Man at Work—Finally

updated 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/11/1991 AT 01:00 AM EST

IN HOLLYWOOD A SILENT TELEPHONE IS louder than a death knell. For actor Dean Jones, a long-standing favorite at the Walt Disney Studios (That Darn Cat, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo), the telephone stopped ringing 10 years ago, and he remembers the silence only too well. "The worst thing," Jones recalls, "is that you don't know when it ends. You don't get a script sent to you for two years, it crosses your mind, 'Gee, what's going on?' Then five years pass, and pretty soon a decade has gone by. Finally you say to yourself, 'Well, if in fact that's it, then let me be happy with 30 pictures that made about $460 million and pictures that made a lot of people laugh."

No one is laughing louder than Jones these days. True, Disney is no longer in the business of automotive anthropomorphism, but Hollywood has at last managed to find other vehicles for Jones's talents. Director Norman Jewison hired him after one reading to play the uptight company exec who sells out to sleazy corporate raider Danny DeVito in the comedy hit Other People's Money. "I cast him against type," Jewison says. "He would be the last person in the world you would think of when you think of betrayal." Further, Jones stars as a villain in Ivan Reitman's comedy Beethoven, due next spring. Sitting in the living room of his comfortable ranch-style house in suburban Tarzana, Calif., Jones, 60, observes, "I guess if you wait long enough, you come back into fashion."

Not that Jones has been completely idle for 10 years. He made documentaries for Compassion International, a child-care organization, wrote his autobiography, Under Running Laughter, and traveled in Africa with his wife of 18 years, actress-turned-screenwriter Lory Basham, 58. Lory recalls her husband's deep frustrations. "He was physically and mentally sound to work," she says, "but he wasn't given the invitation. Or he was offered such things that he had to reject. His faith was definitely what helped him."

Jones himself is careful not to dramatize his Christian devotion and hesitates to label himself religious. "I would prefer to say I'm spiritually sensitized," he says.

His longtime friend, actress Suzanne Pleshette, who worked with Jones on Blackbeard's Ghost and The Shaggy DA, suggests that he might just have sensitized himself out of work. "Dean decided he was only going to work on material that was in his heart and soul," she says. "It wasn't that the industry turned its back on Dean, but that he limited his opportunities so that he could live with himself." Dean characterizes the offers simply: "They were cheapo films with graphic sex."

Still, Dean had a history of suffering from depression that, he concedes, stemmed from a dislocated childhood. The only child of a traveling construction worker and his homemaker wife, Dean was born in Decatur, Ala. His family moved frequently, and as the perennial new kid in school, he regularly got into fights. But he had a fine voice, and as a student at Decatur's Riverside High School, he landed his own local radio show, Dean Jones Sings.

Flush with success, he decided to go on the road. He left home at 15 and worked his way toward New Orleans as, variously, a coal loader, timber cutter and cotton picker. Soon he landed a gig at a New Orleans nightclub, singing for $3 an hour and all he could eat.

When the club folded, Dean returned home, finished high school and enrolled at Kentucky's Asbury College. The Korean War prompted Jones to join the Naval Air Corps. Alter a four-year stint in San Diego, he married local beauty queen Mae Entwisle, rode with her in the Rose Parade in Pasadena in 1954 and married her hours later. (Divorced in 1970, they have two daughters, Carol, 36, and Deanna, 34, and five grandchildren.)

After his Navy discharge in July 1954, he starred in a show at Knott's Berry farm outside L.A., which led to a contract with MGM. Curiously, Jones recalls, MGM was grooming him to become the next James Dean. "It was the angry young man period in Hollywood," he remembers, "and it really fit my personality. I was very angry, very hostile. I was drinking and partying all night. I had hundreds and hundreds of affairs, even though I was still married."

Can this be the lovable father figure venerated by a generation of family moviegoers? "I really led a double life," he admits. Yet he kept it well hidden. Walt Disney himself spotted Jones on the TV show Ensign O' Toole and hired him for 1965's That Darn Cat. The next year, before filming Black-beard's Ghost for Disney, Jones suffered a near-fatal motorcycle accident in Baja California. "You begin to look at life differently when you come so close to death," Jones says. "I remember saying to Walt Disney, 'There has got to be more to life than building a studio or being a movie star.' Walt said, 'I don't know about that, but we have you insured for $7 million. Just stay off that motorcycle—at least until we finish this picture.' "

Jones went on making Disney films for the next 12 years. In 1970, around the time of his divorce, he ran into Lory, whom he'd met once 10 years before at an NBC Christmas party, in a Mexican restaurant in Palm Springs. They began living together in Tarzana and married in 1973.

Lory says that in their early married years prayer helped her conquer arthritis and that Dean, awed by her recovery, turned to prayer himself for the first time since boyhood. "One night he got down on his knees and prayed that God would free him from the miserable depression that he had always suffered. He told me that in an instant it was gone and he felt peace."

Soon afterward, Jones asked his daughters for forgiveness because his roustabout ways had kept him from being an important part of their childhoods. "His daughters wept and were moved," Lory says, "but it took three or four years before they were satisfied that he really meant it."

It's taken even longer for Jones to reconnect with his career, but he has managed to do so without a trace of rancor. "You turn a corner in your mind and say, 'I'm going to outlast this'—and that's what I did," he says. "Sometimes being a survivor is the greatest compliment you can get in Hollywood."

VICKI SHEFF in Los Angeles

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