…and now the conculsion of Peter Winkler’s two-part look and the strange, storied career of this enigmatic actor:
William J. Immerman, Wild in the Streets’ associate producer, who cast the film, had been impressed by Jones in The Legend of Jesse James, but had heard rumors about his troublesome behavior. After conferring with Stuart Cohen, one of Jones’ managers, Immerman was reassured that he would babysit his client and keep him in line during the film’s production. Although Jones failed to appear for a read through of the script with the rest of the film’s cast, principal photography on Wild wrapped in 20 days without incident. Larry Bishop, making his debut in the film, said that Jones was friendly and generous with the other actors, even giving him tips on how to play his role.
In his favorable review of the film, Variety’s “Murf” noted, “Christopher Jones, whose future star potential is established herein.” American International Pictures must have been ecstatic when New York Times reviewer Renata Adler wrote, “By far the best American film of the year so far––and this has been the worst year in a long time for, among other things, movies––is ‘Wild in the Streets.’ It is a very blunt, bitter, head-on but live and funny attack on the problem of the generations. And it is more straight and thorough about the times than any science fiction or horror movie in a while. The thing that is surprising about a movie of ‘Wild in the Streets’s’ élan and energy (and although it is quite botched together in many ways, it runs right along) is the number of philosophical bases it manages to touch. It is a brutally witty and intelligent film.”
Jones’ next film was no Wild in the Streets. In Three in the Attic (1968), he played Paxton Quigley, a college Casanova who carries on simultaneous affairs with three co-eds (Yvette Mimieux, Judy Pace, and Maggie Thrett) at a women’s university in Vermont. After they discover that he’s been cheating on them, Quigley’s girlfriends lock him in Mimieux’s attic and try to fatally exhaust him with sex while he goes on a hunger strike. The school’s headmistress (Nan Martin) eventually discovers his whereabouts and Mimieux leaves the school with him.
“Mr. Jones and Miss Mimieux have a certain starlet diligence and charm,” Renata Adler wrote, before concluding, “The movie, which was made by American International Pictures for the drive-in set, has a little of ‘The Touchables,’ some ‘Joanna,’ generation gap, hippiedom, college, McLuhan and Kierkegaard, all wilted and stale.”
Based on John Le Carre’s novel, The Looking Glass War (1969) boasted a cast that included Sir Ralph Richardson and a young Anthony Hopkins. Jones played a Polish émigré who British intelligence convinces to infiltrate East Germany to ascertain the status of Soviet nuclear missiles.
When Jones flew to London to film interior scenes, he was joined by Jim Morrison’s girlfriend, Pamela Courson, who he began an affair with while living at the Chateau Marmont hotel on the Sunset Strip. When she discovered that he was writing letters to Susan Strasberg, she flew into a rage and left. Jones began an affair with his costar, Pia Degermark (star of Elvira Madigan ), and a dalliance with Susan George, who played his girlfriend in The Looking Glass War.
He followed The Looking Glass War with A Brief Season (1969), filmed in Italy. Jones played Johnny, an American stockbroker in Rome who falls in love with Luisa (Pia Degermark) and misappropriates funds to invest in a speculative venture to fund his romance. The investment fails and he accidentally kills a guard while escaping jail. The couple share a lovers’ idyll in the Italian countryside and at a luxury hotel, their pleasure made poignant by the eventuality of Johnny’s recapture. Then Luisa shoots Johnny and herself.
Jones was tired out after making The Looking Glass War and disinclined to do A Brief Season. Producer Dino De Laurentiis said, “What will it take for you to do the film?” Jones asked for nearly a millon dollars and a new $20,000 Ferrari, never expecting De Laurentiis to agree.
Jones took his Ferrari out for a spin with nearly deadly consequences. “I narrowly escaped being decapitated by almost going under a truck on the highway outside Rome,” he recalled. “I must have laid 90 feet of rubber trying to get the black stallion [the Ferrari emblem] stopped! You couldn’t see the car for the smoke from the four tires as I was braking. Thanks to divine intervention, I believe, I miraculously escaped dying by literally inches, drifting sideways in the last few seconds before the car could make contact with the truck.”
In a 2007 interview with Britain’s Daily Mail, Jones revealed that he had an affair with Sharon Tate while she was filming Twelve Plus One (1970) in Rome in March 1969. The then-pregnant Tate was deprived of the company of her husband, Roman Polanski, who couldn’t obtain a visa to leave London.
“Sharon arrived in Rome with my manager, and so we all arranged to go out to dinner that night,” he recalled. Later that evening, Jones sat on Tate’s couch in her hotel room. “She then said: ‘Chris, have you ever smoked opium?’ and I told her no, and she said I had to try it and that she had some in the bedroom. Everyone says that Sharon didn’t smoke pot, yet she was definitely looking for this bag, but couldn’t find it so came back over to me, standing by the bed.
“One minute she was looking at me and the next thing I knew, she was pulling me on top of her on to the bed. I hadn’t even taken my clothes off but after we’d made love I told her I was going upstairs to sleep. She asked me to stay, but when I looked out the window I couldn’t see a fire escape and my first thought then was: ‘What if Polanski comes back?’ I wasn’t afraid of him, just worried about the repercussions, but she stopped asking me to stay and I left.”
Jones left Rome for Dingle, Ireland to act in the most prestigious production of his career, David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter (1970). He portrayed British Major Randolph Doryan, a shell-shocked, stiff-legged WWI veteran who falls in love with Rosy Ryan (Sarah Miles), who is trapped in a passionless marriage with a local school teacher played by Robert Mitchum. Though he was accompanied by his latest girlfriend, Olivia Hussey, Jones hated the experience of making the film. Inclement weather and Lean’s perfectionism stretched principal photography to a year. Jones and Lean clashed continually. In one scene Jones was supposed to pin Miles against a wall and kiss her, with a framed picture behind them. On the fourth take, the picture’s glass shattered, injuring his hand. The glass was replaced with plexiglass. Lean eventually insisted on 30 takes of the scene.
Jones suffered a nervous breakdown early into the filming of Ryan’s Daughter after learning that Sharon Tate and four others had been murdered in her home in Los Angeles on August 9, 1969. Disoriented by Tate’s muder, he behaved erratically and kept to himself during shooting, according to costar Sarah Miles.
“Only slowly did it hit me, and then it hit me hard,” he said. “I was pretty disoriented. I couldn’t make sense of it, that someone that beautiful and young had to die like that.”
“Christopher Jones was an enigma and a deeply troubled soul,” Miles told mirror.co.uk after his death. “At the time [of Tate's murder] Christopher was distinctly disturbed about something, so much so that he could hardly perform at all. Stanley Holloway’s son, Julian, had to dub him throughout. At the end of the shoot he was taken off to a mental hospital.”
Jones and Miles enjoyed no sexual chemistry, which became problematic when it came time to shoot their famous sex scene. She said that he was even given a local pharmacist’s homemade aphrodisiac. Jones infuriated Lean when he refused to touch Miles’ breast in the scene. “I got religious suddenly,” he later said. “What a time for it to hit me! Lean couldn’t believe it and, in the middle of a rehearsal, he had a nervous breakdown. He said, ‘Christopher, put your hand on Sarah’s breast.’ I said, ‘No, I can’t.’ He freaked and said, ‘Go to your caravan [trailer]! And don’t come out!’”
Jones didn’t attend the premiere of Ryan’s Daughter in 1970. “When the film came out, we had a chance to meet and talk,” Frank Corsaro said. “Ryan’s Daughter turned out for him as a rather catastrophic situation, as he put it. He was very unhappy with the procedure and he found the director very abusive.”
A little over two years after the release of Wild in the Streets, Jones abruptly quit acting and withdrew from public life.
“I had done three pictures in a row in Europe, and had so many love affairs I was exhausted,” he said. “I was tired, man. After a year in Ireland with David Lean not letting anyone leave the location, not even to fly to London over a weekend, it felt a bit like getting off Devil’s Island. I also had a very bad, almost fatal car crash in Ireland––and I had absolutely no desire to do anything for a long time.”
Jones’ shock at Sharon Tate’s murder was compounded when Jim Morrison, who he identified with, died on July 3, 1971. Jones said that his last two films made him realize he hated acting. “It had been a very unpleasant experience. The directors––David Lean and Renato Castellani––were both Svengalis, real puppet masters. It was humiliating to me and I didn’t dig it.”
He contributed to the air of mystery surrounding his decision to quit acting by giving contradictory answers to interviewers’ questions on the subject.
In 2000, he told journalist Harvey Chartrand that one of his managers broke contracts he had with AIP and Columbia Pictures. “While I was in Europe, my salary zoomed up above $500,000, so on returning to America, my former manager––without my knowledge––would not honor those contracts, since they were for about half what I had made on the films in Europe.”
At the same time, he told the Chicago Tribune that he refused to re-sign with his agent and tore up his contract when he handed it to him.
Jones told Pamela Des Barres that his managers misappropriated his funds and that one of them inveigled him to visit a house in Virginia, where he was imprisoned for weeks with 20 or 30 others in some kind of cult, “all of them doing one of those ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’-type self-help things. The bitch in charge kept trying to have sex with me, with six henchmen holding me down.”
When Des Barres asked him why his managers would do that to him, he said, “They wanted control of me and my money. They were gay and since they couldn’t have me they wanted to destroy my ass.”
“People knew Chris had a nervous breakdown,” Millie Perkins said. “He flipped out and he didn’t trust anybody anymore. I knew Stuart and Rudy [Jones’ managers, Stuart Cohen and Rudy Altobelli], and they were not bad people. They weren’t thieves. It’s stylish and it was stylish at the time to hate your agents, hate your managers. Thom [screenwriter Robert Thom, Perkins’ husband at the time, who wrote Wild in the Streets] and Christopher had the same agent, and one day, this was after the movie [Ryan’s Daughter], and I guess after Christopher was going through hard times, Thom was supposed to have lunch with his agent. He called Thom up and he said, ‘Forget lunch, I can’t get out of the building, because Chris Jones is sitting outside with a gun pointed at the door and said that he is going to shoot any agent that walks out the door.’ Now, at that time you didn’t squeal on movie stars. So they didn’t call the police, they just didn’t go out of the office. And Thom hung up the phone and said, ‘Well, darling, Christopher is going to shoot my agent, so I can’t have lunch.’”
After his career ended, Jones spent his time living the life of a playboy––la dolce vita, as he put it––going through the nearly one million dollars he’d made. When that ran out, he was supported by the women he lived with, Carrie (aka Cathy) Abernathy and then Paula McKenna, fathering five children with them. His relationships with them were hardly serene. He subjected them to psychological and physical abuse, breaking Abernathy’s nose on two occasions. Both women eventually filed restraining orders against him.
Quentin Tarantino offered Jones the role of Zed in Pulp Fiction (1994). “I didn’t return Quentin’s calls because I didn’t know who he was,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “And I wasn’t interested. When he did find me with the ‘Pulp Fiction’ script, I had no interest in acting or in the part he was offering.” “My girlfriend at the time read it and said: ‘You’re not doing this––it’s disgusting,’” he told another interviewer. “So I didn’t.”
Jones yielded to financial necessity when he accepted a cameo in Trigger Happy (released as Mad Dog Time ), written and directed by his friend Larry Bishop. Jones owns the screen during his brief appearance as fake hit man Nicholas Falco, showing he still had seductive charisma to burn.
With no stardom to defend, he gave a revealing interview to his friend, Pamela Des Barres, for Movieline magazine in 1996. (He later discounted his admissions to Des Barres, telling Harvey Chartrand that he was drunk throughout the interview.)
“No, I’m not a fan of [James] Dean,” he said. “But I never went as far as he did. He was far superior as an actor.” Jones disdained his films, calling them “crap.” “I never read a script all the way through,” he said. “I knew they were lousy movies. One page in, I knew.” Asked if he thought he was a good actor, he said, “No. I wasn’t consistent.”
Jones almost died in November 1997, suffering hemorrhagic shock due to a perforated ulcer. He attributed it to years of stress, capped by the end of his 11-year relationship with Paula McKenna. “The medical report said I’d died in the ambulance, but somehow, I managed to survive,” he told the Daily Mail’s Lina Das in 2007, who reported that he “ingested ‘something caustic.’” “The doctors thought I’d tried to kill myself, which I hadn’t.” He told Das that he had to inject nutrients through a syringe connected to his stomach. “I shouldn’t drink, but occasionally I’ll pour shots into the syringe,” he confessed.
Jones spent his last few years with Paula McKenna in Seal Beach, California, where he once taught an acting class at a nearby private school in 2009. He was diagnosed with cancer of the gallbladder in December 2013 and died on January 31, 2014 at the Los Alamitos Medical Center in California.
In 1996, he told Pamela Des Barres that his life had not been a success, and he felt haunted by his youthful fame, like Dorian Gray.
In 2000, he told the Chicago Tribune, “I am happy. Everyone has regrets, but I don’t have many that I want to talk about. I did exactly as I pleased––within my world.”
“I’m not bitter and have no reason to be bitter,” he told Harvey Chartrand. “Fate is fate. That’s the way it was. As for the rest, “I want my epitaph to read: ‘Some things are better left unsaid.’”
Peter Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011).