Tag Archives: Jack Nicholson

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Haskell Wexler and the Making of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’

            After Francis Ford Coppola fired him from The Conversation and replaced him with Bill Butler, Haskell Wexler was devastated. He would not have agreed to shoot his next feature, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, had he known he would once again be fired and replaced with Bill Butler.

            From the mid-1960s to early 1970s, Wexler was active in the anti-war and hippie movements, and he knew Cuckoo’s Nest co-producer Saul Zaentz from attending demonstrations in Berkeley and San Francisco. At the time, Zaentz was co-owner of Fantasy Records, based in Berkeley. One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest would be his first film with another novice producer, the actor Michael Douglas. Douglas had acquired the rights to Ken Kesey’s highly acclaimed novel, published in 1962, from his father, Kirk, and had asked Zaentz to collaborate with him in making it into a film.

            The screenplay, by Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman, concerns R.P. McMurphy, a patient who’s been sent for evaluation to Oregon State Mental Hospital, where he shakes things up. McMurphy (like Wexler) questions rules and conventions, and challenges authority.  His nemesis, Nurse Ratched is a rigid, sadistic disciplinarian who, under the guise of helping her charges, irreparably harms them.

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Jack Nicholson, whom Wexler had known since they’d worked together on Studs Lonigan in 1960, would play McMurphy. Louise Fletcher would play Nurse Ratched and Milos Forman would direct. Forman had directed The Firemen’s Ball and Loves of a Blonde, both Oscar nominees for Best Foreign Language Film, in his native Czechoslovakia. The small film Taking Off (1971) had been his first American movie.

When the producers suggested Wexler as cinematographer, Forman was concerned that, since Wexler had directed a film, he might try to encroach on Forman’s job. Nevertheless, he admired Wexler’s work, so he had dinner with him to see how they’d get along. Forman wrote in his memoir: “He struck me as the gentle, quiet type. He was very enthusiastic about Kesey’s book and the screenplay, which Larry Hauben and Bo Goldman had written. I wanted a sort of a raw, realistic look for the film, but not so tawdry that it would pull attention away from the story. Wexler said he knew exactly how to give me this look, so I offered him the job.”

Wexler can be extremely congenial, and he believes it’s his job to stay on schedule and on budget, make the leading lady look good (when the script calls for it), enhance the story’s interest with lighting, framing and emphasis, and help the director. And while often cooperative, he is also extremely independent. Unlike most other directors of photography, Wexler owned his own equipment and rented it to the production company. He said that studios discourage this because they relinquish some control. “It has to do with studios wanting to hire below-the-line workers, and they don’t want you to be loan-out companies or little entrepreneurs on your own,” he said. That view is shortsighted, he thinks, because cameramen who buy their equipment maintain it well and are accustomed to it, enabling them to do their job better than if they use rentals they need to get used to.

After Wexler was hired, Paul Sylbert, who won an Oscar a few years later for Heaven Can Wait, signed on as production designer. By January, 1975, the production company had been in Salem for a few months assembling a cast and preparing. They were shooting the film in an unused ward at Oregon State Mental Hospital in Salem, where the book is set. The hospital’s director, Dr. Dean R. Brooks, would play the head of the institution, and other patients and staff had small roles.

One day, about a week into rehearsals, Sylbert was in the production office trying to get some money for his crew, who had not been paid because the production had temporarily run out of money. Dr. Brooks came in with two women — the head psychiatrist and the head nurse– and told Sylbert he wanted to go to the ward where the actors were rehearsing, and where they would film. Sylbert said he’d accompany him. When they arrived, they walked to the front of the ward where the actors were rehearsing the pill distribution scene early in the film, where a nurse and orderlies give the patients medication. Sylbert recalled that he and Dr. Brooks were shocked to see that “It was bedlam. Milos was having them drag these patients to the pills, it was just like they were doing a 19th century madhouse.” Some of the patients were forced out of their wheelchairs and hauled across the floor.

Sylbert had had an intimation that Forman might want to portray an antiquated and inhumane mental hospital because the only research he’d given the production designer to guide him in devising the sets was a Life magazine article from the 1940s on institutions of the period. The story had pictures of patients in long smocks, walking like zombies and being treated horribly. Also, Forman had screened Frederick Wiseman’s 1966 documentary Titicut Follies for the cast and crew. That film, set in the State Hospital for the Criminally Insane at Bridgewater, Massachusetts, chronicles brutal guards bullying, taunting and humiliating inmates, who are confined, naked, in barren cells.

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Sylbert continued, “Brooks was standing next to me, and he was a big guy, bigger than I am, anyway, and I could feel the heat rising in him. And all of a sudden, he let out a bellow and he said, ‘This has got to stop!’ And he charged toward Milos with the two women on his trail, saying, ‘This has got to stop! You have been here for weeks, months, don’t you have any idea how an institution is run?’ He chewed Milos’s ass up one side and down the other. And this is in front of everybody,” in the cast and crew.

Dr. Brooks was understandably concerned that an inhumane and inaccurate depiction of his hospital could damage its reputation and mislead audiences about treatment of mental patients in general. Additionally, portraying the hospital as chaotic at the beginning of the movie would undercut the drama and destroy the premise. Sylbert explained, “What you wanted was a calm, tranquilized, literally – that’s what a pill scene is, a tranquilized environment – in which somebody throws a rock. And that’s Randall McMurphy; he comes splashing into the institution. But if it’s not quiet and calm and tranquil to begin with, you don’t have a place to go.”

`           Two days later, Sylbert had dinner at the steakhouse at his hotel in downtown Salem with William Redfield, who plays the patient Harding in Cuckoo’s Nest. At the time, the two men had been close friends for more than 20 years. Redfield told Sylbert, “Jack has taken over directing the actors.” Redfield said that every night a group of key actors who played poker in the film met in Nicholson’s room and rehearsed the following day’s scenes. According to Redfield, Nicholson’s confidence in Forman had been utterly destroyed when Dr. Brooks bawled him out, and Nicholson was directing the movie and refusing to speak to Forman. Years later, Sylbert confirmed Redfield’s account when he worked on Biloxi Blues with Wexler’s eventual replacement on Cuckoo’s Nest, cinematographer Bill Butler. Sylbert told Butler he’d heard that the actors met in Nicholson’s room each night to rehearse and that Nicholson refused to speak to the director. When Sylbert asked if that was true, Butler told him, “Yes. He never talked to Milos at all, he only talked to me.”

Unwilling to speak to the director, Nicholson turned to Wexler for guidance. After a take, he would sometimes look at Wexler to see how he responded to the performance. As well as making suggestions that Nicholson followed, Wexler also changed some dialogue. For example, after Big Chief says his first words, and takes another piece of gum from McMurphy, in the script he says, “Oh, gum.” Wexler suggested, “What if he says, ‘Juicy Fruit?’” Forman shot Wexler a dubious look but Nicholson piped up, “Yeah! Say ‘Juicy Fruit!’”  So he did.

When the inmates were waiting in line in front of the glass booth for their medication, Wexler told Nicholson that he remembered at summer camp kids had spread the rumor that counselors were giving them saltpeter. So Nicholson added the line, “I don’t want to be slipped saltpeter.”

In another scene in the glass booth, Wexler wanted Nurse Ratched to look more sympathetic than in other shots. In some scenes he filmed her to make her look as if she were wearing a shiny white mask, since her habitually placid expression conceals the rage, frustration and hatred roiling beneath the surface. Louise Fletcher was in the booth and Wexler and his gaffer, Gary Holt, were 20 or 30 feet away setting up the shot. Wexler recalled, “I said, ‘Gary, what the fuck are we going to do about her face? It’s so flat. I’ve got to give her some kind of look.’ So, I don’t know what we worked out, but anyway, the next day she said to me, ‘Oh, Haskell, you don’t like my fucking flat face?’ So I thought, ‘Well, Gary Holt spilled the beans.’ That’s not the kind of thing you say to an actress. So I said, ‘Where did you hear that?’ and she said, ‘I read your lips.’” Fletcher’s parents were deaf so she read lips, and when she won the Oscar for Best Actress for Cuckoo’s Nest, she translated her acceptance speech into sign language.

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The hallway lighting caused another problem for Wexler. Guided by an image of Nurse Ratched as a fiendish mother hen smothering the eggs in her nest with her so-called love, Paul Sylbert had the hospital ward’s walls painted the shades of brown eggs; a brown dado with off-white above. Wexler installed fluorescent lights in the hall, but in those days no fluorescent lights were made specifically to be filmed. In an early scene Nurse Ratched walked down the hall, Wexler observed, “And really looked green. I mean a really bad green.” Apparently the paint had an undercoat of green that the fluorescents picked up. So, at night, Wexler had the standby painter repaint the hall to eliminate the green.  Michael Douglas, Wexler recalled, was furious that he hadn’t discussed this beforehand with Sylbert, since this was the production designer’s purview.

Wexler was also challenged shooting the group therapy scenes. Forman wanted to have one camera constantly roving from actor to actor, so they would always give their best performances. Wexler operated the A camera, and had two other cameras moving among the actors, documentary style. However, as Forman noted, shooting this way prevented Wexler from lighting each actor as carefully as he could if the camera were more stationary. Forman later said, “It was not easy on the cameraman, the director of photography, because he had to light a space – practically 180 degrees of the space had to be lit – so it would be usable in the film for the wandering camera. And because when you are shooting in a real location you don’t have the height of a studio where you can hide and hang however many lights and lamps you wish, we had a low ceiling. So the whole job of lighting the scenes was very elaborate and very cleverly done by the cameraman I worked with, Haskell Wexler.”

Shooting on location also irked Wexler. Forman, on his DVD commentary over a group therapy scene, said, “These kinds of situations, when you are shooting on location, are driving the directors of photography crazy. You can see the windows, you can see that it is pretty bright on the outside. But you shoot this whole scene, this whole scene, it took a day or two to shoot  and if you watch really carefully you see how difficult it is to control the same kind of mood behind the windows because the weather changes during the day. For a while it’s sunny, it becomes cloudy, it’s raining, but in the film you have to feel it’s the same all the time or you have to do it in a way that nobody notices these changes, which I think was accomplished by the cinematographer.”

Since most of the movie takes place inside, Wexler thought they should film in a warehouse or soundstage. He recalled, “Of course being the kind of person I am, I let everybody know it would be much better to just get a nice, big, huge set and we wouldn’t have to have all the problems we were going to have.” To simulate sunlight, they put arc lights outside the windows. But the carbon rods inside the arc lights burn down and must be replaced from time to time, and sometimes they had to put gel filters over the lights to simulate a different time of day.

Additionally, Wexler thought an American director would have been better suited to tell the story, and that a Czech might not fully understand the World Series or a Native American character such as Big Chief. Wexler felt that Forman needed help, but to others the cinematographer’s efforts amounted to meddling.

Indirectly and inadvertently, Wexler also spooked the producers. The FBI came snooping around the production offices, housed in a motel, asking questions about Wexler. He’d been under FBI surveillance intermittently since eighth grade, when he’d belonged to the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, a group that supported Spanish Republicans fighting Franco and the Spanish Nationalists in their civil war. Now, agents were looking into his association with the Weathermen, a radical left group that bombed government buildings and banks. In January of 1975 they bombed the U.S. State Department, to protest the escalation of the Vietnam War. Wexler was friends of two of the group’s leaders, Bernardine Dohrn and Billy Ayers; he agreed with many of their ideas but deplored their methods. He explained, “This is an obvious case where all the good things they were for – being against racism, thinking about poor people – all the things which I very much agree with, go down the sewer by their choosing a path of violence.”

The same year as Cuckoo’s Nest, Wexler shot a film of the Weathermen, Underground, when the FBI was searching for them because of the State Department bombing and they were fugitives. Wexler remembered that contacting them was a cloak-and-dagger affair. First, the director Emile de Antonio called and asked Wexler if he would like to be considered to shoot “some secret stuff.” De Antonio told him that his name had been presented to the fugitives as someone who might be trustworthy. Knowing that de Antonio had directed Point of Order, a documentary about the 1954 Army-McCarthy hearings, Wexler agreed. Then, Wexler said, he was given elaborate instructions to shake a potential tail. He was told to drive down Highland Avenue to Wilshire Boulevard, and go into a Bob’s Big Boy there. He was to wait at the restaurant before going to a nearby phone booth and dialing a number. Then, he walked to Los Angeles High School Memorial Park, where a man wearing a fake beard was sitting on a bench. The fellow said, “Hello, Haskell,” and questioned him about where he’d been, what he’d seen.

They continued to vet him, intermittently, until one night they blindfolded him with a bandana and put him on the floor of a car. He was taken to a house that he concluded was near the beach because he could smell the ocean. Some of the Weathermen wore ski masks over their faces. Wexler shot the backs of their heads through cheesecloth as they talked. While he was filming them, Wexler remembered, “I said, ‘What a waste of dedicated, bright young people to have their lives chopped off because of their stupid decision to be violent.’ I said as much, diplomatically, but it was cut out of the film.”

So, although the FBI didn’t suspect Wexler of bombing any buildings, agents were keeping an eye on him, and their presence exacerbated the friction he was causing on the set. Forman later maintained that Wexler’s complaints jeopardized the picture: a few actors “told me that Wexler had been expressing his doubts as to whether I was competent enough to make this particular movie. Before long, the producers heard the same mutterings. They weren’t about to let the situation simmer; they had the most to lose if morale started to suffer.”

Wexler is sufficiently honest and self-aware to admit he was interfering: “I was my usual smartass, let’s put it that way. In areas and places where people shouldn’t be told, ‘Dummy, you’re doing it the wrong way.’”  Sylbert observed of Wexler, “It’s his feeling that he’s better than anybody he’s working with, in any area.”

Wexler’s hubris doomed him. Forman had his big opportunity to film an acclaimed book with a star actor. But he was threatened when Nicholson stopped talking to him and started communicating to him through Wexler, an aggressive, opinionated cameraman who was also a respected director. Sylbert thought that with Wexler’s “attitude toward directors, thinking he was better than they are – when you’ve got a director, when you’ve got blood in the water and you’ve got a shark like Wexler – Milos must have felt he was going to be killed.”

Instead, Forman survived and Michael Douglas fired Wexler, when he had nearly finished shooting the movie. The producers hired Bill Butler to film the final scenes —the party and its aftermath. The production then went over schedule, Butler had to leave for another commitment, and William Fraker shot the fishing expedition.

Wexler said he was crushed over being fired from his second Hollywood film in a row: “I wanted to commit suicide. I was so depressed. I was so hit by this kind of firing. I mean, I’m not exaggerating, I was just wiped out.”

Douglas has always said he fired Wexler because of creative differences, not his cinematography. Wexler was on schedule and he said everybody patted each other on the back when they saw his dailies. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences nominated One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Best Cinematography. The nomination went to Bill Butler as well as Wexler, because Butler is credited with “additional photography” on the film. The award went to John Alcott for Barry Lyndon instead. But Cuckoo’s Nest was the first film since It Happened One Night in 1934 to sweep the top five Oscars – Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor in a Leading Role and Best Actress in a Leading Role.

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Rob Reiner: Overlooked Auteur

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Almost every night of the week, some cable TV channel shows a classic film directed by Rob Reiner, either The Princess Bride, Stand by Me, This Is Spinal TapMisery or A Few Good Men. But until recently (on April 27 and 28 the Film Society of Lincoln Center will hold a two-day retrospective of films Reiner directed and Martin Scorsese will present him with the Chaplin Award) many people have thought of him as “Meathead” from the 1970s television series All in The Family, or as a Hollywood director who happened to make excellent films in various genres.  According to Andrew Sarris’s three-pronged definition of an auteur, a filmmaker who repeatedly explores the same themes, has consistency in tone, and is technically competent, Reiner qualifies. His most famous films demonstrate recurring themes that weave throughout his larger body of work, a seriocomic sensibility and a technical competence. Although he’s worked with a variety of screenwriters, including Aaron Sorkin, William Goldman, Nora Ephron and Alan Zweibel, Reiner consistently addresses common themes. Himself a writer since the 1960s, he focuses on writers and the obstacles they confront, the process of creativity, the value of stories, and the use of words to combat corrupt authority figures and bullies. He also demonstrates a consistent tone by balancing the sad and dark with the lighthearted, sometimes punctuating tense or dramatic scenes with out-of-the-blue humor. Although his visual style is not showy, it is effective, and he is a gifted storyteller with an excellent sense of pacing and timing.

Reiner is interested in the beneficial effects of stories and art, and the creative process (Stand by MeMiseryAlex and EmmaFlipped, The Magic of Belle IsleThe Princess Bride).  In his romantic comedies, the protagonist is often a writer, but is inevitably a spontaneous partner courting, or coexisting uneasily with, a stodgier mate (When Harry Met SallyAlex and Emma,The Story of UsThe Sure Thing). The hero or heroine in the romances also often worries about making a commitment. Finally, in a few films Reiner expresses outrage at the abuse of power. His protagonists use brains, not brawn, to thwart the powerful villains or bullies (A Few Good MenThe American PresidentGhosts of Mississippi).

Stories often comfort or cheer Reiner’s characters. The first shot of The Princess Bride is of a video game watched by a sick little boy who has no enthusiasm for listening to a mushy tale his grandfather proposes to read aloud. At the film’s end the boy, now fascinated, asks the old man to return the following day to read it again. Stories that Gordie invents in Stand by Me give him respite from a troubled home life and a father who doesn’t love him. His stories also give him a sense of identity and accomplishment, and the one about the fat kid who gets revenge on the townspeople who mocked him by setting off mass, contagious barfing heartens his friends, who also have been victims of teasing. Alex in Alex and Emma started writing as a child as a way to express feelings he couldn’t voice after his parents’ divorce. Paul Sheldon’s romantic novels bring joy to Annie Wilkes, the bedeviled fan in Misery.

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Reiner also examines the creative process; in films from This Is Spinal Tap (1984) to The Magic of Belle Isle (2012) the director presents artists, usually writers, wrestling with obstacles to their craft. Writers struggle to find their voice (Stand by Me,The Magic of Belle Isle), recapture their voice (Misery), overcome writer’s block (The Magic of Belle Isle) and come to terms with readers’ expectations (Misery). Alex and Emma is entirely about a novelist, his muse/critic/audience, and the creative process; the two characters discuss writer’s block, inspiration, responsibility to the reader, character development, writing oneself into and out of a corner, deadline pressure, borrowing from life to lend to the story, devising a plot, and other aspects of creating fiction. Rob Reiner movies that delve into writers’ and artists’ relationship with their fans include Misery, in which an unhinged reader torments a novelist when he stops writing bodice rippers and This Is Spinal Tap, in which the aging rockers face dwindling audiences.

In some of Reiner’s romantic comedies, the leading man or lady is a writer (The Story of UsAlex and Emma, Rumor Has It), but in all of them one partner is zanier, and more uninhibited and fun-loving than the other, who is relatively reserved and cautious. By the movie’s end, the free-spirited partner partially grows up and the more restrained mate partially loosens up, sometimes doing something silly or playful just for the hell of it. The staid Michelle Pfeiffer dons a noisy fireman’s hat in response to Bruce Willis’s shenanigans in The Story of Us, and John Cusak  provokes the responsible, organized college girl in The Sure Thing to bare her breasts to a carful of strangers. Although The Bucket List is not a romance, it pairs Jack Nicholson’s impulsive character with Morgan Freeman’s more thoughtful one, and the former influences the latter to become adventurous at the end of his life. In The American President Sydney’s passion for combatting global warming and standing up for worthy causes finally affects the president, who has focused on what he thinks he can pragmatically accomplish until his spirited speech at the movie’s conclusion.

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The American President also exemplifies the director’s outrage at bullies and unscrupulous authority figures. The Republican politician who plans to run for president lies to the American people and falsely accuses Sydney of trading sexual favors for political gain. Some of these villains are megalomaniacs, others cruel, insensitive jerks. In Ghosts of Mississippi, Reiner deplores white Southerners who behave inhumanely to African Americans, particularly the coward who shoots Medgar Evers in the back in front of the house where his children sleep. Gordie’s father in Stand by Me asks him why he can’t be more like his deceased older brother, and in A Few Good Men Col. Jessup lies and destroys evidence after a soldier dies during a hazing he ordered.

The good guys or victims prevail by using their noggins.  An instance of a protagonist employing his wits to foil a bully occurs in Stand by Me when Kiefer Sutherland’s Ace finally realizes Gordie won’t back down when the boy tells the juvenile delinquent, “Suck my fat one, you cheap dime-store hood.” The hobbled Paul Sheldon outwits and overcomes his crazed but sturdy captor, Annie Wilkes, in Misery, and Tom Cruise’s character manipulates Jack Nicholson’s Col. Jessup into incriminating himself inA Few Good Men. Near the end of The Princess Bride Westley, the “mostly dead” but recovering hero instructs Inigo Montoya and the giant as the latter drags his rubbery body around the evil king’s castle.

Like Reiner himself, the protagonists in A Few Good Men and Stand by Me have fathers who seem larger than life, and the two characters suffer from anxiety that they  won’t live up to paternal expectations.

So Reiner, a writer and a son of the formidable comedian/writer/actor/director/producer Carl Reiner, clearly addresses personal issues in his films. He has undoubtedly made some clunkers, notably NorthThe Story of Us and Rumor Has It. But Reiner is artistically ambitious, and even these, his least successful films, address his perennial themes of the spontaneous writer who matures and learns to accept a more straitlaced mate (The Story of Us, Rumor Has It) or a child, like the boys in Stand by Me and Flipped, who feels neglected by his parents and creates stories to overcome his sorrow (North).




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Whatever Happened To Christopher Jones? (Part 1)

Chris Jones 1 Wild in the Streets“Christopher Jones, an heir apparent to James Dean who starred in such films as The Looking Glass War and Ryan’s Daughter before quitting show business at the height of his brief but dazzling career, has died. He was 72,” The Hollywood Reporter stated in his obituary on January 31, 2014.

I was touched by a shock of recognition and a sense of loss when this appeared on my Facebook page the next day, a feeling I rarely experience when reading about the deaths of far better known and more accomplished Hollywood figures.
I discovered Christopher Jones in the mid-’70s, thanks to a TV showing of Wild in the Streets. I was obsessed with James Dean at the time, and became transfixed by Jones, who seemed like the second coming of Dean and the answer to his fan’s prayers. Only later would I learn that Jones had already abandoned his career by the time I became aware of him.

“He had excitement. He was a movie star,” Quentin Tarantino said in a 1999 episode of E! True Hollywood Story. “He looked like James Dean, but Chris Jones didn’t take himself seriously like James Dean. He had the same exact sensuality and appeal as Jim Morrison. He was a big comer at that point, as big as anybody!”

Christopher Jones exploded into stardom with the July 1968 release of American International Pictures’ Wild in the Streets, where he played a 24-year-old rock star who manipulates the youth vote to become the President of the United States and sends everyone over 30 to concentration camps where they’re force fed LSD. “If you were a teenager in 1968, chances are good you would have given up just about anything to run Wild in the Streets with Christopher Jones,” the author of his website writes.

Jones quit acting after making only four more films after Wild in the Streets, becoming a charismatic enigma with a cult following. “Over the past 26 years, Jones has been the subject of so many rumors––that he was a drug addict, lived on the streets, became a hustler, had been confined in a mental institution––his disappearing act gave him, perversely, near legendary status among show-biz insiders,” Pamela Des Barres wrote in her introduction to a rare interview with him in 1996.

When Playboy magazine’s interviewer asked Jack Nicholson, “What is the downside of celebrity?” he said, “There is none.” Yet Jones gave up stardom, its rewards, and a ready-made audience, prompting us to ask: whatever happened to Christopher Jones?

Christopher Jones was born William Frank Jones on August 18, 1941 in Jackson, Tennessee, the younger son of father J. G. Jones and mother Robbie Jones. Billy and his brother Robert lived above a grocery store where their father clerked for Billy’s first three years. Robbie Jones, a talented artist plagued by mental instability, was committed to the state hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee in 1945, where she died in 1960. Jones had only one memory of his mother. “I can remember her picking me up once,” he said, “but I can’t remember what she looked like.”

While Robert remained with his father, Billy was sent to live with his aunt after his mother’s commitment. On her recommendation, their father sent his sons to Boys Town (then known as Gailor Hall) in Memphis, Tennessee, the orphanage where Billy resided until he was almost 16. Though he resisted such things as school uniforms and evinced no interest in academics, he displayed a talent for sketching that led Boys Town’s executive director, Joe Stockton, to arrange an art school scholarship for Billy.

In 1988, Robert Duke told journalist Michael Donahue that he became best friends with Billy after older boys forced them to fight each other for their entertainment, “like dogs or chickens. It was kind of cruel and mean, but that’s the way life was back then.”

“When you’re a long-term resident of an institution like that, you become institutionalized,” Duke said, providing an insight into Jones’ troubled personality. “You learn not to form relationships with people . . . You learn to be a loner. You learn emotionally not to become too vulnernable to relationships because they’re transient in most cases. I think Billy Frank was typical of that pattern.”

“Duke remembered Jones as moody, withdrawn and a loner,” Donahue reported. “He didn’t have many friends, and he idolized James Dean.”

Dean became Billy’s idol after a formative experience that influenced his ambition to pursue acting. Joe Stockton called Billy into his office one hot summer day. “I must have been 14 or 15 years old at the time and I was sure I was going to be punished for something,” Jones later recalled. “Instead, the man handed me a copy of Life magazine with a photo of James Dean on the cover. After a long silence he said, ‘You know Billy, you look just like this guy!’ and as I studied the picture, he sat staring at me. I saw a resemblance, although I’d never seen a picture of James Dean before.”

“Dean had a sophisticated subtlety about him and although people have always compared me to him, at the time I would have preferred to be thought of as more flashy, like Elvis,” Jones said. “After seeing Love Me Tender [1956] and East of Eden [1955] at about the same time, I realized how brilliant James Dean was. I’ve always been torn between the two role models though.”

Billy’s fascination with Dean intensified after he read an article about his fatal car accident. “Sometimes I feel like James Dean’s avenger . . . maybe I’m a continuation of the whole thing,” he later said. “A piece of the puzzle’s gone, because Dean was too wild and had an accident, but he was the real thing. Most people are afraid to die––and that’s what makes you the real thing, whether you’re afraid to die. Dean was something divine, like no actor before or since. I’m fascinated with death. That kind of death.”

When Jones’ star began ascending in the mid-’60s, stories about him made the inevitable comparisons to James Dean. Jones’ story resonates with similarities to Dean’s life as well as that of Cal, the character he played in East of Eden.

Dean’s father sent his son to live with his aunt and uncle after the death of his mother from uterine cancer when he was nine. He felt like an orphan, and had a strained adult relationship with his father, who didn’t support his ambition to be an actor.
“My mother died on me when I was a kid, and I used to cry on her grave and say, ‘Why did you leave me?,’” Dean told Dennis Hopper. “And that changed into, ‘I’m gonna show you! I’m gonna be great!’”

“I wasn’t close with him,” Jones said of his father. “He was six foot something––not like me––and looked just like Paul Newman, with ice blue, cold-blooded killer eyes. I went to live with him when I was 16 and he signed me into the Army.” He didn’t resent his father for casting him off. “No, I loved him. I love him still. Did you ever see East of Eden?” Jones said that he hated his mother for dying on him, evidently unaware as a child that she was alive but institutionalized. “That was a good reason to hate her. She shouldn’t have died.”

Jones escaped from Boys Town when he was 15, taking up with a married 18-year-old woman with two children in Memphis, Tennessee, who he said was the sexual aggressor in their relationship. “From then on, I expected it. Women liked me, probably because I didn’t have a mother. I lived with my 18-year-old [lover]––she was separated from her husband––and then I just left her, up and walked out.” He repeated this pattern with other women throughout his life.

His father remarried and fathered three children while his first two sons remained at Boys Town, only joining him for rare holiday visits. Jones attempted to reunite with his father after abandoning his teenage girlfriend, living with him until he enlisted  in the Army when he turned 16.

Jones’ life was rife with dysfunctional relationships and family tragedies. “My dad, who rode around on a Harley-Davidson, picked up a beautiful 18-year-old girl,” he said. “They were very close, but he killed her on his Harley. Shaved the top of her head right off. When he died, in 1963, they buried him right next her to her.”

If that wasn’t enough, Timothy Roman, who Jones claimed was his son, fatally bludgeoned his mentally disturbed mother, actress Susan Cabot, in 1986.” “I had only seen him once in my life,” Jones said. “She had told him his father was an Englishman––Ryan’s Daughter, right? [where he played a British officer]–– and that I was dead.” Why? “We’d only been together three weeks. Then I sort of disappeared.”

Though studio biographies claimed Jones stayed in the Army for two years before deserting, he went AWOL after only two days. He stole a car and drove to New Orleans, then headed to New York with a friend, making sure to include a pilgrimage to James Dean’s grave and boyhood home in Fairmount, Indiana. Dean’s aunt and uncle, the Winslows, who welcomed––or at least tolerated––visits from Dean’s acolytes, must have done a triple take when they opened their front door and saw Jones, who bore a striking similarity to Dean. “I went up to his room. His jeans were laid out on the bad like he was coming back.” For a moment, maybe the Winslows thought he had.

Acting was not yet a glimmer in Jones’ mind. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do,” he said. “Someone who knew I was AWOL said, ‘Turn yourself in. It’ll catch up with you sooner or later.’ So I did, and spent six months on Governors Island, close to the Statue of Liberty. It was . . . prison. A guard made a pass at me.”

Jones found refuge with the head buyer for a local department store whose husband was in prison for selling marijuana. “She looked just like Marilyn Monroe. Man, was I in love!” He studied painting and sculpting with artist Edward Melcarth, working as his apprentice. He immersed himself in learning artistic technique, but was ultimately drawn to acting.

Jones met an actor who introduced him to director Frank Corsaro, a teacher at the Actors Studio who had been a friend and mentor to James Dean. He adopted his stage name of Christopher Jones (the same name as the captain of the Mayflower) and began auditing classes at the Actors Studio.

“He was a very on and off again student who had a kind of personal charisma,” Corsaro recalled. “He drew very well. He was rather impecunious at the time so I gave him a scholarship of sorts. He was like Dean––he had very good instincts, he had a natural kind of sense of acting. As with Dean, he was not really ultimately as disciplined in the work. He took it as a measure that he deserved it, given his own sense of ease with acting but not as a committed student. Neither was Dean a very committed student at the Actors Studio. In fact, he did very little work there. He just picked up what he could and was in the right atmosphere and with Christopher it was the same case and that’s where Shelley [Winters] kind of took an interest in him and she really gave him his boost.”

Corsaro cast Jones as one of two Mexican cabana boys (James Farentino played the other) in his 1961 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana, which initially starred Bette Davis. Every night after the show closed, Shelley Winters, who replaced Davis, got into her Jaguar and tooled around New York with Jones and Farentino, enjoying the nightlife. Sometimes they were joined by actor Alex Cord (christened Alex Viespi). Jones claims he and Winters had an affair. “Of course. She was all over me like a cheap suit.” [In the second volume of her autobiography, Winters reveals her relationship with Cord, but never mentions having one with Jones.]

Jones got his first role playing a member of a street gang in an episode of the TV series East Side, West Side (1963-1964), starring George C. Scott. “He kept telling me to stand still,” Jones recalled. “I kept fidgeting in the scene and Scott put his foot on top of mine when the director yelled ‘Action!’ So, I couldn’t move during the scene.”

While hanging out with Shelley Winters at Downey’s, a New York restaurant that was a watering hole for the show business crowd, Jones implored her to introduce him to Susan Strasberg, the daughter of Lee Strasberg, head of the Actors Studio. Winters refused, telling him, “I don’t like the way you treat your girlfriends.“ In her autobiography, she recalls Jones saying, “That’s Susan Strasberg. I’m going to marry her.” He told Pamela Des Barres that he said, “I’m going to fuck her.”

He entered into a tumultuous relationship and marriage with Strasberg that she related in detail in her 1980 memoir Bittersweet. Strasberg recalled her first sight of Jones at Downey’s. “We talked for a few minutes and she [Winters] introduced me to Christopher. He had medium brown hair streaked with gold, deep brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a bowed sensual mouth. He was wearing a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, skintight faded jeans, and although it was freezing outside, a lightweight leather jacket.”

In Bittersweet, she describes a memorable incident that took place one time when she and her brother were joined at their parent’s Fire Island beach house by Jerry and Marta Orbach, actor Richard Bradford, Frank Corsaro and a group of his students, including Jones.

“There was a thunderstorm that night. It was terrifying, yet beautiful. Christopher tore off his shirt and ran onto the beach into the pelting rain. ‘I’m going swimming,’ he called. ‘You’re crazy, come back inside . . . it’s not safe,’ we implored him. Instead, he began to do a rhythmic, erotic dance between the flashes of lightning. It was as if in the eye of the storm he became the storm itself. And, like it, appeared both beautiful and dangerous [emphasis added].”

According to Strasberg, Jones was envious of anyone who enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. “I grew up in a shack with outdoor plumbing and a coal stove,” he told her. “Hell, in Tennessee that meant you were poor white trash.” Jones once tried to bait Lee Strasberg into an argument. “They’re out to destroy anyone who’s too alive,” he said. “But they can kiss my ass. I’ll get them before they get me.” He looked around at Strasberg’s book-covered walls. “You can’t learn anything about life from a book,” he said. “Nietzsche said, ‘We can only find freedom and happiness, without thought, without intellect, through pure will,’ he paraphrased. “It’s all a power play . . .”

“Christopher, here as in New York, didn’t like my friends,” she wrote. “Hell, they’re too square and uptight, too intellectual,” he said. She claimed that he convinced her to take mescaline and other drugs. “You’ve got to cut loose from all your tight-assed, conventional crap,” he told her. “I wanted so much to be loved unreservedly, for myself, that I was willing to pay any price including subservience,” she wrote. “But if I said no when something was offered, I became the enemy, and because I still desperately wanted to be accepted, even by people I did not care about, I never refused. After a while, I didn’t want to. Alone at home or while working, I never took anything or missed it. The drugs were a bond between Christopher, myself, and our peers. My addiction was emotional, not physical. I had drifted onto a merry-go-round that did not stop. And as always, the only self-discipline I had left was in relation to my work.”

Jones later admitted to hitting Strasberg and accidentally discharging a shotgun in their apartment, but he disputes her nightmarish characterization of their relationship, including her claims that he forced her to indulge in a drug-laden lifestyle. “She’s lyin’ like a dog,” he told Pamela Des Barres. “She just wanted to be in with the scene. She’s so square.”

He told Des Barres that he sampled amphetamines, marijuana and LSD, but claims that he disliked their effects. “And I hated acid,” he said. “I swear, I did not take drugs. The hippies were interested in that stuff. I was interested in Ferraris, women and clothes. I was mainly interested in fucking––and in becoming famous.”

In late November1963, Jones and Strasberg accepted their friends Jerry and Marta Orbach’s invitation to drive out to California. Strasberg supported Jones until he landed the starring role in the TV series The Legend of Jesse James, produced by Don Siegel. In his autobiography, Siegel, who directed the series’ half-hour pilot, called Jones, “a disturbed young man,” but did not elaborate. Jones’ success exacerbated his rebellious behavior. One of the puff pieces printed about him headlined the quote, “I don’t give a damn what anybody says about me.” Publicists often plant these statements to give their client the appearance of integrity, but it fit Jones. He showed up late for a TV Guide interview about his TV series and off-handedly called it “garbage.”

“Mr. Chris Jones, who plays the late Mr. James as if he were a three-way cold tablet comprising equal parts of the late Mr. James Dean, the present Mr. Marlon Brando, and a difficult teen-age girl,” TV Guide’s critic, Cleveland Amory, wrote in his review of the show. Jones’ show generated an outpouring of fan letters from female fans, some explicit enough to shock his wife. The series, filmed at 20th Century-Fox, aired on ABC for only one season from September 1965 to May 1966, before falling victim to the ratings competition from The Lucy Show on CBS and Dr. Kildare on NBC.

Chris Jones 2 Jesse James castWhile movie offers poured in for him, Jones’ relationship with Strasberg deteriorated. She alleged that he alternated unpredictably between tenderness and sudden explosions of paranoid jealousy, when he would pummel her face and body with his fists, punishing her for the infidelities he imagined she engaged in. One evening in their apartment, after she tried to flee their moving car, he pointed the Colt revolver he played Russian roulette with at her and said, “I could shoot you.” She closed her eyes and heard the report of his gun. The bullet tore apart her prized English Regency desk. “You have to learn to trust me,” he told her.

Strasberg discovered that she was pregnant just when she had finally decided to leave him. The couple married in Las Vegas on September 25, 1965. She gave birth to her daughter, Jennifer, on March 14, 1966.

In August, Jones began making his first film, Chubasco (1968), on the Warner Bros. lot. One day, early into production, Strasberg received a frantic call at home from the film’s director, Allen Miner. “Susan, Christopher is acting a little rambunctious with the girls we’ve been testing. He hit the last one when he kissed her. He is balking at doing the love scenes.”

She reluctantly agreed to take the role. She divorced Jones after Chubasco was finished. He fought her for custody of their daughter. Strasberg claimed he harassed her enough to compel her to obtain a restraining order against him. Jones’ tempestuous relationship with her set a pattern he was to repeat throughout the remainder of his life with other women.

Jones plays the eponymous character in Chubasco, a rebellious youth who agrees to straighten up and fly right by working as a spotter on a tuna boat. He eventually marries his pregnant girlfriend Bunny (Strasberg), the daughter of the boat’s skipper (Richard Egan), in a sanitized Mexican whorehouse presided over by a madame played by Ann Sothern. Though Chubasco contains a scene between Jones and a benevolent judge (Edward Binns) that takes place in his office and another where he writhes in pain after injuring his hands that evoke similar scenes in Rebel Without a Cause, it’s an unmemorable movie. “I didn’t think it [casting Strasberg as his girlfriend] was too good of an idea and the movie wasn’t that great, but it paid for a house with a pool in Beverly Hills,” Jones said.

Wild in Streets Poster Vertical MediumJones next film, Wild in the Streets (1968) gave him his breakout role.

Next Time: Wild in the Streets, The Looking Glass War, Ryan’s Daughter, and Jones’s sudden and mysterious decline. 

Peter Winkler is the author of Dennis Hopper: The Wild Ride of a Hollywood Rebel (Barricade Books, 2011).