Dean Jones: Actor whose boyish good looks and engaging manner made him ideal for Disney's wholesome family films

 

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The Independent Online

Dean Jones’ boyish good looks and all-American manner made him Disney’s favourite young actor for such light-hearted films as That Darn Cat! and The Love Bug. His long association with Walt Disney began after he received an unexpected call from Disney himself, praising his work on the TV show Ensign O’Toole, noting it had “some good closing sequences.” Jones, a former Navy man, played the title role in the 1962 sitcom.

Jones puzzled over Disney’s remark until it occurred to him that Ensign O’Toole preceded Disney’s Sunday-night show on NBC, and he realised Disney probably only watched each episode’s ending. Two years later he heard from Disney again, this time to offer him a role in That Darn Cat! (1965) opposite Hayley Mills. His FBI agent Zeke Kelso follows a crime-solving cat that leads him to a pair of bank robbers. It was the first of 10 Disney films for Jones.

“I see something in them that is pure form,” said. “Just entertainment. No preaching. We’re always looking for social significance but maybe people just like to be entertained.”

The Love Bug (1969) was the most successful product of the genre, with Jones as a struggling racing driver who acquires a Volkswagen that wins races for him. The Bug, named Herbie, has hidden human traits, and when it feels unappreciated it disappears. Jones must rescue Herbie from the hands of his rival and issue the car an apology before it wins the big race for him.

After The Love Bug Jones returned to the stage in Company, Stephen Sondheim’s musical about marital angst Manhattan-style. He withdrew from the 1970 production after a short time, citing family problems, but is on the Grammy-winning Broadway cast album.

He had started as a singer before a string of mostly forgettable films in the 1950s. A notable exception was 1957’s Jailhouse Rock, one of Elvis Presley’s best-remembered vehicles, in which Jones had a small role as a disc jockey.

In 1960 Jones made his Broadway debut with Jane Fonda in There Was a Little Girl, playing Fonda’s boyfriend in a short-lived drama about the rape of a young woman. He had better luck on Broadway later in 1960 when he appeared in the hit comedy Under the Yum Yum Tree. Sparring with Gig Young, who played a comically wolfish character, Jones had “the right blend of sturdiness and lightness,” the New York Times wrote.

He returned to Hollywood for the film version of Under the Yum Yum Tree and to star in Ensign O’Toole from 1962 to 1964. He also teamed up with Fonda again for the film version of a racy stage comedy, Any Wednesday.

It was in Disney’s gentle family comedies, however, that Jones hit his stride. Walt Disney died in 1966, but the studio and its style lived on. In Monkeys, Go Home, Jones tries to teach four monkeys to pick grapes at a French vineyard he inherits. In Million Dollar Duck he is a scientist with a duck that begins laying golden eggs after being doused with radiation.

He returned to Disney in 1977 for one more film, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. Twenty years later he had smaller parts in the remake of That Darn Cat! and the TV version of The Love Bug. He worked regularly into his 70s, his later credits including St John in Exile, Beethoven and Other People’s Money.

In 1969 he hosted a TV variety show, What’s It All About, World? But he said delivering jokes, stand-up comedy style, was not really his forte. My bag is acting or getting into an amusing situation and then sharing my amusement,” he said. “I can sense a situation or a character much better than I can sense a line.”

Dean Carroll Jones left his home town of Decatur, Alabama, at 15, picking cotton and cutting timber until he landed a job as a singer in a New Orleans nightclub. When the club closed, he returned to Decatur to finish high school. After studying voice at Asbury University in Kentucky, he spent four years in the Navy. Soon after his release he was signed by MGM, and it appeared for a time that he was being groomed as a successor to James Dean, until Disney came calling.

“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,” said Jones. The off-screen reality was very different. “I wasn’t a good family man. I was showing up at home smelling of perfume that wasn’t my wife’s.”

After one drinking session after which he almost killed himself driving around a building site, he had an epiphany, becoming a Christian and doing voluntary work. He founded the Christian Rescue Committee, later the Christian Rescue Fund, which helps persecuted Christians. He also made several films for Christian audiences.

ERIC LAW  

Dean Carroll Jones, actor: born Decatur, Alabama 25 January 1931; married 1953 Mae Entwisle (divorced 1971; two daughters), 1973 Lory Patrick (one son); died Los Angeles 1 September 2015.

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