aving played ingénues through grannies, with generations of fans stopping her to express their adoration, Shirley Jones could be a major diva. Instead she continues to ply her craft like a working-class actor. Whatever project she's in, she makes certain she is prepared, respectful of her director, supportive of her fellow cast members, and possessed of consistently honed chops—including vocal coaching to keep that spectacular soprano intact.
But her willingness to meld with a project's vision, her portrayals of "types," never mean she isn't looking to stretch. At this stage in her career, which spans nearly six decades, she still says, "I would like to try everything. I'm open. I love acting." Her attitude shines through in last year's Hidden Places, a Hallmark Channel film. Playing wise old Aunt Batty, she dispenses strength and advice to the younger characters while serving as the spine of the family farm; her character is knowing but open, firm but optimistic. And although Jones is 72, the camera still picks up her radiance, as it did 50 years ago when she first appeared onscreen—as Laurey in Oklahoma!. It also picks up new subtleties in characterization, new life experiences, that Jones seems to willingly share with the audience. So although, as she explains, many of her scenes were cut to make way for more of Hidden Places' love story, we're still fascinated by Batty and busy imagining her somewhat saucy, somewhat battle-scarred backstory.
Like Aunt Batty, Jones has fought plenty of battles to stay in business. Not so to get into it, however. She possessed her singing voice from an early age; acting was not quite in the picture when, as the legend goes, she was visiting a friend in New York and got invited to a casting call. After waiting in the wings with fellow aspirants for two hours, she was called on stage to sing a few bars. The bars became three songs, the auditions were halted while Richard Rodgers was called in from rehearsals at a neighboring theatre to listen to her, and a chapter in the history of musicals was begun that afternoon. Jones was cast in a few small Broadway roles; then came the filming of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma!, followed by their Carousel.
"When you start out in musicals, as I did—which is great, and I have no regrets whatsoever—but once they stopped making the musical motion picture, my career was over," she says. "They said, 'If you sing, you can't act,' which is of course ridiculous, but that was the theory in Hollywood. I had no movie career left." So, despite the warnings of her agent, she went into television—planning to prove herself as a "straight" actor. She appeared in a series of teleplays on Playhouse 90, Lux Video Theatre, and the like, which re-created her career.
To break out again, she took the role of prostitute Lulu Bains in 1960's Elmer Gantry, earning an Oscar for her work. Whether audiences demanded her return to "sweetheart" roles, or whether she was just the right actor for the job, her work as Marian Paroo in 1962's The Music Man made her as indelibly connected with the role as Robert Preston is with the title role.
This year, in an additional stretch, she played a salty old broad in Grandma's Boy. But it's her work in Hidden Places that may best represent her acting skills. "It's so rare for me these days to get roles where I can say, 'Oh, wow, at least I can play somebody else besides Mrs. Partridge.' Not that I didn't have a great time doing that. But as the powers that be said to me when I did [television's] The Partridge Family, 'You'll be Mrs. Partridge for the rest of your life.' And of course that's unfortunately true."
As Aunt Batty, Jones gets to wear men's clothes and a long gray wig. "For me this is a great look," she says laughingly. But of creating Batty's personality, she says, "It didn't take a lot of preparation. I'm not a kid anymore, so the age was wonderful for me to get into…. And the fact that I grew up near farms, and it was about a farm family in the 1930s losing their farm. I grew up in that era, too, in a town of 800 people. I didn't have to do any research."
Although she gets scenes with screen vet Barry Corbin as the sheriff, as well as L.A. stage mainstay John Diehl as Batty's unpleasant brother, Jones is surrounded by younger actors. Sydney Penny (All My Children) plays Batty's dewy niece; Jason Gedrick (Windfall) plays her love interest. And the director, Yelena Lanskaya, was a first-timer at the helm.
"Your first day of work, everybody's nervous anyway," notes Jones. "I had been working [on the set] awhile, and Jason came on for his first day of work. He comes from the school of acting where [you're] very intense. [Lanskaya] wasn't allowing him the time to do this, he felt—I got the feeling. I saw him starting to get very angry, and I pulled him aside. I said, 'Jason, I know how you feel, we've been there. She's having problems, too. If you can just say what you want, and she'll come around to you and she'll help you with it, but you're on your own with this.' He was so cute. He said, 'Boy, I'm glad you said that.' I said, 'It'll come out okay in the end.' And it did."
Otherwise, on the set, Jones says, she won't gossip or chat on the days she is shooting a scene. "It takes me too much out of what I'm doing," she says. "I stay in my trailer or room. Afterwards, I'm fine. I'll sit on the set and gossip all day."
When she lets herself gossip on set with the newer generations, she says, they want to hear about the older stars. Jones obliges. "I got the best of Brando," she says of her work in Bedtime Story. "He could be very difficult. He'd just come off Mutiny on the Bounty and hated it…. His dream in life was always to play more comedy. Fortunately, Bedtime Story was a comedy, so he was very happy about that, he was very happy working with David Niven, whom he respected highly…. He would sit all day on the set and listen to David Niven's stories. And he liked me: I wasn't a threat to him. The only problem I had with Brando, and apparently every actor who worked with him said this, although I think it got worse with age: He would do anywhere from 40 to 60 takes on every scene. I'm one of those people, it's one, two, three, and I'm out of there."
Of Jimmy Stewart, with whom she worked in The Cheyenne Social Club, Jones says he was one of the nicest, most wonderful actors she had ever worked with—great on and off the set. "He was so honest as an actor," she says. "Watching him work with Henry Fonda was like an acting class for me. I'd often wished that I had a lot of young actors in there watching the two of them work together. They rarely used the script; they just talked to each other, and that's what acting is all about."
And now, when young actors come to her to hear her stories and beg advice, she notes: "People say you have to have temperament, you have to be Barbra Streisand to make it in this business. I'm exactly the opposite. I don't believe in doing it my way and that's the only way. You have to be prepared, work at your craft, know the role before you go there; but then you have to be able to meld. When you make a film, be it for TV or the big screen, it's a joint effort. You have to make compromises, even though you might not like it. What I'm saying is: To be invited back…be prepared, be on time, know your character, have your questions for the director. And that's all I can say." And that's from one of the greatest voices we have.