Jody McCrea dies at 74; actor was featured in 1960s ‘Beach Party’ movies

In 1963's "Beach Party," Jody McCrea, right, stars as Deadhead, with Frankie Avalon as Frankie and Annette Funicello as Dolores/DeeDee. McCrea would go on to make five more of the popular surf movies.

Jody McCrea, the actor son of Joel McCrea who appeared in a spate of westerns in the 1950s and ‘60s but was best known for his comedic work in the surf and on the sand as a regular cast member of the popular “Beach Party” movies, has died. He was 74.

McCrea, whose mother was actress Frances Dee and who later became acattle rancher in New Mexico, died of cardiac arrest April 4 in Roswell, N.M., said his brother, Peter.

The strapping, 6-foot-3 McCrea launched his acting career in films in 1955 and teamed up with his movie-star father in the 1959-60 TV western “Wichita Town,” in which the elder McCrea played the marshal and Jody one of his deputies.

Over the next decade, McCrea appeared in about two dozen films and television shows, including the movie westerns “The Broken Land,” “Young Guns of Texas,” “Law of the Lawless,” “Young Fury” and “Cry Blood, Apache.”

The beach movies provided a distinct change of pace. Beginning with “Beach Party,” the 1963 American International Pictures comedy starring Annette Funicello and Frankie Avalon, McCrea appeared in “Muscle Beach Party,” “Bikini Beach” “Pajama Party,” “Beach Blanket Bingo” and “How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.”

McCrea’s character in the beach movies, which his brother Peter likened to being the equivalent of court jester (“He was always the one making gags and interrupting the love scenes”) -- was originally called Deadhead and then Bonehead.

“A great thing about Jody,” Avalon told The Times this week, “was he was just a real fine gentleman and a lot more talented than he really got out of the career of being an actor. He was very bright, and he created this character that was kind of the dummy and, of course, he was the opposite of that.”

Recalling the much taller McCrea, Avalon said, “He was a well-built, real athletic-looking guy, and he really was a surfer: He’d get on that board and surf.”

Although McCrea had two famous parents, Avalon said, “he never boasted about who his parents were.”

Peter McCrea said that following in the footsteps of Joel McCrea had its upside and downside for his brother.

“It was kind of an inspiration and a difficult path to follow, because Pop had been so famous and done so many films,” he said. “They got along great. There never was any sense of competition or tension, but it’s a tough act to follow.”

McCrea, who also played a rival motorcycle gang leader opposite Dennis Hopper in the 1968 AIP biker film “The Glory Stompers,” retired from acting in the mid-1970s and eventually moved to New Mexico.

The oldest of three children, he was born Joel Dee McCrea in Los Angeles on Sept. 6, 1934.

While majoring in theater arts at UCLA, McCrea threw the javelin on the Bruins’ 1956 national championship track and field team. After college, McCrea served in the Army.

McCrea’s wife, actress Dusty Iron Wing McCrea, died in 1996.

In addition to his brother Peter, McCrea is survived by his other brother, David; and his stepchildren, David Iron Wing and Jacquet Rogers.

A memorial service has been held in Roswell.