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Classic Hollywood

Shirley Jones, still going strong

The star of stage and screens big and small shows she's still not afraid of the dark side.

May 13, 2009

Shirley Jones does wholesome as well as anybody in the business (with the possible exception of Doris Day). She played the loving mom Shirley Partridge in the 1970-74 musical sitcom "The Partridge Family" and the lovable girl next door in such movie musicals as "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel."

But there's another side to her career: an actress of strong dramatic mettle willing to take risky roles. She got glowing reviews as a boozer in a 1956 "Playhouse 90" drama "The Big Slide," and she won a supporting actress Academy Award for her role as prostitute Lulu Bains in 1960's "Elmer Gantry" with Burt Lancaster.

"Those were great roles," says Jones, now 75 but still svelte and sporting the signature short hairstyle she's had for nearly 40 years. Her blond hair, though, is now a rich grayish-white.

"The problem with 'Partridge' -- though it was great for me and gave me an opportunity to stay home and raise my kids -- when my agents came to me and presented it to me, they said if you do a series and it becomes a hit show, you will be that character for the rest of your life and your movie career will go into the toilet, which is what happened. But I have no regrets."

So it shouldn't come as a big surprise that in an upcoming episode of the A&E drama series "The Cleaner" scheduled to air this summer, she plays an alcoholic -- and even apparently does a seminude scene.

"It looks like [I am topless]," Jones says with a smile. "They shot me from the back. It's an incredible part. She's an alcoholic and she and her husband are both out-and-out drunks singing at a nightclub. I wear a black wig . . ."

Jones points out she did an out-and-out nude scene 40 years ago in the Richard Brooks' drama "The Happy Ending."

"I was nude from the waist up with Lloyd Bridges in that. I played his call girl. She was a paid prostitute."

Jones is relaxing in the quaint living room of her sprawling Encino home, which she shares with her second husband, comic actor Marty Ingels. Decorating the walls are pictures of her sons with her first husband, the late singer-actor Jack Cassidy: TV producer-writer Shaun, actor Patrick, art director Ryan and stepson David with whom she starred in "The Partridge Family."

Shaun has created a new series for Patrick and David for ABC Family about two brothers who were once big rock stars 20 years ago called "Ruby and the Rockits." "I will pop in and out as Grandma," Jones says.

Though Hollywood may be youth-obsessed, Jones is busier than ever. Besides "The Cleaner" and "Ruby," she is also joining Florence Henderson, a.k.a. Mrs. Brady from "The Brady Bunch," for a show with the Indianapolis Symphony in November.

And she's on tap to host a PBS special on movie musicals. "It's in the works," says Jones. "They have to raise the money for it."

Performing is just as much fun now as it was five decades ago although, Jones adds, "it's more of a challenge. I have to say that. I feel I have to prepare more."

Over the years, Jones has appeared opposite some of Hollywood's top leading men; here's what she has to say about some of them:

Robert Preston: "The Music Man" 1962

"The lovely thing about him is that he had done 'Music Man' on Broadway for three years. A lot of times when people have done a role [on Broadway] and they come out to the film and work with other people, the usual line is, 'We did it this way.' He did none of that."

Burt Lancaster: "Elmer Gantry" 1960

"He was my mentor. Burt is the one who saw me in 'The Big Slide' and called me in San Francisco. I was doing a nightclub act with Jack Cassidy. He said, 'Have you ever read the Sinclair Lewis novel "Elmer Gantry"?' I said, 'No.' He said, 'Go get it and come down next week, I would like you to have a meeting with our writer-director Richard Brooks for the part of Lulu.' "

Jimmy Stewart: "Two Rode Together" (1961) and "The Cheyenne Social Club" (1970)

"He was such a consummate actor. I remember I had a scene to do with him one day and I said, 'I'm not sure of the words, Jimmy, they are escaping me today.' He said, 'Well, nevermind, just make them up as you go along.' "

Marlon Brando: "Bedtime Story" (1964)

"I got Brando at his best because he was dying to do comedy. It was nothing for him to do 60 takes on one scene. I said no wonder they said he's the greatest American actor because every actor who worked with him was so exhausted at the end of a scene."

Elsewhere

The American Cinematheque's "The Wizard of MGM" pays tribute to legendary director Victor Fleming from Friday to Sunday at the Egyptian Theatre. Film critic Michael Sragow will also be signing copies of his new book on Fleming. Screening Friday is 1937's "Captains Courageous," starring Spencer Tracy in his Oscar-winning performance, and 1935's "The Farmer Takes a Wife," which marked Henry Fonda's film debut. Saturday's double feature is the two-fisted "A Guy Named Joe" from 1943 and 1938's macho adventure "Test Pilot," with 1933's "Bombshell" and 1932's "Red Dust" -- both with Jean Harlow -- on tap for Sunday. www.americancinematheque.com

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Classic Hollywood by Susan King is a new weekly feature on the lives, work and influence of legendary artists.

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