Shirley Jones to reminisce Sunday at Sacred Heart
Shirley Jones is remembered as the rock mom who led "The Partridge Family" -- the TV series has been in continuous circulation for the past 40 years -- but did you know that she was a Hollywood barrier-breaker of the 1960s?
When the 1950s were ending, the actress-singer was known primarily as the sweet young star of two big Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals ("Oklahoma" and "Carousel"), so Jones' decision to play the prostitute Lulu Barnes in the 1960 film "Elmer Gantry" set off shock waves.
Along with Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," which came out during the same year, "Elmer Gantry" changed the public's conception of what was acceptable in a mainstream movie, and opened the door to "Dr. Strangelove," "Bonnie & Clyde" and all of the other revolutionary '60s classics.
Jones was rewarded for her efforts with an Oscar (beating her fellow barrier- breaker, Janet Leigh who was nominated for "Psycho").
The star will be at Sacred Heart University in Fairfield Sunday afternoon, Oct. 16, to talk about "Elmer Gantry" and all of the other milestones in her remarkable career.
In a phone interview from her Los Angeles home last week, Jones said she owes her career-changing role to her co-star (and producer) Burt Lancaster, who cast the actress over the objections of director Richard Brooks.
"Richard had his own ideas and he definitely didn't think I was right for it," the star recalled.
Lancaster had seen Jones in a "Playhouse 90" TV drama in which she played a suicidal alcoholic and he was convinced she had the stuff to play Lulu.
"I knew I couldn't sustain a career in musicals, because they weren't making many of them anymore. ... I was thought of as a singer in musicals and was not considered an actress," she said.
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When Lancaster called, Jones jumped at the chance to prove her acting chops and at their first meeting told her reluctant director, "I'll do it for nothing."
When Brooks gave her no direction during the first day of filming -- which included one of her toughest scenes in the movie -- Jones went home convinced she was about to be fired.
"I was in tears," she said, but Lancaster continued to fight for her and Brooks was finally won over and apologized to Jones.
The actress would go on to face some criticism for tarnishing her prior "image" so I asked Jones if she had any advance reservations about tackling the role of Lulu.
" I didn't even think of that," she replied. "Of course there were some letters from people who didn't like what I had done ... but I knew it was a chance I had to take if I wanted to continue to work as an actress. It allowed me to cross a line and if `Gantry' had not happened I would not have the longevity I've had."
Jones said "Elmer Gantry" and her Oscar win gave her the credibility to go on to many nonmusical roles -- sustaining much of the rest of her career -- including the chance to co-star with Marlon Brando and David Niven in "Bedtime Story" in 1964.
Contrary to his reputation as a sometimes difficult actor, Jones had a great time with Brando.
"Brando didn't have a lot of respect for a lot of people (in Hollywood), but he adored Niven. He was coming off `Mutiny on the Bounty' where he had apparently been a pain in the butt to everyone, but he wanted to play comedy and very few people would give him that chance," she said.
"And he was very funny," Jones added of the star's work in a picture that would inspire a remake and then the Broadway musical "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels."
When Jones got the offer to do "The Patridge Family" a decade later, she was warned that it would effectively end her film career -- there was a wall between movies and TV in those days -- but "I loved the show and it gave me a chance to stay at home with my family."
It also made the star famous with several new generations of fans.
The actress clearly enjoys talking about the work she did with great stars like Lancaster and Brando and Robert Preston -- in the terrific 1962 screen version of "The Music Man" -- so she should be a blast to question at the Edgerton Center on Sunday afternoon.
But, generally, the 77-year-old star doesn't think of herself as a nostalgic person.
"Oh, no, not at all. I like today and the fact that I'm still going and still enjoying it," she said.
The Edgerton Center for the Performing Arts, Sacred Heart University, 5151 Park Ave. Fairfield. Sunday, Oct. 16, 3 p.m. $25-$15. 203-371-7908. www.EdgertonCenter.org.