Shirley Jones (b. 1934) was one of those many people who were on television in the 1970s about whom I (a child at the time), had no conception regarding their illustrious background. Though Jones’s more persistent public image was to come from that latter period as the star of The Partridge Family (1970-74), prior to this she had been an Oscar winning film actress and a major star of musicals. As a kid she seemed “old” during The Partridge Family years; it seemed an awkward fit to have a woman in her 30s singing in these rock inflected pop songs. While it was anomalous at the time, by the end of the decade, it would be commonplace, as the generation of musicians that included the Rolling Stones reached middle age. But still, she was clearly from a vastly different school. She wasn’t a rock star; she played one on tv.
Astoundingly, given that it’s certainly the kind of name that would have been devised for her if she’d been born with another one, Shirley Jones was her given moniker. She grew up in the greater Pittsburgh area, the daughter of a brewer, and studied singing in church and at school. She was only a teenager when she was cast in the chorus of South Pacific on Broadway (1949-1954) and was signed to a contract by Rodgers and Hammerstein. It had been her first audition: she was very talented, very lucky, and let’s be honest, very beautiful. That’s hitting the trifecta. Surprisingly, she bypassed Broadway stardom entirely at this stage, and went directly to Hollywood to star in the film versions of Oklahoma! (1955), Carousel (1956) and The Music Man (1962), as well as the now forgotten musicals April Love (1957), Never Steal Anything Small (1959) and Pepe (1960). These and several equally forgotten comedies established her image as a squeaky clean, wholesome, All-American ingenue, an entertainment subcategory of the era that also included Debbie Reynolds, Florence Henderson, Doris Day, Dinah Shore, and others.
But there is also another side to her. In 1956 the literally virginal Jones married the bisexual rake Jack Cassidy, whom according to her 2013 autobiography, initiated her into all manner of kink, including a three-way with another woman. She raised Katie Couric’s eyebrows during an interview to promote the book by announcing that she keeps young through a constant regimen of masturbation. Jones is frankly, healthily sexual. Which makes it especially strange that she remains entirely unconvincing when she goes against type to play a sexy broad. She won an Oscar for her part as a hardened prostitute in Elmer Gantry (1960), and to me, it seems like her worst performance ever. She seems far sexier to me in The Music Man — for real! At any rate, it’s often erroneously given out that Elmer Gantry is the only occasion in which Jones went contrary to her established type in this way, but she actually took several roles in this vein. She plays a madam in The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), and, in The Happy Ending (1969) she plays a woman with a “history” (i.e., lots of men in her past), and has bedroom scenes with Lloyd Bridges. But this second image never quite took, no matter what was going on in her private life.
Jones was in a number of other notable pictures in the ’60s including the classic John Ford western Two Rode Together (1961); the Vincente Minnelli family comedy The Courtship of Eddie’s Father (1963, which became the basis for the later sitcom); the Hitchcockesque thriller Dark Purpose (1964) directed by George Marshall; and Bedtime Story (1964), with Marlon Brando and David Niven, which later became the basis for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels (1988). In 1968 she returned to Broadway to star for the first time opposite Cassidy in the musical Maggie Flynn, which was set in New York City during the Civil War Draft Riots.
Then tv sit coms came calling. In 1969, she was reportedly considered for the part of Carol Brady in The Brady Bunch but she turned it down. The following year she and her step-son David Cassidy were cast in The Partridge Family, about the real-life Cowsills, which we wrote about here.
1974 proved to be a year of enormous change for her: she divorced the cheating and alcoholic Cassidy; and The Partridge Family was cancelled. In 1976 Cassidy (whom she still loved) burned to death in a fire. Then in 1977, in one of the more bizarre head-scratching Hollywood matches, Jones married hack comedian Marty Ingels, to whom she remained hitched until his death in 2015 (with several separations). In her autobiography she writes that she liked to do topless dances for him around the house. Topless dances for Marty Ingel…surely that was below her pay grade?
Jones has worked constantly since The Partridge Family went off the air, in television and films, live stage productions and concerts, although never again at the same level of stardom. 1979 was perhaps her last big career push. That year she starred in another sit-com, Shirley. (Rosanna Arquette played her daughter!) But it was cancelled mid-season. And she was in Irwin Allen’s all-star disaster film Beyond the Poseidon Adventure. She’s one of my favorite things about that awful movie, mostly because she is working hard to do a good job in a pretty small, thankless yet demanding role. (And also because I am a huge fan of The Poseidon Adventure and the character she plays seems like one that was cut from the novel and didn’t make it into the 1972 film. )
After working mostly in tv and theatre through the 80s and 90s, around the turn of the century Jones began making lots of films again, often stunt cast in things like schlocky horror, but sometimes good things like Grandma’s Boy (2006), in which she plays — wait for it — a feisty old nympho.
I wanted to end this post on the off-color joke it is so badly crying out for. But you know what? This is 2018. I’d better not do that. Supply the implied one for yourself!