Obituaries: Henry Jones

WITH HIS distinctive, droll delivery and roly-poly features, the versatile character actor Henry Jones could be avuncular or menacing with equal conviction, and made valuable contributions to dozens of Broadway shows, television series and motion pictures.

He won a Tony Award for his stage performance in Sunrise at Campobello (1958), and on screen will be particularly remembered for his malevolent janitor, murdered by a child, in The Bad Seed (1956), and his laconic, unpleasant coroner in Hitchcock's Vertigo (1958). His four-minute monologue in the latter film is often shown in drama classes as a prime example of acting skill, and in 1994 the magazine Film Comment chose Jones's performance as one of the top ten performances by a supporting actor in movie history.

Born in Philadelphia in 1912 and educated at St Joseph's College, he started acting at the Hedgerow Theatre in Moylan, Philadelphia (after trying a career as a salesman) playing Doctor Glenn in An American Tragedy (1935), and made his Broadway debut with Maurice Evans's company in an historic production of Hamlet (1938).

Initially cast as Reynaldo and the Second Gravedigger, he graduated by the end of the run to First Gravedigger. The production, directed by Margaret Webster, was notable in being completely uncut, with the curtain rising at 6.30pm and a half-hour dinner break at 8.15, with Sardi's Restaurant providing a buffet supper for hungry patrons. The daring experiment was a great success, running for 96 performances.

Nine days after it closed, in January 1939, Evans's production of Henry IV, Part One opened and was another triumph for Evans, Webster and their company, with Henry Jones playing Francis and Silence. In 1940 Jones succeeded Curt Conway in the role of Dudley Bostwick in the Broadway production of William Saroyan's The Time of Your Life, and the following year replaced Richard Quine as Frank Lippincott, the gauche suitor of Eileen in the hit comedy My Sister Eileen.

As an Army private in the Second World War, Jones appeared as singing soldier Mr Brown in Irving Berlin's revue This Is The Army, and he repeated his role in the 1943 film version then continued touring with the stage version until he left the service. Back on Broadway, his roles included Humpty Dumpty and The Mouse in Eva Le Gallienne's Alice in Wonderland (1947) and the Doctor in They Knew What They Wanted (1949) with Paul Muni.

Jones made his television debut in 1949 and appeared in many live dramas in that medium, but was to achieve his greatest acclaim to date with his portrayal of the suspicious handyman who falls victim to a psychotic child murderess in Maxwell Anderson's controversial play The Bad Seed (1954), a role he repeated in the film version. In one of the most macabre scenes in cinema history, Jones taunts the little girl with warnings of retribution, telling her that there are two types of electric chair awaiting bad children, "a blue one for little boys and a pink one for little girls". (In the play, the child got away with murder, but movie censorship demanded a different ending for the film.)

In 1958 Jones won the Tony Award as Best Supporting Actor for his performance as Louis Howe, the confidant of Franklin D. Roosevelt, in Dore Schary's Sunrise at Campobello, and the same year had his telling cameo in the Alfred Hitchcock masterpiece Vertigo. As the coroner presiding over the inquest into the death plunge of a young woman, Jones is eminently hissable as he drily criticises the man (James Stewart) who because of his fear of heights had been unable to save the girl: "It is a pity that knowing her suicidal tendencies he did not make a greater effort . . . however, the law has little to say on the subject of things left undone."

Hitchock was an admirer of the actor, and used him several times in his television series Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Jones appeared in over 350 television shows - he was a guest star in such shows as The Untouchables, The Defenders, Twilight Zone, Quincy and Murder She Wrote, and in the popular comedy series Phyllis (1975-77) he had a regular role as the heroine's father- in-law, Judge Jonathan Dexter, good-humouredly coping with his widowed busybody daughter-in-law (Cloris Leachman) and his own scatterbrained wife (Jane Rose).

Films in which he had prominent roles included The Girl Can't Help It (1956), 3:10 to Yuma (1957), Never Too Late (1965), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969, as the bike salesman) and Dick Tracy (1990). In recent years, he worked often in regional theatre, his performance opposite Virginia Mayo in a Los Angeles production of Dear Jennie prompting the LA Times reviewer to praise Jones's "distinctive comic presence, the prolonged final syllables, the sleepy eyes".

Henry Jones had no illusions about his looks, once stating that at the start of his career, "casting directors didn't know what to do with me. I was never tall enough or good looking enough to play juvenile leads".

His ultimate success was such that at the time of his 70th birthday he was appearing as a regular on three television series. "I intend to go on acting," he said, "for as long as I can remember my lines".

Henry Burk Jones, actor: born Philadelphia 1 August 1912; married 1942 Yvonne Bergere (marriage dissolved 1942), 1946 Judy Briggs (one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved 1961); died Los Angeles 17 May 1999.

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