All Things Entertaining and Cultural
The voice on the other end says, “Hello, Shirley, this is Burt Lancaster.”
Not in the mood for a joke, Jones hangs up.
“Luckily for me, Burt was persistent. He had something on his mind and, thank goodness, he called back,” says Jones by telephone from her L.A. area home.
“He asked me if I’d ever read ‘Elmer Gantry’ by Sinclair Lewis. I hadn’t, and Burt recommended I read it because he was playing Gantry in a movie and wanted me to play the role of Lulu Baines, a woman who is driven to prostitution because of an encounter with Gantry.
“I was stunned. For years, I wanted to be taken as seriously as an actress as I was as a singer and musical comedy performer. I was typecast from my roles in ‘Oklahoma!’ and ‘Carousel,’ and as much as I loved those pictures, I knew it was vital that I get an important dramatic role to show my range. Here was Burt Lancaster, who I’d never met, calling to say he was campaigning with (‘Elmer Gantry’ director) Richard Brooks to get me just such a part.
“His offer was only half of it,” Jones continues. “Throughout my teenage years, I adored movie stars like most girls, but when anyone asked my favorite, the one for whom I would melt in a minute, it was Burt Lancaster.
“Now my idol was on the telephone telling me he wanted to me to co-star with him in a movie. Naturally I said ‘yes.'”
“Elmer Gantry” and Lulu Baines would do exactly what Jones wanted it to do. It would change her image from that of a wistful, singing ingénue to a woman who has been around, knows the score, and could convey to a camera. For her performance in “Elmer Gantry,” Jones earned the 1960 Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. Lancaster was a co-recipient in the Best Actor category.
In our conversation and in her new book, “Shirley Jones: A Memoir,” Jones recounts the double effect of her success in “Elmer Gantry.” It gave her new status as an actress and put a major crimp in her marriage with Cassidy, who was jealous that Jones attained star status before he did.
“Shirley Jones: A Memoir” has also advanced Jones’s career. Since its publication in July, she has, she says, been “inundated with requests” for personal appearances.
“The book has renewed my career in ways I did not expect,” says Jones, who made recent appearances in Pitman, N.J. and Lansdale, Pa. and is set for an October date in Ohio. “It’s incredible.”
Landing the part in “Elmer Gantry” wasn’t as easy as Lancaster said it would be. He wanted Jones as Lulu. Richard Brooks wanted Piper Laurie. Only at Lancaster’s insistence did Brooks even talk to Jones.
“Burt Lancaster is totally responsible for me getting the most important role of my career,” Jones says. “He never gave in to Brooks. As his suggestion, I read ‘Elmer Gantry’ and flew from San Francisco to L.A. to meet Brooks. He was not friendly. He had me pegged as one kind of character, Laurey Williams from ‘Oklahoma!’ and only Burt’s cajoling changed his mind.
“On the first day of shooting, he gave me no direction at all. He didn’t even speak to me. Also, Brooks only gave actors their lines. I’d never seen the entire script of the movie. Thank goodness I followed Burt’s advice. By reading ‘Elmer Gantry’ I knew who Lulu was and knew I could play her.
“Burt Lancaster also knew I could play Lulu. He had seen me on television playing opposite Red Skelton in ‘The Big Slide,’ a drama that aired on ‘Playhouse 90.’ Those dramas were done live, and acting in them was just like doing a play. You did not have the luxury of extra takes or the chance to rest between scenes.
“My character was an actress from the Mack Sennett era who turned alcoholic. It was a great stretch for me, and I was grateful for the director’s confidence. Red Skelton was marvelous and encouraged me. I had no way of knowing I was making an impression on Burt Lancaster, and he would see me as Lulu Baines.
“Richard Brooks came around as well. On that first day, when he gave me no direction, I played Lulu as I knew I could. When Brooks saw the rushes, the scenes that were filmed that day, he called me at home. He apologized to me and said, ‘Shirley, I was wrong. You were not only excellent in today’s scenes. I predict you will win the Academy Award.’
“I was flattered, but I never expected the Oscar. Janet Leigh was nominated that year in ‘Psycho,’ and Shirley Knight in ‘Dark at the Top of the Stairs.’ One of the longest moments of my life was waiting for Hugh Griffiths, with his slow Welsh drawl to say my last name. When I heard him say ‘Shirley,’ I thought for sure he was going to say ‘Shirley Knight.’ He didn’t. He said ‘Shirley Jones,’ and the perception of me in Hollywood changed.”
From Jones’s book and our talk, the Hollywood perception of her as a new Doris Day or Debbie Reynolds was wrong from the start.
While Jones played the virginal ingenue on the screen, she was a bit of a willful rebel in her personal life, enjoyed relationships with men, and relished sexual pleasure.
“Remember,” she says, “I’m talking about the 1950s. I was not a prude, but I made a conscious decision to save myself for someone I truly wanted to love and to have love me. That someone was my husband Jack Cassidy, who, as even my current husband Marty Ingels knows, is and always will be the love of my life.”
In her memoir, Jones writes about a childhood in which she always defied her parents’ wishes, was a bit of a tomboy, and had a healthy interest in men.
“I often had a date with my mother’s paddle,” Jones says. “I was a free spirit who wanted my way. I still am.
“I did many things of which my mother did not approve. We had a tense relationship, the opposite of my time with my father. The one thing was mother always adored and encouraged was my singing.
“I could always sing. Even at age four, I could carry a tune and stay on pitch. It was a natural and effortless talent. It never dawned on me that everyone could not do it.”
It also never dawned on Jones that she could sing professionally. She would entertain around her southwestern Pennsylvania hometown, Smithton, 21 miles south of Pittsburgh. She also competed in and won the Miss Pittsburgh Pageant because the prize was a scholarship for singing lessons.
“I had taken lessons for years and had a wonderful teacher who was dismayed that I wanted to sing show tunes instead of opera but worked with me anyhow. I just never thought of going into the theater or any part of the entertainment industry.”
Fate took a hand when Jones accompanied her parents on an annual family trip to New York.
“On a whim, I called a friend who moved from Pittsburgh to New York and who used to accompany me when I sang locally,” Jones said, echoing a story I heard when she told it to her Pitman audience.
“My friend suggested I go with him to auditions Rodgers and Hammerstein’s casting director was holding for replacements in four Rodgers and Hammerstein musical that were running on Broadway in 1953. I had never even been in a play. My singing was done in church and at concerts. But I went.
“The scene was a madhouse. There must have been 100 girls there, all wanting parts in ‘Oklahoma!,’ ‘South Pacific,’ ‘The King and I,’ or ‘Me and Juliet.’ I thought, ‘This is insane,’ but I stayed to audition.
“I sang my first number, and a voice from the back, the casting director, said he was impressed. I sang a second song, and the casting director sent for Richard Rodgers. I didn’t know he’d arrived in the room. The lights on stage were strong, and when he said something to me, I asked, ‘Now who is that?’ I didn’t expect anything, so I wasn’t nervous. I knew who Richard Rodgers was and sang his music, but I didn’t know enough to be in awe.
“Mr. Rodgers heard me, and he decided Mr. Hammerstein should also hear me. We would go from the audition hall to a theater where Mr. Rodgers was rehearsing the orchestra for ‘Oklahoma!’ Mr. Hammerstein joined us. He asked if I knew one of his songs. I answered I knew the music but not all of the lyrics, an embarrassing admission because Mr. Hammerstein wrote the lyrics. He handed me sheet music. I sang, holding the music in front of my face so no one would see me blush, and my career was born.
“If you’d asked me what I wanted to be when Mom, Dad, and I left Smithton for New York, I would have answered in total sincerity, ‘A veterinarian.’ I loved animals and had snakes, lizards, and rodents as pets, as well as dogs and cats. My father was often on the road selling the product our family manufactured, Jones Beer, and when he’d come home, he’d always have a puppy for me. I have never been without a pet. And I’ve always gotten along famously with animals. When I made “Fluffy” with Tony Randall, the title character was a lion played by Zorba the Lion, a big star among animals in movies. We became friends right away. He’d arrive every day in a big station wagon and come right up to me to be petted. Once he put his head right on my lap. We had a real rapport, he and I.
“On that day in that Broadway theater, any ambition I had to be a veterinarian went out the window. Within 20 minutes of singing for Mr. Hammerstein, with Mr. Rodgers accompanying me because my friend had to leave to catch an airplane, I had an offer to join the chorus of ‘South Pacific’ and was told I would train to play Laurey for a European tour of ‘Oklahoma!’ I also signed a seven-year contract, the only one of its kind, that bound me to Rodgers and Hammerstein and their work for that period.”
“South Pacific,” Jones says, had two Shirleys in its chorus. The other was Shirley MacLaine, who became a lifelong friend. (She recently saw me and said, “Why Shirley Jones, you let your hair go white. I’m impressed with your bravery.”) The star of “South Pacific” at the time was Martha Wright. Asked if Wright might be surprised that two women in her chorus eclipsed her career, Jones said, “Probably not at the time.”
Jones says she was attracted to many men, and loved a couple of them, but she was never in love with any men but her husbands, Jack Cassidy and Marty Ingels.
“People wonder at my choices. My mother was certainly against me being with, let alone marrying, Jack. Everyone, from my manager to my best friend, warned me about Jack. My children were among the many who challenged me about Marty.
“The truth is both men won my heart because both men made me laugh. Jack was the dashing genius Lothario who entertained me and taught me about sexual pleasure and who I loved more than anything in spite of his philandering and other faults. It’s like the song I sing from ‘Carousel,’ ‘He’s your fella, and you love him; there’s nothing more to say.’
“Even Marty knows that Jack will always be the love of my life. He has been gone for more than 35 years, and I continue to miss him.
“Marty is romantic in ways Jack was not. Jack was interested in Jack. Marty will go to any extreme to make me happy. He likes to be the center of attention, but that’s OK with me. I get enough attention. I’ve been with Marty since before Jack died, and I love him dearly and have a wonderful life with him.”
Family has always been important to Jones.
“In all situations, my children come first. It was because of my sons that I finally gave up and left Jack.
“‘Elmer Gantry’ was the most important job of my career. The one that gave me the most lasting fame is ‘The Partridge Family.’
“‘The Partridge Family’ came exactly at the right time. I was in my late 30s, and in those days, for a woman, that meant your career was drying up. Women past 40 were not cast until they could play grandmothers. ‘The Partridge Family’ offered me the chance to play television’s first working mother.
“Also, my children were at an age when they needed to be in school and could not travel on location with me. It was great taking them to Rome and places all over the world, but at this time, it was important they had some stability and normality. In a television series, you work from 7:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. five days a week, but at least I was in L.A. and could be a full-time Mom.
“I have four sons. I am not David’s mother, but he and I have been in each other’s lives so long, I count him as one of mine. Our time together on ‘The Partridge Family’ forged a strong bond.” (In her book, Jones notes how she was cast in ‘The Partridge Family’ before any of the kids and that she chose the show over another offer to do ‘The Brady Bunch.’ When David was cast, Jones kept her participation a secret. On the first day of shooting, a surprised David asked, ‘What are you doing here?’ ‘Playing your Mom,’ Shirley replied.)
In her career, Jones has been directed by her oldest son, Shaun Cassidy, and has performed with her middle son, Patrick Cassidy.
“Patrick and I appeared together on Broadway in ’42nd Street.’ He played Julian Marsh, and I played Dorothy Brock. It was the first time a mother and son had been in a show at the same time. Patrick and I have also done a tour of ‘The Music Man’ in which I played Marian’s mother, Mrs. Paroo.”
In addition to her four sons, Jones has 12 grandchildren, seven from Shaun alone.
She says in her book that both of her husbands, Jack Cassidy and Marty Ingels — and she always says ‘My husband Jack Cassidy’ or ‘My husband Marty Ingels,’ never their first names alone — are children at heart.
“Marty likes attention. In the days in which I was starring in film after film, I went out in Hollywood but did not often attend parties to go to openings. Now I’m always on the red carpet because Marty adores it. When I can’t accompany him, he walks down the carpet with a cardboard cut-out of me, dressed in a gown, on wheels!”
Jones speaks a lot of how she always worked to keep her life separate from her career.
“When I was given the Academy Award for ‘Elmer Gantry,’ Jack, who wrote my speech ‘just in case,’ asked why I said ‘This is the happiest moment of my career’ instead of ‘This is the happiest moment of my life.’
“The reason was clear to me. My career is one thing, and my life is another, with my life being more important. Marrying Jack and having children made me happier than having an Oscar. Meeting and marrying Marty too. In my entire life, I never let one part of what I do get in the way of another. I make a point of that.”
Jones also makes a point of staying in shape. She will be 80 in March and shows no signs of such seniority. In Pitman, both her voice and complexion were that of a woman decades younger.
“I exercise daily and watch what I eat,” Jones says. “I have my martini every day at 5, but that’s the extent of my drinking. My father died when he was 49, and I have inherited my family’s arthritis. Because of that, I make an effort to take care of myself and stay in good health.”
Jones says she enjoys performing. In concert, she opens with a gorgeous rendition of “If I Loved You’ and ends with a stirring performance of “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” both from “Carousel,” her and Richard Rodgers’s favorite musical. She also does songs from “Oklahoma!” and “The Music Man” as well as tunes she has always liked. In the middle of the show, she does the number she spoke about in relation to Jack Cassidy, “What’s the Use of Wondering.”
In “Shirley Jones: A Memoir,” Jones talks about co-stars ranging from James Stewart to Marlon Brando. She chronicles affairs with Richard Widmark and Stephen Elliott, and speaks frankly about her life as a woman, attractive and sexual.
The lasting impression of Jones, from our conversation and from the book, is how level-headed she is. She is not proud of every decision she made, but she used common sense to her advantage most of the time and lived independently and without much regard to the viewpoints of others.
“Elmer Gantry” remains the part that made the greatest difference in her career. Her biggest disappointment was not being chosen to play Maria von Trapp in the movie of “The Sound of Music.” Jones continues to work and says she would enjoy one more role that casts her against type.
“I have survived in the entertainment industry because I’ve always been ready to go to work and could perform in nightclubs and in concert if I was not doing a movie, play, or television series. I was a tough little girl who was willful and would have my own way even if it meant facing my mother’s paddle. The older I get, the more that willfulness resurfaces, and that helps to keep me going strong.”