When an actor dies, he is most often associated with his most memorable role, the character his audience will remember him by for decades. For Dean Jones, that film was The Love Bug.
In his partnership with Disney, Jones — who died Tuesday of Parkinson’s at age 84 — played a certain type of character, as the Times-Picayune pointed out — “bumbling and easily flummoxed — but always big-hearted — character, and usually co-starring with an animal or two.”
The movies were invariably silly — The Shaggy D.A, That Darn Cat, and The Love Bug, along with its many sequels. During his career, Dean Jones would star in 46 films, but also graced Broadway and TV, Reuters reported.
Dean was picked by Walt Disney to star in a slew of such silly films, and by the 1960s, he’d starred in 10 of them, the Washington Post added. But that seemed perfectly fine with him — Jones never seemed to take himself too seriously.
“I see something in them that is pure form. Just entertainment. No preaching … We’re always looking for social significance, but maybe people just like to be entertained … I’m remembering a time when I was on stage in a theater or in the back row of a movie house, and heard people laugh at some silliness I did, and how I felt humbled to be able to bring laughter to people… Because, unless I’m sadly mistaken, you can’t laugh and remember your problems at the same time.”
Dean was bit by the showbiz bug after serving in the Navy during the Korean War. A native of Alabama and son of a railroad man, Dean Carroll Jones was born in 1931 and began his career by hosting a local radio program called Dean Jones Sings, Entertainment Weekly added.
Singing is where his career began, and he even dropped out of a college for a time — before his military service — to belt out tunes across New Orleans. When he returned from Korea, MGM signed him to a contract as an actor, not a singer.
Jones churned out movies over the course of his long career: The Million Dollar Duck, Snowball Express, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, Any Wednesday, The New Interns, Never So Few, Other People’s Money, When Every Day Was the Fourth of July, A Brush With Time, and Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger.
“My first scene in a movie was with James Cagney, for goodness sakes. There I was, just out of the U.S. Navy without an acting lesson to my name. In walks Cagney and says ‘Walk to your mark and remember your lines.’ That’s all I’ve been doing for fifty years. You can’t take credit for blessings like that.”
But by the 1970s, Dean’s personal life was a mess after a “fast track life” that earned him $50,000 a week, “Ferraris and beautiful women … And it was empty. Really empty.” But a “divine visitation” changed Jones’ life and be became a born-again Christian. He kept acting, but chose his roles carefully, according to his faith.
“I knew that if there didn’t come something that changed my life, that I would probably end up a pretty mess at some point or another,” he said in 1997. “And the night that I said ‘yes’ to the lord, it changed instantly. The peace of Christ rolled over me like an ocean wave and I’ve never been the same.”
Jones’ life was afterward filled with more than just glitzy Hollywood fare. Dean became foster father to many kids, founded the Christian Rescue Fund — tasked with saving persecuted Christians and Jews worldwide. But the joy of entertaining, of making people happy, never left him.
“There’s also moments in film or on stage where an actor can bring softness and gentleness to the human spirit and although extremely rare, there are times when an audience is touched by tenderness in the midst of laughter. Those times are precious indeed and they transcend the medium. Those moments come both on stage and in film, so both have given me great satisfaction.”
[Photo Courtesy Kevin Winter / Getty Images]