Joyce Jameson: Sad End of a Funny Lady

This morning we pay homage to actress and comedienne Joyce Jameson (1932-1987). Jameson specialized in playing hookers, floozies, chorines and cheap dates. I first made note of her from the two campy AIP classics Tales of Terror (1962) and The Comedy of Terrors (1964) where she cut a few capers with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre (she is especially funny as a horrible wife in the former film). And when I began to look into her background I found lots of interesting stuff.

Chicago native Jameson studied theatre at UCLA and began to play bit parts in films right out of school. She plays chorus girls in Show Boat and The Strip, and a barmaid in Son of Dr. Jekyll, all in 1951. That same she married aspiring showman Billy Barnes, a man with a legendary eye for talent. Meanwhile she began to rack up credits. She was on The Abbott and Costello Show and The Colgate Comedy Hour, in an exploitation film called Problem Girls (1953), and the first of several comedies with Jack Lemmon, Phffft (1954, also with Judy Holiday, whose persona Jameson’s resembled).

In 1956, Jameson was one of the stars of the first Billy Barnes Revue. She was valued for her dialect comedy, her impressions of Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Grace Kelly, and Marilyn Monroe, and a funny ventriloquism bit she did based on the memorable Michael Redgrave section of Dead of Night (1945). This brought her to the attention of Steve Allen and Jack Paar, who began to feature her regularly on their shows. Barnes divorced Jameson in 1957, but continued to star her in his revues, which moved to Broadway in 1959 and 1961. Around this time she became a frequent guest on television, and remained one over the next two-plus decades. You could see her on The Tonight Show, The Bob Cummings Show, The Betty Hutton Show, The Andy Griffith Show, The Danny Kaye Show, The Red Skelton Show, The Munsters, Hogan’s Heroes, Gomer Pyle, etc. She appeared in two more comedies with Jack Lemmon, The Apartment (1960) and Good Neighbor Sam (1964). With Bob Hope (whose TV shows she also appeared on) she was in Boy Did I Get a Wrong Number (1966). She was also in Frankie and Johnny (1966) with Elvis Presley and Donna Douglas of The Beverly Hillbillies (who shared a birthday with Jameson). Her guest shot on the 1966 episode of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. “The Dippy Blonde Affair” resulted in a long term relationship with star Robert Vaughn.

The all-star caper film The Split (1968) was her last theatrical motion picture for a time, but throughout the ’70s you could see her on TV series like Ironside, The Rockford Files, and Barney Miller. In 1975 she returned to AIP to appear in Death Race 2000. She was in the Clint Eastwood movies The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) and Every Which Way But Loose (1979). Other stuff from the period include Scorchy (1976) with Connie Stevens and the TV movies The Crash of Flight 401 (1978) and The Wild Wild West Revisited (1979).

By the ’80s Jameson’s career had slowed down considerably. There were episodes of The Love Boat and The Fall Guy, cartoon voiceovers, and bit parts in movies like Ladies Night (1983), The Man Who Loved Women (1983), and Hardbodies (1984). In the latter film, she played one of the character’s moms — a very different kind of role from the ones she had thrived on.

Following a dry patch lasting a little over two years with no screen roles, Jameson ultimately took her own life with an overdose of sleeping pills. She was 54.

For more on variety entertainment, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.