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CRITIC AT LARGE

Jeffrey Jones Rising On A Musical Note

January 10, 1985|CHARLES CHAMPLIN | Times Arts Editor

Jeffrey Jones, the elevated (6-foot-4), auburn-haired New York actor who portrays the Emperor Joseph in the Milos Forman film "Amadeus," committed the grandest of larcenies, innocently stealing scenes from Mozart, Salieri and a large ensemble of talented character players.

Foppish and mannered but hinting always of the steel behind the lace, everybody's ruler and nobody's fool, murmuring, "Well, that's it, then," like a committee chairman who had achieved consensus by good will alone, the emperor as played by Jones became one of those high-relief comedic characterizations that actors dream of.

It has changed--at least somewhat--the life of Jones, who will fly to London on Saturday to meet Queen Elizabeth II and other royals at a command performance of "Amadeus" in aid of the Royal College of Music.

Jones has done some television, including a recent "Remington Steele" in which he played an unscrupulous art dealer, but only one other movie. He was Rodney Dangerfield's nemesis in "Easy Money," a profitable but painful enterprise.

He has been principally a stage actor, and although only 38, he had at his last reckoning done 120 plays, an uncommonly heavy body of experience. He has done six just since he filmed "Amadeus," among them a production in Central Park of "Henry the Fifth" with Kevin Kline and "Rain Snakes," a new play at the Long Wharf in New Haven, Conn., with Colleen Dewhurst, drawn from a romance in the life of Hans Christian Andersen.

"Plays, plays, plays, that's been my life," Jones said during a visit to Los Angeles this week. "Why not movies, movies, movies? I love making movies."

His success in "Amadeus" has thus far produced only one film offer, but he found the script dismal and turned it down. "What does seem to have happened, though, is that I don't have to read for plays anymore," Jones said.

Born in Buffalo, N.Y., he discovered a taste for acting at the progressive work-study prep school, Putney, with its 3,000-acre working-farm campus in Vermont. But he still intended to be a doctor when he went off to college, which, after a horrified fortnight at Columbia, proved to be Lawrence University, in Appleton, Wis.

In his junior year he was invited to intern at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis, a nine-month experience that persuaded him that medicine had lost a practitioner.

He toured the small towns of Minnesota with a company of players in an ancient bus, doing "The Devil's Disciple" in high school gymnasiums with the mercury outside hovering three clapboards below the bulb.

He was accepted, with strong recommendations from the Guthrie, at both the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and the London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Art in London and chose the latter because it had a rigorous one-year course for foreign students and could give him a scholarship. John Lithgow and Stacy Keach took the course at other times.

Jones returned to work at various companies in Canada, and for a time traveled in another ancient bus, doing children's theater (what he calls a "popcorn version" of "Androcles and the Lion") in the wilds of British Columbia. Once, heading down a steep two-lane mountain highway, the bus lost all its brakes and the driver fainted at the wheel.

"I pulled him away and started steering. That's all you could do; there were no escape routes. By the time we reached the bottom we were doing 95. The bus wasn't built for anything like that, of course, and the motor blew up. The bus was finished."

Jones' heroics, although that's not his word, got him a season at the company's "grown-up theater," as he calls it, in Vancouver.

At one point, he thought that he had had sufficient acting and might take easeful early retirement. He and his girlfriend moved to the Netherlands Antilles, where her parents owned part of an island.

"Lots of flamingos," Jones said, "and the occasional cruise ship. We decided to make little flamingos out of pink felt to sell to the tourists. We made a batch and sold them all. Then we happened to notice the cotton batten we'd stuffed them with. There was some left over. It was swarming with tiny scorpions. It had obviously been full of scorpion eggs. I've never wanted to contemplate what the tourists thought. You do see why the immigration people take a dim view of importing certain things."

Jones, chastened or refreshed or both, went back to acting and seems to have hit more cities than an aspiring ballplayer: the Stratford (Ontario) Shakespeare Festival, Joe Papp's first season at Lincoln Center, the Actors Company in Louisville, the now-defunct but admirable Phoenix in New York among them. As he says, something more than 120 plays.

He was doing "Cloud 9" in New York when Mary Goldberg, who was helping Forman on the casting of "Amadeus," urged the director to have a look at Jones in the play. Forman did, but, Jones said, "it was a year before anything was settled about what I'd do, or whether." In the meantime he read about Mozart and the period.

Indeed, coming West to make some appearances on behalf of "Amadeus" and to see some film people, Jones brought along his well-thumbed biography of Mozart and re-read the passages he'd marked about the emperor.

"He was remarkable," Jones said. "He wasn't wildly well educated, but he was far from dumb. He did love music, although he didn't play very well. We made him as authentic as we could."

That may well be, but you do also have the feeling that Jones improved on the original in the matter of imperial charm, of which the Jones emperor has a lot.

One of the readouts from "Amadeus" and a few other 1984 films is that the United States has an amazing reservoir of well-trained and disciplined young actors, not yet all widely known, but, like Jones, there for the casting.

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