Born in Decatur, Alabama and christened Dean Carroll Jones, the actor’s father worked for a railroad company and the family moved often, living in Washington, DC, Nashville, and New Orleans. “It was in New Orleans I really learned how to sing”, Jones told the Pittsburgh Press in 1969. Dropping out of school at 15, he worked for a short time singing in a club in that city, but when the club closed, he returned to Decatur and got his degree but Jones had gotten the show business bug.
After serving in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War, Jones got a job acting in a melodrama at Knott’s Berry Farm. He was spotted by veteran composer Vernon Duke, who was planning a musical. The musical project fell through, but Duke enabled Jones an audition with Arthur Freed, the famous producer of MGM feature film musicals such as “Singin’ In the Rain”. It did not go as planned. “He’s an actor, not singer!”, Freed exclaimed as related by Jones in a 1966 L.A. Times interview.
Still, the studio signed Jones, and in his first credited role, he found himself acting opposite James Cagney in the 1956 drama “These Wilder Years.” The veteran actor helped him through their scene. “There I was, just out of the U.S. Navy without an acting lesson to my name,” Jones told the Christianity Today. “In walks Cagney and says, ‘Walk to your mark and remember your lines.’ That’s all I’ve been doing for 50 years.”
Jones had mostly small roles of a far grittier nature than his later Disney fare. “I played drug addicts, pimps, hard-cased killers, ex-cons and angry young men,” he told The Times in 1995. And he reveled in the movie life. In a 2007 interview with the Pantagraph newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois, he recalled being on the MGM Culver City studio back-lot, with “Liz Taylor yelling, ‘Hey Dean-O, let’s go down to Stage 22 and watch Bing and Frank sing!'” Jones would appear with Elvis Presley in 1957 in “Jailhouse Rock”.
He made his debut on Broadway in 1960 opposite Jane Fonda in “There Was a Little Girl”, which flopped. Jones went on to the more successful “Under the Yum-Yum Tree” later that same year. He appeared in the title role of the Disney television series “Ensign O’Toole”, a military comedy, which debuted in 1962 on NBC on Sunday evenings. The show was followed by Disney’s anthology television show, so Disney caught the end of some episodes of Jones series, and liked what he saw.
Beginning in 1965 with “That Darn Cat!”, Jones became closely identified with Disney family fare. In addition to the “Love Bug” and “The Ugly Dachshund”, he was the leading man in “Monkeys, Go Home”, “The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit”, “The Million Dollar Duck”, “The Shaggy D.A.”, “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo”, and other Disney feature films.
But in the late 1960s and early 1970s, he was leading an off-screen life contrary to his wholesome image. He had numerous affairs and was drinking heavily. “I had thought if I became a star I’d be happy,” he said in a 1976 L.A. Times interview. “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 fulfillment.” Jones was able to keep his torment largely separated from his work life. Even the head of the studio was fooled. “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!'” Jones told the Pantagraph. “I wasn’t a good family man”, Jones acknowledged. “I was showing up at home smelling of perfume that wasn’t my wife’s”.
Jones’ first marriage to Mae Inez Entwisle ended in divorce in 1970. They had two daughters. He was married to actress Lory Patrick from 1973 until his death in 2015. Lory had a son, Michael Patrick, whom Jones adopted.
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