Dean Jones, who died yesterday (Sept. 1st) at age 84, was one of those reliable actors routinely taken for granted and terribly underrated.
He is perhaps best known for his work at Disney where he made 10 family-friendly films with such eccentric, animal-oriented titles as "That Darn Cat!," "The Million Dollar Duck," "The Ugly Dachshund" and "Monkeys, Go Home!" Perhaps it's because so few people in the industry gave Jones or his Disney films much credit that it's rarely noted that those 10 little movies have a total reported gross in excess of $960 million.
Takes that, Harrison Ford, Tom Cruise and Robert Downey, Jr!
A resourceful publicist would have touted Jones as "a one-man franchise."
But there was more to Jones than just his stint as Disney's idea of Jimmy Stewart Lite - tall, slender, affable and handsome in a non-threatening way. For one thing, he was a trained singer and started his career as a vocalist, although he was never given the opportunity to sing in films.
And he started his career while he was still in high school in Decatur, Alabama, where he was born on January 25th, 1931. While attending Riverside High School in Decatur, Jones hosted his own radio show, "Dean Jones Sings," and also produced local stage productions.
He studied music at Kentucky's Ashbury University and after being discharged from the Navy, Jones got a job at the Bird Cage Theater, a part of Knott's Berry Farm in Buena Park, Ca. where he was discovered by MGM head Dore Schary, who cast Jones in first screen role - an uncredited bit in Paul Newman's "Somebody Up There Likes Me" in 1956.
Jones made his official screen debut the same year in the James Cagney film, "Those Wilder Years," followed by smallish parts in a couple Glenn Ford films, "Imitation General" and "Torpedo Run," "Never So Few," "Until They Sail," "Tea and Sympathy," the Elvis Presley vehicle, "Jailhouse Rock," and another Newman film, "The Rack."
Jones' film career was pretty much stillborn, with MGM opting to cast him in guest spots on its TV shows, when he decided to take a risk: He and Jane Fonda made their Broadway debuts together in Joshua Logan's 1960 production "There Was a Little Girl," in which Fonda played a rape victim.
The cast also included Joey Heatherton and Gary Lockwood (as one of the rapists). "There Was a Little Girl," an adaptation of the Christopher Davis novel, wasn't a success, but Jones stayed in New York for the remainder of 1960 to star with Gig Young and Sandra Church in Lawrence Roman's comedy, "Under the Yum-Yum Tree," which was very much a hit - enough of a success, in fact, for NBC and Hy Averback to cast him in the title role of their sitcom, "Ensign O'Toole." Jones was "discovered" a second time.
He recreated his "Yum-Yum" role in the 1963 film version opposite Jack Lemmon and Carol Lynley and reunited with Fonda in the 1966 movie version of the stage comedy, "Any Wednesday," co-starring Jason Robards. And there were also good roles in "The New Interns" and (one of my guilty pleasures) "Two on a Guillotine," with Connie Stevens.
And then came the Disney films. But...
...then, somehow, Jones managed to disengage himself from the ducks, cats and Disney Dachshunds to return to Broadway memorably but briefly in 1970 for the Harold Prince-Stephen Sondheim-George Furth cult musical, "Company," as a replacement for Anthony Perkins. The documentarian D.A. Pennebaker filmed the recording of the show's songs in "Original Cast Album: Company," and while much is made of Elaine Stritch's grueling, repeated efforts to recreate her showstopper, "The Ladies Who Lunch," the single most powerful moment in Pennebaker's film, hands-down, is Jones' searing, passionate rendition of "Being Alive." That single scene in Pennebaker's film is Dean Jones' greatest moment.
Speaking of Perkins, that's who Jones oddly resembles in one of his last major roles, "Beethoven" - yes, "Beethoven," yet another animal-oriented family feature. In a deliciously evil touch that adds a nifty curlicue to his career, Jones plays the film's Norman Bates-like villain, a nasty veterinarian named Dr. Varnick, out to harm the title St. Bernard.