UPDATE Thursday morning: Larry Kert was Tony-nominated, but didn’t win for Company.
Dean Jones, the affable actor best known for leading roles in several family Disney films of the 1960s and ’70s including The Love Bug and That Darn Cat! — as well as creating one of Stephen Sondheim’s iconic leading roles on Broadway in Company — died Tuesday from complications related to Parkinson’s disease. He was 84.
Born on January 25, 1931, in Decatur, AL, Jones began singing and acting after a stint in the Navy during the Korean War. He already was a veteran presence on TV and in films when he was cast opposite Hayley Mills as an allergic FBI agent assigned to tail a feline in Disney’s 1965 comedy That Darn Cat! That began a long relationship with the studio that including starring roles in such films as The Ugly Dachshund (1966), Monkeys, Go Home! with Maurice Chevalier (1967), Blackbeard’s Ghost opposite Peter Ustinov (1968) and in 1968’s The Love Bug as a race car driver who works with a VW Beetle that has a mind of its own and matchmaking on its mind. Jones would reprise that role for a 1977 sequel — the only one of several theatrical Herbie pics in which he appeared — and a short-lived 1982 TV series.
In 1970, he was set to star as Robert, the lead figure in Sondheim’s Company, the composer-lyricist’s first collaboration with Harold Prince as director. The musical centers on Bobby, a bachelor surrounded by his mostly unhappily married friends who nonetheless want to see him settle down. Bobby’s 11 o’clock number, “Being Alive,” is one of Sondheim’s best-known anthems, and Jones belted it out of the park, as seen in the video of the recording of the original cast album (watch it above). Jones was in the middle of a divorce at the time of the show’s opening, and he left two weeks later, replaced by Larry Kert, who’d starred in the Sondheim/Bernstein musical West Side Story. Kert earned a Tony nomination that year (and great reviews after critics were persuaded to come back), but Jones’ performance was recorded for the ages.
Jones and Disney continued to make movies together into the 1970s, when he toplined The $1,000,000 Duck (1971), Snowball Express (1972) and The Shaggy D.A. (1976) along with Herbie Goes To Monte Carlo (1977). David Vogel, the former former president of Walt Disney Pictures, once said, “When you think of Disney, you think of Dean Jones.” In 1995, the actor received Disney Legends Award, a hall of fame honor from the company.
“A family film is a very particular and explicit form,” Jones said in a 2007 interview with the Parents Television Council, whose advisory board he was on. “Family films typically include adult principles that are moral, but they should be as intelligent, funny, and intriguing as any other film.” PTC President Tim Winter said in a statement today: “He was talented, warm, engaging, and when the camera turned on, so did he. He could make you laugh without making you cringe. A whole generation of children – and I’m among them – looked to him as our first Hollywood father figure.”
Jones worked steadily throughout the 1950s and made his Broadway debut in 1960 opposite Jane Fonda in the brief run of There Was A Little Girl. Later that year, he starred on the Main Stem in Under The Yum Yum Tree, which ran for six months, and reprised his role for the 1963 feature. He also played the title role in the military comedy Ensign O’Toole, which aired for a season on NBC and briefly was revived at ABC. The latter run in 1964 served as the lead-in to Disney’s The Wonderful World Of Color, which led to the company developing an interest in Jones and ultimately signing him.
Earlier in his career, Jones aspired to a singing career. He once said, “I wish I could say I had this master plan for a career, but I always thought acting was something I’d just do until I had a hit record.” He often auditioned for orchestras and eventually earned a screen test at MGM. But rather than musicals, he was cast in roles in such films as Tea And Sympathy with Deborah and John Kerr (1956), with Elvis Presley in Jailhouse Rock (1957), Torpedo Run opposite Glenn Ford and Ernest Borgnine (1958), Handle With Care (1958) and Never So Few (1960). His TV credits in that era include Bonanza, Wagon Train and Ben Casey. He later would topline the 1971 sitcom The Chicago Teddy Bears. Among his most famous post-Disney film roles was as the evil and duplicitous veterinarian in the 1992 box office hit Beethoven. He played a different voice role in the 1994 spinoff TV series.
Jones continued working through the 1980s and ’90s, appearing on TV series including The Love Boat and Murder, She Wrote and the 2001 TV movie musical Scrooge And Marley. He also co-starred in the 1997 remake of That Darn Cat! starring Christina Ricci and again played racer Jim Douglas in a TV movie version of The Love Bug that same year.
In his later years, he appeared in such faith-based fare as Mandie And The Secret Tunnel and God Provides. In 1998, he founded charity group the Christian Rescue Committee.
Jones is survived by his wife, Lori Basham Jones; a son, Michael; two daughters, Caroline Jones and Deanna Demaree; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren. A memorial service will be scheduled.
Ross Lincoln contributed to this report.