Film and television actor Dean Jones (1931-2015) of Decatur, Morgan County, was one of the signature faces of Walt Disney films in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Starring in such box-office hits as The Love Bug and That Darn Cat, Jones also appeared in numerous other films, plays, and musicals. A devout evangelical Christian, Jones founded the Christian Rescue Committee to aid cultural and religious groups that face persecution.
Dean Carroll Jones was born on January 25, 1931, to Andrew Guy Jones, a construction worker, and Nolia Elizabeth White Jones. Jones attended Decatur’s Riverside High School and also began performing on a local radio station in his own show, “Dean Jones Sings.” He dropped out of high school at age 15 and travelled around the South working various jobs, including cotton picker and dishwasher, before finding work as a blues singer in a night club in New Orleans, Louisiana. When the club closed, he returned to Decatur and completed his high school degree. He then entered Asbury College in Wilmore, Kentucky, but dropped out before earning a degree.
In 1953, Jones enlisted in the U.S. Navy Air Corps. Stationed in San Diego, California, he entertained the men at the base with variety shows and performed on the local TV show Liberty Calls. In January 1954, he married beauty queen Mae Entwistle, with whom he had two daughters. After his service ended, Jones remained in California to pursue a career in the entertainment industry. His first job was as a singer in musicals at the Knotts Berry Farm amusement park in Buena Park. After hearing him sing there, film composer Vernon Duke introduced Jones to connections at MGM Studios in Hollywood. Between 1956 and 1960, Jones appeared in minor roles in several feature films, including Tea and Sympathy (1956) and the Elvis Presley film Jailhouse Rock (1957). In 1960, his film career was put on hold as he headed for New York to star in the Broadway plays There Was a Little Girl (costarring Jane Fonda) and Under the Yum Yum Tree.
His performances were widely praised, and when he returned to Hollywood the following year, Jones was given the lead role in his own television series, Ensign O’Toole. The series, which starred Jones as a Navy officer, ran for 32 episodes on NBC. Jones followed this role with a return to film in the screen adaptation of the Broadway hit Under the Yum Yum Tree in 1963. Two years later, he won the role of FBI agent Zeke Kelso in the Disney film That Darn Cat! Jones proved appealing to Disney audiences and starred in a string of popular films for the company during the 1960s and 1970s, including The Love Bug (1968) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976).
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Jones experienced several events that would change the course of his personal life and professional career. Although he was playing wholesome Disney characters, off-screen Jones was spending his time drinking at Hollywood parties with starlets and racing motorcycles and cars. He suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1968 and a car crash a couple of years later. In 1970, Jones was divorced from his first wife and three years later married writer and former actor Lory Basham, with whom he would have a son. He continued to appear in films, including Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo (1977), a sequel to The Love Bug.
In 1978, Jones and his wife became born-again Christians, and he shifted his acting career toward roles that aligned more closely with his newfound faith. That same year he starred in Born Again, a biographical treatment of former Nixon special counsel and Watergate accomplice and current evangelical Christian leader Charles Colson.
In 1982, he briefly reprised the role of Jim Douglas in the television series Herbie, The Love Bug and also toured in a theatrical production based on the life of St. John the Baptist titled St. John in Exile. In 1986, he returned to Broadway in a short-lived musical about the Shroud of Turin, Into the Light, and performed in a touring production of Showboat during the late 1990s. Jones returned to film with a supporting role in the Warner Brothers film Other People’s Money (1991) and enjoyed consistent work in Hollywood. Credits include Beethoven (1992) and Clear and Present Danger (1994) as well as cameos in remakes of That Darn Cat (1997) and The Love Bug (1997).
In addition to his on-screen work, Jones devoted much of his time in more recent years to religious issues. He produced documentaries with Christian themes and in 1998 founded the Christian Rescue Committee, a nonprofit organization devoted to aiding communities and ethnic groups throughout the world who face religious persecution. He also has lent his voice to the radio serial At Home in Mitford, adapted from the popular Christian fiction series of the same name by author Jan Karon.
Burke-Block, Candace. “Dean Jones, of Disney Fame, Is Back.” The Free Lance-Star, April 10, 1992, B8. [See Related Links]