Shirley Jones: From
Prostitute To Mrs. Partridge
Along With Recollections Of Many Aspects Of Her Long And Storied Career, Jones Specifically Waxes About The Role That Earned Her An Oscar, As Well As The Profitable Role That Ultimately Ended Her Film Career
Image provided by Reel to Real.
By David Fantle and Tom Johnson
Reel to Real Special for Modern Times Magazine
July 21, 2014 — This year has been a banner one for Shirley Jones. In March, she turned 80 years old.
A month before that, the former “Mrs. Partridge” cleaved closer to her Oscar-winning Elmer Gantry persona as the author of an eponymous tell-all autobiography that dispelled her squeaky clean image as one of America’s favorite virtuous moms.
And later this year, Jones – in what promises to be a bon voyage – will be an honored guest on a TCM Classic Cruise (www.tcmcruise.com) through the Caribbean where she will regale cruisers about a storied career that straddled both Hollywood films and vintage television. That late October event will likely be one to remember.
Indeed, the name Shirley Jones conjures up different images for different people.
To a generation now in their “golden years,” she was a fresh-faced young songstress in such musical films as Oklahoma!, Carousel and The Music Man. To baby boomers, she was Shirley Partridge, the ever-smiling matriarch of TV’s singing Partridge Family in the early 1970s. And to film buffs, she was a dramatic movie star who won a Best Supporting Actress Academy Award in 1960 for her role as the hustling prostitute in Elmer Gantry.
Despite a lifetime’s worth of accolades, Jones admitted to us during an interview in her Beverly Hills home that her meteoric rise to stardom was more happenstance than a carefully charted career plan.
“I never really set out to make anything happen,” she said. “I was always able to sing – that was a God-given gift, but the pieces of my career just sort of fell into place.”
It was Jones’ Emmy-nominated opposite Red Skelton in a Playhouse 90 production of The Big Slide that caught the attention of Burt Lancaster, who was about to star in the film Elmer Gantry based on Sinclair Lewis’ satirical novel about a phony evangelist. After convincing director Richard Brooks that she was right for the part (he preferred Piper Laurie), she was cast in the role of the prostitute who blackmails the hustling preacher played by Lancaster.
“I would not have had a career if it wasn’t for Gantry,” she told us. “That film and winning the Oscar gave me a chance to star in films throughout the ‘60s.”
Whereas Elmer Gantry saved Jones’ movie career, The Partridge Family effectively ended it.
“That show killed my movie career,” she said. “Do I regret doing it? Absolutely not! I had traveled the world making movies and I needed a change. I had three young children to raise and my marriage (to actor Jack Cassidy) was teetering. I needed to stay near home with as close to a 9-to-5 job as possible. The Partridge Family gave me normalcy. It also paid me a lot of money.”
David Fantle & Tom Johnson have interviewed more than 250 celebrities, mostly from Hollywood’s Golden Age. They are co-authors of the 2004 book, Reel to Real: 25 years of celebrity profiles from vaudeville to movies to TV. Reach them at www.reeltoreal.com.
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