Jean Willes is best known for her roles in a number of B movies in the 1950s and 1960s as well as on the small screen. Lovely and curvaceous, she often played hard-boiled gold-diggers, party girls, gun molls, and saloon girls. She came off as a wily, smarter version of Barbara Nichols or Iris Adrian, and although she was versatile, she never rose to the first tier of stardom; in retrospect, she seems to have been capable of much more than she was given during her three-decade-plus career.
Born Jean Donahue in Los Angeles on April 15, 1923, she was raised in Utah and in Seattle, Washington. Interested in an acting career, she returned to the town of her birth and in 1942 started showing up in comedy film shorts for Columbia under her birth name. She was a smart and sexy foil to such enjoyable comics as Harry Langdon, Andy Clyde, Eddie Foy Jr., Joe DeRita, Sterling Holloway, Hugh Herbert, Harry von Zell, Max Baer, the duo of Wally Vernon and Eddie Quillan, and The Three Stooges.
After bit parts in such feature-length films as So Proudly We Hail! (1943), Here Come the Waves (1944), and Salty O’Rourke (1945), Willes — who married a professional wrestler in 1947 and was using her married surname — began earning co-star status in such post-war feature-length programmers as Revenue Agent (1950) opposite Douglas Kennedy, in A Yank in Indo-China (1952), and in one of Johnny Weissmuller’s “Jungle Jim” outings; even so, she wisely continued to appear in her bread-and-butter comedy shorts.
Willes became a cheesecake fixture in Hollywood, and film and TV work was steady. But when she was lucky enough to score a role in an “A” film, she was barely glimpsed, as in the Bob Hope comedy Son of Paleface (1952) and the “Best Picture” war epic From Here to Eternity (1953). She had more screen time as the nurse who succumbs to the aliens in the cult sci-fi classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) and as one of four women vying for the attentions of an aging Clark Gable in The King and Four Queens (1956), one of his lesser efforts. Guest spots on TV gave her greater visibility, and she was frequently seen in westerns (The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp (1955), Maverick (1957)) and crime dramas (Perry Mason (1957)), usually playing unsympathetic women although she occasionally played more respectable characters.
Willes had fewer roles in the 1960s. She could be spotted in Ocean’s 11 (1960) and as Ernest Borgnine’s girlfriend in the film version of McHale’s Navy (1964). Her last films were The Cheyenne Social Club (1970) and Bite the Bullet (1975). After a few more TV roles, she retired in 1976.
Willes died of liver cancer on January 3, 1989, at the age of 65. Her second husband, NFL football player Gerard Cowhig, died at their Van Nuys, Calif., home in 1995. They had one son, Gerry.
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