Dean Jones, original star of Company (1931-2015).
Although he must have appeared in some musicals before his film career took off, DEAN JONES is remembered for one particular role in music theatre, for he created the role of Robert in Stephen Sondheim and George Furth’s Company.
Michael Darvell pays tribute to the actor-singer who died from complications relating to Parkinson’s Disease on 1 September, aged 84.
Dean Carroll Jones was born on 25 January 1931 in Decatur, Alabama where, at Riverside High School, he secured his own local radio show called Dean Jones Sings. He enlisted in the US Navy and served during the Korean War, after which he joined a local theatre, the Bird Cage in Buena Park, California. He attended Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky but never graduated, although later on the university gave him an honorary degree in 2002.
It wasn’t until 1960 that he made his Broadway debut in There Was a Little Girl, with Jane Fonda, having previously appeared in small parts in films including These Wilder Years (1956) with James Cagney and Barbara Stanwyck, Somebody Up There Likes Me (1956) with Paul Newman, Tea and Sympathy (1956) with Deborah Kerr and John Kerr, Jailhouse Rock (1957) with Elvis Presley, Never So Few (1959) with Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, Imitation General and Torpedo Run (both 1958) with Glenn Ford, and Under the Yum Yum Tree with Jack Lemmon and Gig Young, the 1963 film of the stage comedy that Jones had played on Broadway.
Between movies Jones also appeared in several US television shows such as Zane Grey Theater, The Dick Powell Theater, The Aquanauts, Ben Casey, Burke’s Law, Kraft Suspense Theater and Vacation Playhouse, plus a number of TV western series such as Outlaws, Stagecoach West, Tales of Wells Fargo and Bonanza. He eventually made a mark as the titular hero of the TV comedy show Ensign O’Toole (1962–63), a sort of naval version of Sergeant Bilko who avoids as much work as he possibly can. It was in this series that Jones was discovered by the Walt Disney company who put him into several of their live-action family comedy films.
Looking clean-cut as an all-American nice guy, Jones fitted well into his Disney roles in which he was usually required to play opposite an animal of some kind in, for example, That Darn Cat! (1965), The Ugly Dachshund (1966), Monkeys, Go Home! (1967), The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit (1968), The Million Dollar Duck (1971) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976).
He also appeared with Peter Ustinov in Blackbeard’s Ghost (1968) among other Disney films. Possibly outstripping all his animal co-stars was Herbie, the Volkswagen with a mind of its own in The Love Bug (1968) and in Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977). There was also a TV series, Herbie, The Love Bug in 1982, and a TV movie, The Love Bug in 1997. The same year saw a remake of That Darn Cat! Never far away from working with animals, Jones got his own back in Beethoven (1992), about the adventures of a cuddlesome St Bernard dog and in which for a change he played a Mr Nasty character, one Dr Varnick, a veterinary surgeon who’s out to kill the lovable mutt.
Jones worked consistently over the ensuing years in films and television and, if his choices were not major productions, he never seemed to be out of work. However, behind the bland and apparently happy exterior lay a man fraught with doubt and depression and he never really recovered happiness until he married his second wife, Lory Patrick, in 1973 and became a born-again Christian.
Some of his work reflects his interest in spiritual matters in such films as Born Again (1978), about Charles Colson, one of Richard Nixon’s cohorts in the Watergate scandal. When Colson went to prison he found religion. Don’t Ask Me, Ask God (1984) was a TV show that posed questions on various religious topics, St John in Exile (1986), a film of Jones’ own one-man theatre show, while The Visual Bible (1994) recounted the New Testament Act of the Apostle Luke. In God Provides, Jones’ last film in 2009, the actor played the biblical patriarch Abraham. He also wrote a book about his religious experiences, Under Running Laughter, which was published in 1982. In 1986 he appeared in a musical called Into the Light, about scientists and the Shroud of Turin, but it closed after four performances.
Jones was once considered for the part of Lex Luthor in the first of the Superman films in 1978. However, he later did some voice work on the Superman animated series in 1997. Earlier he had had a small part as a judge in Clear and Present Danger, the Harrison Ford ‘Jack Ryan’ film from 1994.
After his many appearances in film and TV work in the 1960s, Jones was selected to play Robert in Sondheim’s Company (1970), a part that was the total opposite of Disney’s bland comedy roles. However, at the time of the show’s opening he was going through divorce proceedings with his first wife, Mae Entwisle, the stress of which forced him to ask if he could leave the production. However, the director Harold Prince persuaded Jones to stay with the show until its official opening night and to record his songs on the original cast recording of the show. His part was subsequently played by Larry Kert (1930-1991) who had been a hit playing Tony in the original Broadway cast of West Side Story (1957) and who eventually played Robert in the first London production of Company.
It is a pity that London never saw Jones as Robert. From the recording of the show it is only too apparent what a good voice Jones had. In his delivery of ‘Someone is Waiting’, ‘Barcelona’ and ‘Being Alive’ he is amazingly moving in renditions of Sondheim’s immaculate lyrics. The show is about a man, Robert, who on reaching the age of 35 still doesn’t have a real relationship, unlike his best, married friends who in celebrating his birthday reveal aspects of their own lives that are hardly much better than Robert’s. They and Robert’s former girlfriends try to cajole him into connecting with another person by committing himself to a stable relationship, but in so doing reveal that their own marriages are built on very shaky ground.
Jones was in good company with a cast that included Elaine Stritch, Donna McKechnie, Pamela Myers, Charles Kimbrough, Beth Howland and Barbara Barrie. Every song was a clincher in an evening of pure musical brilliance. Just think of such numbers as ‘The Little Things You Do Together’, ‘Sorry-Grateful’, ‘You Could Drive a Person Crazy’, ‘Have I Got a Girl For You?’, ‘Another Hundred People’, ‘Side By Side By Side’, ‘What Would We Do Without You?’, ‘Barcelona’ and ‘The Ladies Who Lunch’ and you will realise that, as in Sweeney Todd, there’s not a duff number anywhere. If anything, the score is actually too good for a single show and the tenuously plotless book it supports. It remains, however, one of Sondheim’s best shows and it is sad that Dean Jones was only part of it for such a short time.
However, he can still be heard on the original US cast album and in Original Cast Album: Company, the TV documentary film that DA Pennebaker shot of the Columbia Records’ making of the album. Jones also appeared in a two-day concert version of Company at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center in New York in 1993. If you want to witness the power of Jones’s acting just listen to him singing ‘Being Alive’: “Somebody crowd me with love/Somebody force me to care/Somebody let me come through/I’ll always be there/As frightened as you…”
Yes, just listen – and weep!