“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  and East of Eden  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.
While 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.
Jones 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).