During the 1960s and '70s, Dean Jones was the leading man of Walt Disney movies. The personable actor played Mr. Nice Guy in 10 wholesome Disney flicks, including "That Darn Cat," "The Ugly Dachshund," "Monkeys, Go Home!" and "The Love Bug."
Now Jones, a youthful 59, is back in the Disney fold. He's appearing with Kirk Cameron in "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes," Disney's TV remake of its popular 1970 feature that starred Kurt Russell. The slapstick comedy premieres Saturday as "The ABC Family Movie."
This time around, Jones is the baddie--Hale University's aggressive Dean Carlson, who tries to woo Medfield College student Dexter Riley (Cameron) to his college. Thanks to a lightning surge at his computer terminal, Riley has a megabyte computer brain.
Jones is relishing playing the bad guy. Over the last few years, he's played villains in the films "Other People's Money" and "Beethoven."
"I'm really going back to my roots," Jones explains between scenes at Pasadena's Ambassador College.
"When I first started in movies, before I did (the comedy) 'Under the Yum Yum Tree' on Broadway, I played drug addicts, pimps, hard-cased killers, ex-cons and angry young men."
Dean Carlson, Jones says, is evil, but not a threat to Dexter "because there is no physical violence involved. There is nothing I can do to Dexter. I am offering something. I am giving him money and a three-bedroom suite. Will he sacrifice his character is what I am asking him to do."
For his role as dean, Jones has altered his voice into sort of a raspy snarl. He decided to disguise his more mellow tones for a reason. "Maybe I am a little coward," he says with a smile. "I hate to spoil the image that's in a lot of older people's minds about the things that I did. I have made 34 pictures, 10 of them for Disney, and none of them for Disney were really bad characters. So I think that recently I have kind of begun to hide behind certain actor's devices in order to make a dividing line between what I used to do and the characters I have been asked to do today."
For the 1992 hit "Beethoven," Jones donned thick glasses to play the evil veterinarian. "I asked to have made very thick glasses," he says. "I consciously was aware that I was doing that so the kids who are still watching 'The Love Bug' and 'The Shaggy D.A.' would not be confused. 'Isn't that the same guy who played the nice individual?' I know it is a cowardly kind of approach, but I think that's what I do."
Besides, Jones says, playing evil is more fun than always being the good guy. "You have more real truth to draw from if you are playing evil," he explains. "We see so much of it around us in our culture, and we also have so much of it in our nature, which we are always warring against, as it were. I want to be a man who serves my family, a man who increases justice in my community. I want to be all of those things and yet it is just below the surface that I want to strangle somebody when they cut in front of me on the freeway."
Jones had just finished the title role in the short-lived NBC sitcom "Ensign O'Toole" more than 30 years ago when Walt Disney called him about starring with Hayley Mills and D.C. the feline in "That Darn Cat." At the time, Jones thought he had caught Disney's eye repeating his Broadway role in the 1963 film version of "Under the Yum Yum Tree."
"I understood that he had called Bill Walsh, who was producing and had written ("That Darn Cat"), for 'Under the Yum Yum Tree.' But years later, Walt said something at lunch that made me think it wasn't 'Under the Yum Yum Tree.' We were eating and he said, 'You had some good endings on that 'Ensign O'Toole' show. I didn't take it any further. But in my mind later, I thought, 'Ah. 'The Wonderful World of Disney' followed 'Ensign O Toole' on NBC. Walt must have been warming up his TV and had seen the endings of 'Ensign O'Toole.' It's the only explanation."
"The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes" airs Saturday at 8 p.m. in "The ABC Family Movie . "