When Dean Jones began his motion picture career in 1956, he was just biding his time until he got his real break. The former crooner-turned-actor once recalled, “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.
While Dean’s hit record proved elusive, he scored a number of hit movies while under contract with The Walt Disney Studios. By 1975, Variety named six of his Disney features on its list of all-time box office champions, including The Love Bug, That Darn Cat, Snowball Express, The Ugly Dachshund, The $1,000,000 Duck, and Blackbeard’s Ghost.
Dean’s clean-cut appeal and good-natured hijinks made his name synonymous with Disney motion pictures. As former president of Walt Disney Pictures David Vogel once said, “When you think of Disney, you think of Dean Jones.”
Born on January 25, 1931, in Decatur, Alabama, Dean liked to fish in the nearby Tennessee River and sing; his father, a railroad worker, would accompany him on the guitar. At 15 he left home to pursue a singing career, picking up odd jobs as a coal loader, cotton picker, and dishwasher. He began singing in a New Orleans club that paid three dollars a night, plus dinner. After four months the club folded, and Dean beat a path back to Decatur to complete his high school education.
A year of voice study at Kentucky’s Asbury College was followed by a four-year hitch with the United States Navy, which took Dean to San Diego, California. Whenever he had a day off, Dean headed to Hollywood to audition for orchestras; he eventually won a screen test and contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Instead of singing for the cameras, however, he starred in mostly straight, dramatic roles. Among his early films were Vincente Minnelli’s Tea and Sympathy, Torpedo Run with Glenn Ford, and Jailhouse Rock with Elvis Presley.
In 1960, Dean found fame in Broadway’s Under the Yum Yum Tree. While starring in television’s Ensign O’Toole, he was tapped by Walt Disney to become the Studio’s leading man, appearing in such films as The Horse in the Gray Flannel Suit, The Shaggy D.A., and Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo. He returned to the Broadway stage in 1970, appearing in Steven Sondheim’s Company.
Dean later appeared in a number of Disney television specials, including Disney’s Greatest Dog Stars in 1976. He starred in the first of a number of Disney remakes—The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes in 1995; and, in 1997, That Darn Cat and the ABC television movie The Love Bug.