Mickey Mouse apart, the figure who most represented Walt Disney Productions in the 1960s was the clean-cut actor Dean Jones. Jones, who has died aged 84, starred as the bumbling, somewhat bland, hero in five entertaining kiddie movies with animals in the title: That Darn Cat! (1965), The Ugly Dachshund (1966), Monkeys, Go Home! (1966), The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (1968) and The Love Bug (1968).
The last of these starred not strictly speaking an animal, nor an insect, but a white Volkswagen Beetle with a mind of its own, ostensibly owned by the unsuccessful racing car driver Jim Douglas, played by Jones.
Happily, Herbie – as the cuddly, anthropomorphic auto is christened – helps Jim win an all-important race through the Sierra Nevada mountains against his nemesis, the villainous Thorndyke (David Tomlinson) in his sleek Italian Thorndyke Special. Jones, who did well not to be out-acted by Herbie, was by then used to playing straight man to cute non-human characters.
Son of Nolia (nee White) and Andrew, a railway worker, Jones was born in Decatur, Alabama. While still at the local high school, he had his own local radio show, Dean Jones Sings. Although he had a fine voice, he was hardly ever called upon to sing on screen. However, many years later, with his Disney stardom at its height, Jones was cast by Stephen Sondheim in his Broadway musical Company (1970), and had three solo numbers – Someone Is Waiting, Marry Me a Little and Being Alive. Although he withdrew from the show after a few performances because of the stress of going through a divorce, and was replaced by Larry Kert, Jones can be heard on the original cast recording.
After serving in the US navy during the Korean war, Jones was given a contract by MGM and appeared in 16 films from 1956 to 1959. Among his more noticeable roles were one of the schoolboys tormenting “sister boy” John Kerr in Tea and Sympathy (1956), a sympathetic baseball coach in The Great American Pastime (1956), a disc jockey in Jailhouse Rock (1957), arguably Elvis Presley’s best film, and a brilliant law student (his first lead) in Handle With Care (1958), one of the studio’s second features. Jones was then cast in uniform in three second world war pictures, Imitation General and Torpedo Run (both 1958 and starring Glenn Ford), and Never So Few (1959) with Frank Sinatra and Gina Lollobrigida. So ended his period with MGM.
The turning point in his career came on Broadway with Under the Yum Yum Tree (1960-61), in which he played the naive, upright boyfriend of a girl whom he defends from the advances of her playboy landlord (Gig Young). Jones reprised the role in the film version (1963) with Jack Lemmon as the landlord Jones gets to punch in the eye.
Having revealed a hidden talent for comedy, Jones gained the title role of the TV military sitcom Ensign O’Toole (1962-63). Apparently, his portrayal of the know-it-all seaman, an expert on avoiding work on a naval destroyer during peacetime, appealed to Walt Disney, who put Jones under a lucrative contact.
Jones’s first film for the family-friendly studio was That Darn Cat!, as an FBI agent who is helped by Hayley Mills’s Siamese cat to solve the “purr-fect crime”, as the posters proclaimed. Although the eponymous feline gained most of the plaudits – “the two-legged cast play second string to the marvellous moggie” (Time Out) – Jones proved to be a pleasant foil.
His persona now established, Jones went on to make his comic way through The Ugly Dachshund, in which he is the befuddled owner of a great dane who believes he’s a dachshund. Of Monkeys, Go Home! – in which he played the owner of an olive farm who employs chimpanzee pickers – Variety wrote: “Jones, always a good underplaying comedian, reacts adroitly to the script demands that he be, variously, frustrated, angry and moonstruck, all the while remaining completely likable.”
In between coping with chimps and his role as an advertising executive using a horse to sell a product in The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, Jones shared the limelight with Peter Ustinov in Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968). Ustinov, with a broad cockney accent, is only visible to a college athletic coach (Jones), whose team is helped to triumph by the ghost. The animal films continued with The Million Dollar Duck (1971), in which Professor Dooley (Jones) rescues a research lab duck which rewards him with a supply of golden eggs .
However, there was a disconnect between Jones’s wholesome image on screen and his real life. He had suffered from depression, and said in a 1976 interview: “I had thought if I became a star I’d be happy. I had thought if I had a fairly large amount of money I’d be happy. I thought if I had a house on a hill I’d be happy. I thought if I had a Ferrari I’d be happy. One goal after another was accomplished. And with no fulfilment. 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!’ I wasn’t a good family man. I was showing up at home smelling of drink and perfume that wasn’t my wife’s.”
In 1973, after marrying Lory Patrick, his second wife, Jones became a born-again Christian. This affected the choice of roles he was to play, though there was nothing offensive to him in continuing with Disney featherweight fantasies such as The Shaggy DA (1976), in which Jones plays an attorney who turns into a dog, and the sequel to The Love Bug, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977).
Closer to his heart was Born Again (1978), in which he portrayed Charles Colson, a Nixon adviser who was involved in the Watergate affair and sent to prison, where he underwent a religious conversion. Jones also had a successful run in his one-man show St John in Exile (made into a film in 1986), as the last surviving Apostle, reminiscing about his life while imprisoned on the Greek island of Patmos.
In complete contrast, and a surprise to those who recalled his innocuous Disney characters, in Beethoven (1992) Jones convincingly played the evil vet who wants to experiment on the lovable St Bernard dog of the title.
Jones is survived by his wife and by three children, Michael, Caroline and Deanna.
• Dean Carroll Jones, actor, born 25 January 1931; died 1 September 2015
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