For Disney magic to effectively unfold, there has to be a character — usually a crank or a bumbler — who tries to play it cool as the madness happens. You know: grumpy dad Mr. Banks in “Mary Poppins,” or “The Absent-Minded Professor’s” absent-minded professor.
In the “The Love Bug” (1968), that man was Dean Jones, who died after a struggle with Parkinson’s disease this week at 84. Jones took what many actors may have seen as a loser part — straight man to Herbie, a self-aware Volkswagen envisioned before Elon Musk was born — and made something a few steps short of iconic, but nonetheless unforgettable among a certain set of baby boomers and their Gen X offspring.
Sample moment: Herbie speeds away of its (his?) own accord.
Horrified woman: “One of your showboat tricks?”
Jones: “I tell ya — I had nothing to do with it!”
The plot is ridiculous, the jokes are corny — but behind the late actor who, in the era of “Frozen,” is little more than a Disney footnote, is a story of a young man driven mad by Hollywood and saved by a dramatic come-to-Jesus moment.
“It was a fast track life,” Jones said in a 1997 interview. “I was making $50,000 a week. I had the Ferraris and beautiful women and all the rest of what I thought would satisfy my life. And it was empty. Really empty.”
Emptiness was not what Jones expected from movie stardom. As the Hollywood Reporter noted, Jones made his way to California after a stint as a radio DJ and singer in his home state of Alabama and a hitch in the Navy during the Korean War. His first film role was in “Somebody Up There Likes Me” (1956), starring Paul Newman, quickly followed by an appearance as a DJ in Elvis Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock” (1957) and success on Broadway.
“The great privilege it has been to work with some of the most talented people on the face of the earth,” Jones told Christianity Today in 2009. “My first scene in a movie was with James Cagney, for goodness sakes. There I was, just out of the U.S. Navy without an acting lesson to my name. In walks Cagney and says ‘Walk to your mark and remember your lines.’ That’s all I’ve been doing for fifty years. You can’t take credit for blessings like that.”
Then Disney came calling. Quite literally: As the Associated Press reported, the actor was recruited by Walt Disney himself, who had seen Jones in a sitcom, just a few years before the visionary’s death. This led to a role in “That Darn Cat” (1965), in which Jones plays an FBI agent assisted by a feline in catching armed robbers. Oh, right: He’s allergic to cats. Funny!
Slightly more highbrow work, however — or, at least, a movie that had cool car chases — was on the horizon. Released in 1968, “The Love Bug” was acidly called “a long, sentimental Volkswagen commercial” by the New York Times.
“Walt Disney’s ‘The Love Bug,’ which opened yesterday at Radio City Music Hall, is such a vulnerable movie that if it were a little less sappy, one might feel compelled to protect it, as if it were someone under 7 or over 65 — that portion of the public for which it is intended,” the paper wrote.
Even amid the turbulent 1960s, Jones was circumspect about his role in silly Disney fare. By the time he quit, he had made ten films with the studio.
“I see something in them that is pure form,” he said. “Just entertainment. No preaching. … We’re always looking for social significance, but maybe people just like to be entertained.”
Yet, after a drunk-driving accident and what the Chicago Sun-Times called “an entertainer’s tour” of Vietnam during the Vietnam War, Jones’s outlook changed in the early 1970s. He said he had a “divine visitation” that gave him “a peace I had never before had but which I had longed for.”
“I knew that if there didn’t come something that changed my life, that I would probably end up a pretty mess at some point or another,” he said in 1997. “And the night that I said ‘yes’ to the lord, it changed instantly. The peace of Christ rolled over me like an ocean wave and I’ve never been the same.”
Though he would never top his years with Disney, Jones worked somewhat steadily in the mainstream as well as in Christian productions. One of these was, curiously, an account of the crimes and Christian conversion of Watergate figure Charles Colson called “Born Again” (1978).
“If God can forgive me and Chuck, he can forgive anyone,” Jones told The Washington Post at the time of the film’s release. “… One man came up to me and said, ‘How can you play that criminal?’ and I just said that Edward G. Robinson made a career out of playing criminals.”
Jones, who adopted numerous foster children, also founded what would become the Christian Rescue Fund — an organization that, as its Web site explained, pursues Jones’s “vision to rescue persecuted Christians and Jews” around the world.
Acting, however, remained his vocation.
“There’s also moments in film or on stage where an actor can bring softness and gentleness to the human spirit and although extremely rare, there are times when an audience is touched by tenderness in the midst of laughter,” he told Christianity Today. “Those times are precious indeed and they transcend the medium. Those moments come both on stage and in film, so both have given me great satisfaction.”