Dean Jones, whose boyish good looks and all-American manner made him Disney’s favorite young actor for such lighthearted films as “That Darn Cat!” and “The Love Bug,” died Sept.1 in Los Angeles. He was 84.
The cause was Parkinson’s disease, publicist Richard Hoffman announced.
Mr. Jones’s long association with the Walt Disney Co. began after he received an unexpected call from Walt Disney himself, who praised his work on the NBC sitcom “Ensign O’Toole.” Mr. Jones, himself a former Navy man, played the title role in the 1962 TV show.
Two years later, Mr. Jones heard from Disney again, calling this time to offer him a role in “That Darn Cat!” opposite ingénue Hayley Mills. His FBI agent Zeke Kelso follows a crime-solving cat that leads him to a pair of bank robbers.
Released in 1965, it would be the first of 10 Disney films Mr. Jones would make, most of them in the supernatural vein.
“I see something in them that is pure form. Just entertainment. No preaching,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “We’re always looking for social significance, but maybe people just like to be entertained.”
“The Love Bug” (1968) was the most successful of the genre, with Mr. Jones playing a struggling race-car driver who acquires a Volkswagen that wins races for him. The Bug, named Herbie, has hidden human traits, and when it feels unappreciated, it disappears. Mr. Jones must rescue Herbie from the hands of his nefarious rival and issue the car an apology before it wins the big race for him.
After “The Love Bug,” Mr. Jones turned to the stage, winning the lead role of Robert in “Company,” Stephen Sondheim’s now-classic musical about marital angst, Manhattan-style. He withdrew from the 1970 production after a short time, citing family problems, but he is heard on the Grammy-winning Broadway cast album.
He had actually begun his career as a singer before going on to appear in a string of mostly forgettable films throughout the 1950s. A notable exception was 1957’s “Jailhouse Rock,” one of Elvis Presley’s best-remembered vehicles, in which Mr. Jones had a small role as a disc jockey.
In 1960, Mr. Jones made his Broadway debut with Jane Fonda in “There Was a Little Girl,” playing Fonda’s boyfriend in a short-lived drama about the rape of a young woman.
He had better luck on Broadway later in 1960, when he appeared in the hit comedy “Under the Yum Yum Tree.” Sparring with Gig Young, who played a comically wolfish character, Mr. Jones had “the right blend of sturdiness and lightness,” New York Times theater critic Howard Taubman wrote.
He returned to Hollywood to make the 1963 film version of “Under the Yum Yum Tree” and to star in television’s “Ensign O’Toole” from 1962 to 1964. He again teamed with Fonda for the 1966 film version of a racy stage comedy, “Any Wednesday.”
It was in Disney’s gentle family comedies, though, that Mr. Jones hit his stride. Disney died in 1966, but the studio and its style of film lived on.
In “Monkeys, Go Home!” (1967), Mr. Jones tried to teach four monkeys to pick grapes at a French vineyard he inherited. In “Million Dollar Duck” (1971), he was a scientist with a duck that began laying golden eggs after being doused with radiation.
He returned to the Disney studio in 1977 for one more film, “Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo.”
Twenty years later, he had smaller parts in the remake of “That Darn Cat!” and the TV version of “The Love Bug.”
He worked regularly into his 70s, appearing often on TV and in films. His later credits included “Other People’s Money” (1991) and “Beethoven” (1992).
In 1969, he was host of a TV variety show, “What’s It All About, World?” But he said delivering jokes, stand-up-comedy style, was not really his forte. “My bag is acting or getting into an amusing situation and then sharing my amusement,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “I can sense a situation or a character much better than I can sense a line.”
Dean Carroll Jones was born on Jan. 25, 1931, and left his hometown of Decatur, Ala., at age 15, supporting himself by picking cotton and cutting timber until he landed a job as a singer in a New Orleans nightclub. When the club closed, he returned to Decatur to finish high school.
After studying voice at Asbury College in Kentucky, he spent four years in the Navy. Soon after his release, he was signed by MGM.
In 1954, Mr. Jones married Mae Entwisle, a onetime Miss San Diego, and the couple had two daughters, Carol and Deanna, before divorcing. He and his second wife, actress Lory Patrick, had a son, Michael. Besides his wife and children, survivors include eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
In 1995, Jones was honored by his longtime employers with a spot in the Disney Legends Hall of Fame.