acting class for the Media, Mass Communications and Theatre Department at his alma mater Texas A&M-Commerce, Biggs set up a video camera so that students could perform lines, and then he would critique their performances. In addition to presenting a Master Class in film acting, he gave the students practical advice about breaking into film, getting parts in commercials and joining the actors’ guild.
Department head Dr. John Hanners complimented Biggs’ classroom efforts,
“Mr. Biggs is steeped in the craft and is knowledgeable about the industry as few acting teachers are,” Hanners said. “He teaches students about art and life and has always appeared to me to be a natural-born teacher.”
With white wig, mustache and cigar, Biggs embarked on his latest project, a one-man stage show as Mark Twain. Utilizing material from Twain’s actual lectures, he entertained audiences in his hometown of McKinney, at Cisco Junior College, in Mount Vernon, at the Bonham Cultural Center and at the Texas Veterans Home in Bonham. Just lately, the actor had been accepted by the Humanities Texas Speakers Directory to travel throughout the state with his Twain presentation.
According to Judy Biggs, her husband remained devoted to God, was very spiritual and did not fear death..
“He knew that life continued,” she said. “His roles continue in a different form.”
Reese is entertainment writer for the Herald-Banner.