Dean Jones dies at 84; durable star of Disney family films
In 1970, Dean Jones was a star in Hollywood and also on Broadway in two very different genres.
In films, Jones was the lead in hugely successful Disney movies, holding his own against scene-stealing co-stars that included a cat (“That Darn Cat!”), dog (“The Ugly Dachshund”) and Volkswagen (“The Love Bug.”)
But on the New York stage that year, he was the star of “Company,” Stephen Sondheim’s landmark musical that examined adult relationships amid the fevered pace of urban life.
Despite his success, however, Jones’ personal life was a shambles. He left “Company” shortly after the opening and was drawn to self-destructive behavior.
Later, he had a religious conversion — he became a born-again Christian — that altered the course not only of his life but also his career choices.
“I won’t blaspheme God,” he told Christianity Today in 2009. “That immediately eliminates most scripts.”
Jones, 84, died Tuesday in Los Angeles. The cause was Parkinson’s disease, said his publicist, Richard Hoffman.
He was best known for his light comedies, often as the somewhat bumbling good guy, and that was OK with him.
“I had no illusions that I would ever play Hamlet,” Jones told USA Today in 1997.
He was born Dean Carroll Jones on Jan. 25, 1931, in Decatur, Ala. His father worked for a railroad company and the family moved often, living in Washington, D.C., Nashville and New Orleans.
“It was in New Orleans I really learned how to sing,” he told the Pittsburgh Press in 1969. Dropping out of school at 15, he worked for a short time singing in a club in that city, but when the club closed, he returned to Decatur and got his degree.
But he had gotten the show business bug. After serving in the Navy during the Korean War, Jones got a job acting in a melodrama at Knott’s Berry Farm. He was spotted by veteran composer Vernon Duke, who was planning a musical.
The project fell through, but Duke got Jones an audition with Arthur Freed, the famous producer of MGM musicals such as “Singin’ in the Rain.”
It did not go as planned.
“He’s an actor, not singer!” Freed said, as related by Jones in a 1966 Times interview.
Still, the studio signed him, and in his first credited role, Jones found himself acting opposite James Cagney in the 1956 drama “These Wilder Years.” The veteran actor helped him through the scene.
“There I was, just out of the U.S. Navy without an acting lesson to my name,” Jones told Christianity Today. “In walks Cagney and says, ‘Walk to your mark and remember your lines.’
“That’s all I’ve been doing for 50 years.”
Jones had mostly small roles of a far grittier nature than his later Disney fare. “I played drug addicts, pimps, hard-cased killers, ex-cons and angry young men,” he told The Times in 1995.
And he reveled in the movie life. In a 2007 interview with the Pantagraph newspaper in Bloomington, Ill., he recalled being on the MGM backlot, with “Liz Taylor yelling, ‘Hey Dean-O, let’s go down to Stage 22 and watch Bing and Frank sing!’”
Jones even acted with Elvis Presley in 1957 in “Jailhouse Rock.”
He made his first appearance on Broadway in 1960 opposite Jane Fonda in the play “There Was a Little Girl.” That show flopped, but Jones went on to the more successful play “Under the Yum-Yum Tree” that year.
The job that led him into the Disney fold was the TV series “Ensign O’Toole,” a military comedy in which he had the title role. Debuting in 1962, it played Sunday evenings on NBC.
It was followed by Walt Disney’s anthology show, so Disney caught the end of some episodes of the series and liked what he saw.
Beginning with 1965’s “That Darn Cat!,” Dean became closely identified with Disney family fare. In addition to the “Love Bug” and “The Ugly Dachshund,” he was the leading man in “Monkeys, Go Home!,” “The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit,” “The Million Dollar Duck,” “The Shaggy D.A.,” “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo” and others.
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was leading an off-screen life contrary to his wholesome image. He had numerous affairs and was drinking heavily.
“I had thought if I became a star I’d be happy,” he said in a 1976 Times interview. “I had thought if I had a fairly large amount of money I’d be happy. I thought if I had a house on a hill I’d be happy. I thought if I had a Ferrari I’d be happy.
“One goal after another was accomplished. And with no fulfillment.”
He was able to keep his torment largely separated from his work life. Even the head of the studio was fooled. “I remember having lunch with Walt one day, and he told me, ‘Dean, you’re a perfect fit for these pictures. You’re such a good family man!’” Jones told the Pantagraph.
“I wasn’t a good family man,” Jones said. “I was showing up at home smelling of perfume that wasn’t my wife’s.”
With his depression growing and his marriage coming apart, Jones left “Company.” Returning to Los Angeles, he told interviewers that he had been ill, and he went back to making Disney films. But he remained on the same disturbing path until 1973, while in a touring production of the musical “1776,” he underwent a personal conversion.
He continued to work in films and television, though not as much. And he was sometimes critical of Hollywood. “Film and television have been partially responsible for the disconnect between our nation and our God,” he told Christianity Today.
He did appear in the Tom Clancy thriller “Clear and Present Danger” and in the drama/comedy “Other People’s Money.”
Jones took on several religion-themed projects, including his touring one-man show “St. John in Exile” that was also filmed.
Though he was serious about his religious messages, he enjoyed getting laughs.
“I’m remembering a time when I was on stage in a theater or in the back row of a movie house, and heard people laugh at some silliness I did, and how I felt humbled to be able to bring laughter to people,” he told Christianity Today, “because, unless I’m sadly mistaken, you can’t laugh and remember your problems at the same time.”
Jones is survived by his second wife, Lory Basham Jones; daughters Caroline Jones and Deanna Demaree; son Michael Pastick; eight grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
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