It always came as a shock to Baby Boomers, who grew up watching Fred MacMurray as a wise TV dad or the affable star of such Disney films as The Shaggy Dog and The Absent-Minded Professor, when they would see him years later as the manipulative, womanizing boss in The Apartment or Double Indemnity’s murderous insurance agent. Like MacMurray, fellow Disney leading man Dean Jones had years of stage and screen experience before he came to the studio. And while his villainous roles were few and far between, Jones–who passed away this week at 84 from Parkinson’s disease–was able to bring a depth to his performances that made him more than just a player of light-hearted family fare.
A native of northern Alabama, Dean Carroll Jones was born in January of 1931 and by the time he was in high school was on the local airwaves with his own radio program, the aptly-titled “Dean Jones Sings.” After studying acting and music at college in Kentucky, Jones enlisted in the Navy during the Korean War and was stationed with Special Services in Southern California, staging variety shows for sailors. The climate and career opportunities out west must have agreed with him, because by the mid-’50s Jones was singing at an area theme park: no, no that one…Knott’s Berry Farm.
It was his Knott’s Berry Farm gig that brought Dean to the attention of the songwriting team of Vernon Duke and Frank Loesser, and upon their recommendation he was signed to a film contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. His screen debut came in an unbilled turn as an Army private in the 1956 boxing biodrama Somebody Up There Likes Me. Small roles in such pictures as These Wilder Years, Tea and Sympathy, The Great American Pastime, and The Opposite Sex followed. 1957 found him working alongside another Dean, Dean Martin, in Ten Thousand Bedrooms and with Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (that’s him as a disc jockey). In 1958 Dean won critical praise for his lead performance as an ambitious law student whose prosecutions in a mock trial set a small town on edge in Handle with Care, and the following year he appeared with Frank Sinatra, Gina Lollobrigida and Steve McQueen in the WWII thriller Never So Few.
By 1960 Jones was finding steady work in television, with guest spots on such series as Zane Grey Theatre, Dick Powell Theater and Bonanza. He was also ready to make his Broadway debut in the powerful drama There Was a Little Girl. His co-star, also making her first appearance on the Great White Way, was none other than Jane Fonda. Later in ’60 he was back on the New York stage, but in a decidedly lighter play, the racy (for its time) romp Under the Yum-Yum Tree, co-starring Gig Young. Dean would eventually come back to Hollywood, reprising his role as a young man looking to–platonically–share an apartment with his girlfriend in the 1962 film version of the comedy, with Carol Lynley and Jack Lemmon.
1962 also saw Jones land his first TV series lead, playing a novice Naval officer in NBC’s Ensign O’Toole. While the military sitcom only ran for one season, its Sunday night timeslot wound up having a profound effect on the young actor’s career; Ensign O’Toole aired just before Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color, you see, and Walt was impressed with Dean’s clean-cut looks and by what parts of the show he saw. And so it was that Jones signed with Disney to co-star with the studio’s 19-year-old ingénue, Hayley Mills, in 1965’s That Darn Cat!. The tale of a free-spirited Siamese, its owner (Mills), an FBI agent who’s allergic to felines (Jones), and some hapless bank robbers, the crime comedy went on to become one of the year’s highest-grossing releases and secured Jones a steady job at the House of Mouse.
Over the next 12 years Jones would play the amiable and often-perplexed protagonist in nine more Disney films, doing his best to cope with such characters as a Great Dane that thinks it’s a dachshund in The Ugly Dachshund (1966), a houseful of mischievous primates in Monkeys, Go Home! (1967), a race horse named for an indigestion medicine in The Horse in the Grey Flannel Suit (1968), a spectral buccaneer in Blackbeard’s Ghost (also ’68), and a duck that lays eggs with solid gold yolks in Million Dollar Duck (1971). Dean’s most famous non-human co-star, however, has to be Herbie, the Volkswagen with a mind of its own and the title character of one of 1969’s biggest hits, The Love Bug.
On a quick personal aside, let me say that The Love Bug is probably my favorite ’60s Disney comedy. Along with a comically villainous David Tomlinson and Joe Flynn, a gorgeous and spunky Michelle Lee and the inimitable Buddy Hackett, one of the things that I enjoy most about the film is Dean’s role as race car driver Jim Douglas. Far from being a squeaky-clean hero, Douglas is dismissive of anyone suggesting that his success is due to anything other than his own driving and is more than willing to sell Herbie to arch-rival Tomlinson at one point. It’s a nice little character arc as he comes to believe in the mysterious car, and it’s a testament to what Jones was capable of.
Jones took a brief respite from the Disney treadmill to reunite with his old Broadway co-star, Jane Fonda, in the 1966 romantic romp Any Wednesday, and in 1970 he went back to the stage as Robert in the original Broadway production of Stephen Sondheim’s Company. It proved to be a short-lived return, though, as personal problems and the end of his 17-year first marriage led him to step down from the show after less than two months (he was featured on the soundtrack album and made an appearance at a 1993 reunion performance).
In the early 1970s Dean became a born-again Christian and started dividing his time between performing and working with various Christian ministries and charities. His 1970s acting roles included a 1971 co-starring turn in the one-season CBS gangster comedy The Chicago Teddy Bears, such made-for TV movies as The Great Man’s Whiskers (1972) and Guess Who’s Been Sleeping in My Bed? (1973), and a return to Disney to play a “were-sheepdog” in 1976’s The Shaggy D.A. He portrayed Watergate figure-turned-evangelist Charles Colson in the faith-based biodrama Born Again (1978). A pair of telefilms, 1978’s When Every Day Was the Fourth of July and 1981’s The Long Days of Summer, found Jones playing a small-town lawyer in 1930s Connecticut and gave him a chance to flex his dramatic muscles.
Jones made one more attempt at TV series work, playing Jim Douglas again in Disney’s short-lived Herbie, The Love Bug show in 1982. He had more success playing the imprisoned title apostle in a mid-’80s stage production, St. John in Exile. When Hollywood came calling, it was with a small assortment of change-of-pace roles, from a businessman whose wire and cable company is the target of a hostile takeover attempt in 1991’s Other People’s Money to a judge in the 1994 Tom Clancy thriller Clear and Present Danger. The part that seemed furthest from his Disney days, though, was when Dean was cast as the villainous veterinarian Dr. Herman Varnick in the 1992 family favorite Beethoven (Ironically, he would supply the voice of the St. Bernard’s owner in a subsequent 1994 cartoon series).
The 1990s and 2000s saw Dean continue with cartoon voice work and make cameos in remakes of his ’60s Disney films, while he and his second wife founded the Christian Rescue Committee, which sought to offer aid to Christians and Jews facing persecution around the world. His final screen appearance came in a 2009 family adventure, Mandie and the Secret Tunnel. To young moviegoers in the 1960s and ’70s, Dean Jones was a familiar face and a symbol of sorts for wholesome family entertainment. The ease with which he handled these roles, and the occasional opportunities he received to break out of the Disney mold and show what he could do in serious fare, serve as testimony to his talent.
By the way, did you know that Jones actually had two roles in The Love Bug? Along with playing Jim Douglas, that was Dean behind the wig and glasses as the hippie at the drive-in restaurant who, when Michelle Lee yells for help inside a locked Herbie, offers the immortal words “We all prisoners, chicky baby. We all locked in.”