Many people know Shirley Jones as the matriarchal Shirley Renfrew Partridge on the hit TV series “The Partridge Family” or the wholesome Laurey in “Oklahoma,” but true film buffs can’t forget her role as vindictive prostitute Lulu Bains in “Elmer Gantry,” both of which will be screened at this year’s El Paso Community Foundation’s Plaza Classic Film Festival. Her performance in the latter won her an academy award for Best Supporting Actress and allowed her to take on more diverse characters.
Today, you can see her playing the sexy older woman in movies and TV sitcoms such as “The Drew Carey Show,” “Grandma’s Boy” and “Cougar Town.”
Last year, at the ripe age of 79, Jones felt comfortable enough to share stories about her professional and personal life when she released her autobiography “Shirley Jones: A Memoir.”
What’s Up had a chance to chat with Jones about her career choices, co-stars and zombies ahead of her visit to the Sun City, where festivalgoers will have a chance to hobnob with the star.
Q. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve noticed in show business since the beginning of your career?
Well, I’m a singer basically, and I started to do musical films, which were incredible. I had the rare opportunity that hardly anybody ever had. The thing that changed my whole career is that they stopped making musical motion pictures and I thought my career was over. When you’re a singer, they never thought of you as an actress, so to speak. And had “Elmer Gantry” never happened, I never would have had the career I’ve had. Winning the Academy Award gave me a whole new career.
Speaking of the time element, I was in a time where actors were really actors. They worked on their craft. They didn’t just go out there and say, “Oh, well I’ll sing one song and become a star.” That was a different time.
It’s a different business now. Television has swept the nation with all of the different kind of shows including reality shows. Who would have ever thought that that would happen? Pretty soon actors won’t be needed. They’ll be out of jobs.
Q. Were you originally hesitant to play Lulu in Elmer Gantry because she was a prostitute?
Not at all. I was so excited and so thrilled. Burt Lancaster was the one who fought for me to get the part, and it was very exciting because I knew the director was fantastic. Burt was a great actor. The whole cast was wonderful and my role was incredible. I thought, “If I get this part, I’ll have a career.”
Q. I read that you play a zombie in the movie “Dead of the Night.” Can you tell me a little bit about that?
It was a very low-budget film, but I did it because I wanted to be a zombie! (Laughs.) It was great fun. I loved it. I started out as a blind old lady and then all of the sudden, graves start to open and we’re all taken over by the zombies and I become one.
Q. Out of the stage, television and the big screen, which field do you have most fun with?
I don’t know. I feel like doing live stuff. I still do concerts all over the place and I’m still singing. My son Patrick and I are taking out a production of “The Music Man” starting in September. We’re going to 10 cities and I play Mrs. Paroo and he’ll play the lead and it’ll be a concert version of it.
Q. What do you enjoy about working with your son?
Well, I love working with Patrick, not because he’s my son, but because he’s a super-talented and handsome guy and the audience loves him. He sings like a dream. It’s fun and when I’m on the road; he takes very good care of me. I have a person there who’ll do everything I say and will help me in any way he can, so that’s nice.
Q. Out of all the actors you’ve worked with, is there a favorite?
I did two films with Jimmy Stewart, whom I adored. He was just a great guy. I loved working with Gordon MacRae, who had the most beautiful voice of all time as far as I’m concerned. I was a fan of Gordon when I was 16 years old and there was a radio show called “Teen-Timers Club” every Saturday morning and I used to tune in to hear him sing. Little did I know I’d be in two musical films with him. And Robert Preston in “The Music Man” was incredible. The studio was about to sign Frank Sinatra to play that role and Meredith Willson came to Warner Brothers and said, “Unless you use Robert Preston, you don’t do my show.” I was thrilled because I was eager to work with him. Preston had been doing it for three years on Broadway and won a Tony Award for it and I said, “Wow, I get to work with him now!” It was really great.
Q. I heard that before you got into show business, you originally wanted to be a veterinarian.
I help the animals as much as I can. I just give money to certain charities to help save the animals, but that’s all I can do right now. But if my career went down the toilet, I’d go to my vet and say, “Can I help out in any way? You don’t have to pay me.”
Q. Is there any sense of regret you felt after publishing your autobiography?
The only thing I felt bad about is that my youngest son, Ryan, wants to be a police reserve officer, but you have to go through all kinds of stuff to get to be one and unfortunately, when they read my book, they weren’t too thrilled, because when he was young, he started to get on drugs and I sent him away for six months. And even though my book said that this was when he was about 14 years old, he’s in his 40s now, they read that and he didn’t get the police job. So that’s the only regret I have. But we’re looking into other places now. The police force loves him.
Q. Was there a sense of liberation in sharing your personal stories?
Yeah, there really was. I’m open about answering questions and I tell it like it is. I don’t hide anything. I never have. I really kind of enjoyed it in a way. Other people have asked, “Why would you want to do that?” I said, “Listen, I wouldn’t have done it 10 years ago, 20 years ago, but I’m 80 years old, so why can’t I do it now?”
Q. What advice would you give to today’s aspiring actors?
All my grandchildren want to be in the entertainment industry, and I have 12 of them and they’re all very talented, but it’s a very difficult business now from when I started unfortunately. It’s best to be a college graduate and have something else to do, too. Finish your college, and then if you want to act, then do it, but at least you have another way to go. Always have another way to go.
The Community Foundation’s Plaza Classic Film Festival
Presents: Shirley Jones
Guest appearances for:
Oklahoma, Friday, Aug. 8, 7 p.m.
Elmer Gantry , Saturday, Aug. 9, 3 p.m.
Both shows at the Kendle Kidd Performance Hall of the Plaza Theatre, 125 Pioneer Plaza
Saturday, Aug. 9, 1 p.m. at Camino Real hotel
Admission is free, signed 8×10 photo $25Tags: actor, actress, concert, director, film, movie, music, release, singer, television, tv