It’s fascinating how people who the gods smile upon sometimes reject the bounty the world is so eager to bestow.
Nineteen-sixties actor, Christopher Jones died this past January at the age of 72 from complications brought about by cancer. He bore a likeness to James Dean and is said to have been fascinated by him at an early age. I became aware of him when he starred in the movie Wild in the Streets, which is a low budge, bizarre film where the Jones character becomes President of the United States, after which he locks up everyone over thirty and forcefeeds them LSD — from water coolers! Here’s the trailer:
Shelley Winters, Hal Holbrook, Ed Begley and Richard Prior were in it. I didn’t realize it when I saw it, but the whole thing was more or less a total joke.
Christopher Jones was born in 1941 without any semblance of a silver spoon in his mouth. In Jackson, Tennessee, he lived above the grocery store where his father was a checkout clerk. His mother was a artist who was plagued by mental instability and ended up in a mental hospital when he was three — and lived there until she died in 1960.
He was sent to an aunt’s house, who later pawned him and his brother off to an orphanage in Memphis. He lived there until he was fifteen, at which time he took up with a married, eighteen year old woman with two kids. He said that he realized then that women liked him. What took him so long?
He deserted her after awhile, and joined the army — which lasted two days before he went AWOL. He stole a car and headed for New Orleans, and then New York to turn himself in. He spent six months in military prison on Governors Island off the tip of Manhattan.
When he got out, he took up with another married woman who’s husband was in jail for peddling marijuana. He began studying painting and sculpting with artist Edward Melcarth, who by then was a pretty notable artist and was almost certainly attracted to the younger man.
An actor friend introduced Christopher to Producer Frank Corsaro, who taught at the Actors Studio and had been a friend and mentor to James Dean. In 1961,Corsaro cast him in a minor role of a Broadway play he was producing, which initially starred Bette Davis, who was replaced by Shelley Winters, who also took a shine to Christopher.
Winters introduced him to Actor’s Studio Founder Lee Strasberg’s daughter, Susan, who he ultimately married, but it didn’t go well. He later admitted to hitting her — and then there was the accidental discharge of a shotgun in their apartment.
He got his first TV role in 1963, playing a member of a street gang in an episode of East Side, West Side, and by 1965, landed the starring role in the TV series The Legend of Jesse James. It lasted only one season because of ratings competition from The Lucy Show and Dr. Kildare.
Wild in the Streets (1968) was his breakout role, which led to another exploitation movie Three in the Attic. He did two movies in Europe before getting the lead in David Lean’s Ryan’s daughter, which began filming in March of 1969.
Filmed in Ireland, it took a year to make — which was twice as long as it was supposed to. There were reports of friction between Lean and Jones, and though it was panned by critics, it made money, which is all that matters in, well…everything.
At the top of his career, when he returned to Los Angels he quit pursuing movie roles. Except for a three minute cameo in 1996, he never got in front of the camera again. In later interviews, he revealed that he and Sharon Tate had had an affair prior to his leaving for Ireland, and her murder played a role in his having a nervous breakdown.
For awhile in the seventies, he lived in a hotel on Sunset Blvd. and could be seen slumming around the Sunset Strip. He had a house in the Hollywood Hills, and moved to the San Fernando Valley with another woman, with whom he had a child and devoted himself. He also refocused on his artwork.
In the 1980’s that relationship went south and he was set adrift. With his movie money gone, he was left to rely on his friends for living arrangements until he met Paula McKenna, with whom he had four kids. After ten years, he moved on once again.
Christopher Jones was one of those guys who got a lot of slack from everybody because he was one of those lucky, usually handsome and charismatic guys the world can’t get enough of — no matter what they do.
Everything Reminds me of Something Else
Me and a group of friends went to see Wild in Streets at the Bay Shore Theater (the one that was kitty-corner to Saint Patrick’s Church on Main Street). There used to be a guy who stood outside the theater and as people were leaving, he would ask them for a cigarette. I always thought that was an odd approach, since he probably would’ve done better if he asked for money.
Another thing I remember about this theater is a show that Newsday once put on there for all its paperboys, which I was for four or five years (girls were not yet granted the privilege of doing this crappy, mostly thankless work).
It was sort of a paperboy appreciation rally, where we could eat all the popcorn we wanted, and fill up on sodas and candy. They had a rock band, and the lead singer told us a joke that still comes to mind:
A guy is working behind the counter at a restaurant and a nasty woman patron keeps demanding, “Make me a hamburger. Make me a hamburger.” After awhile the guy — who unbeknownst to her has supernatural powers — gets fed up and says: “Poof, you’re a hamburger,” whereupon the woman is changed into a hamburger.
This joke was used to lead into the song Do you Believe in Magic, by the Lovin’ Spoonful.
At that time, Newsday cost a nickel each, and we only delivered it Mondays thru Fridays. They had a Saturday paper, but if you wanted one, you had to go buy it, probably because the carriers couldn’t handle the much thicker Saturday edition. Most of us had this kind of basket on our bikes:
When it was filled with papers, it wasn’t real easy to hold steady, and I remember falling over on many occasions, the worst being windy days when you had to get a hand on the papers before they blew all over the place.
It’s been said that doing this kind of work is good because you learn a lot about running a business. I don’t know about that, but I did learn one very important lesson and that is: Far too many people are no damned good.
How did I learn this? By the number of people willing to give me a quarter when I came to “Collect” for the week’s delivery. I mean, for Christ’s sake, I hand carried their paper to their front door five days a week! Isn’t that worth something extra?
Not to these soulless, pitiful mounds of flesh, who were only slightly more reprehensible than those willing to pry an extra nickel from their rusty purses and pay $.30. People who paid $.35 barely entered the realm of marginal acceptability. The truly admirable members of the human race were the ones who always paid fifty cents, usually with two fine looking quarters. They also usually gave me five bucks for Christmas.
May God have a special place in heaven for them.