Shirley Jones was born in 1934 in Pennsylvania. She achieved fame early in life because of her winning the leads in two of the major cinema musicals of the mid-1950’s, “Oklaholma” in 1955 and “Carousel” in 1956. She won an Oscar for a dramatic role in 1960 in “Elmer Gantry” and then had another major success in a singing role in 1962 in “The Music Man”. In 1970 she won international acclaim again for her role in “The Partridge Family” with her stepson David Cassidy. She is still busy performing on stage, films and television.
A sunny personality and a gorgeous singing voice brought actress Shirley Jones to the Broadway stage, which in turn led to her career in Hollywood. She was a natural for big-screen musicals, but defied critics’ expectations for her surprising turn as a prostitute in “Elmer Gantry” (1960), which earned her an Oscar. Her film work cooled in the 1960s, but she gained a following among younger viewers in the early 1970s as one of television’s coolest moms on “The Partridge Family” (ABC, 1970-1974), which also starred her stepson, pop idol David Cassidy. The show’s success ensured her status as a pop culture icon and helped her to maintain steady work in television and on stage for the next three decades.
Born Shirley Mae Jones in Charleroi, PA, she was named after child actress Shirley Temple by her parents, Paul Jones and Marjorie Williams, who owned the Jones Brewery. An only child, her early years were marked by happiness and a burgeoning talent for singing, which earned her a spot in her local church choir at the age of six. Shortly after graduating from high school, she was encouraged by talent agents to enter the Miss Pittsburgh beauty competition, which she won in 1952. She was later named first runner-up in the Miss Pennsylvania Pageant, which earned her a scholarship to the acclaimed Pittsburgh Playhouse. She soon lit out for New York City to make a name for herself on the musical stage, and so impressed the legendary Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein II that they cast her in the chorus of their 1953 production of “South Pacific.” A small role in 1954’s “Me and Juliet” led to her assuming the female lead in the touring production. While on the road, Rogers and Hammerstein arranged for Jones to audition for the upcoming film version of their smash hit “Oklahoma!” Upon her return from Hollywood, she discovered that she had landed the lead role of Laurey, and her film career was on its way.
Jones was soon top-billed in some of the most popular and successful musicals of the 1950s, including “Carousel” (1956), “April Love” (1957) and “Never Steal Anything Small” (1959). The blonde beauty exceeded at playing musical characters with a degree of depth and grit, like the lovelorn Julie in “Carousel” or the married woman who catches James Cagney’s eye in “Never Steal Anything Small.” Television also offered her more dramatic opportunities. After her performance in “The Big Slide,” a 1956 crime drama produced as part of “Playhouse 90” (CBS, 1956-1961), Burt Lancaster convinced director Richard Brooks to cast her as a former preacher’s daughter-turned-prostitute in the hard-hitting drama “Elmer Gantry.” The power of Jones’ performance took audiences and critics alike by surprise, and she was showered with praise and awards, including the 1961 Oscar for Best Supporting Actress.
Despite her overwhelming success, Jones struggled to find parts of equal substance in her subsequent features. John Ford’s “Two Rode Together” (1961), with Jones as the sister of a man kidnapped by Comanches, gave her a fine showcase for her dramatic skills, but more often than not, she was cast as the object of romance in light comedies like “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” (1963) or “Bedtime Story” (1964) with Marlon Brando and David Niven. Her biggest success on film during this period was another musical, albeit one of the best – the 1962 film version of “The Music Man,” with Jones as a prim librarian who disapproves of Robert Preston’s flim-flam man. One of Columbia Pictures’ most well-loved and popular hits, it cemented audiences’ perception of Jones as a beloved musical star, as did numerous national stage performances and nightclub performances. Her frequent co-star during this period was troubled actor and singer Jack Cassidy, whom she married in 1956. Their marriage produced three sons – future teen idol and television producer Shaun Cassidy, actor Patrick Cassidy, and baby brother Ryan.
Jones found more compelling work in film and television during the late 1960s; she was nominated for an Emmy as a lonely married woman who finds love with a stranger (Lloyd Bridges) in her TV movie debut, “Silent Night, Lonely Night” (1969), and gave a comic spin on her “Elmer Gantry” role as the salty proprietress of “The Cheyenne Social Club” (1970), a bordello inherited by aging cowpokes Henry Fonda and James Stewart. Both were overshadowed by her first television series, “The Partridge Family,” which debuted in 1970. Based on the real-life family pop group the Cowsills, the series cast Jones as a widowed mother who finds herself on the top of the music charts, thanks to her children’s band. Jones’ real-life stepson David Cassidy also starred as the group’s lead singer and central eye candy, with future headline grabber Danny Bonaduce as the comic relief bassist. A substantial ratings hit, the fictitious group also found themselves on the real Billboard charts with their debut single, “I Think I Love You,” which featured Jones on backing vocals. She soon found herself at the center of a teen music and television phenomenon, which generated nearly a dozen album releases, countless promotional appearances and even a spin-off cartoon.
The success of “The Partridge Family” came to an end in 1974 when Cassidy grew weary of the show and the fan adulation; seeking instead to establish himself as a serious musician outside of its confines. The series aired its final episode in 1974 – the same year that Jones painfully divorced her alcoholic husband, Jack Cassidy. Though more popular during its network run than its chief competitor for young audiences, “The Brady Bunch” (ABC, 1969-1974), it did not score as highly in syndication, and remained a cult favorite until the Nick At Night network revived it in the mid-1990s. Jones and the original cast were reunited for several high profile promotional appearances, and two TV movies based on the series were aired in 1999 – “Come On Get Happy: The Partridge Family Story” and “The David Cassidy Story,” which attempted to explore the series’ popularity and its effect on the major players.
After “The Partridge Family,” Jones remained very active on stage and television during the 1970s and 1980s; among her better TV features during this period was “Winner Take All” (1975), which cast her as a gambling addict; the terrorism drama “Evening in Byzantium” (1979); and “The Children of An Lac” (1980), which cast her as real life Red Cross nurse Betty Tisdale, who helped rescue Vietnamese orphans before the fall of Saigon in 1975. There were also attempts to return to a series – “Shirley” (NBC, 1979-1980) – which starred Jones as a recent widower raising her children in a small California town, while “The Adventures of Pollyanna” (1982) was an unsold pilot based on the classic children’s story that originally aired as party of “Disneyland” (ABC/CBS/NBC, 1954-1990). In 1977, Jones married manic TV comedian Marty Ingells, who chronicled their unusual courtship in the 1989 book Shirley and Marty – An Unlikely Love Story. Ingells’ eccentricities put him at odds with her grown children, and Jones herself twice filed for divorce before retracting the petitions. It seemed after the heartache of being married to the womanizing drinker that was her first husband, Jones was determined to take a different path – that of being with someone who made her laugh, no matter how odd the rest of the world saw the comic.
Jones’ acting career thrived well into the 1980s, 1990s and into the new millennium, with frequent guest appearances on television series and roles in TV features and stage productions. She never strayed very far from musicals – a 2004 Broadway production of “42nd Street” saw her appearing opposite her son Patrick – but she also began to show an aptitude for broad comedy, most notably in a recurring stint on “The Drew Carey Show” (ABC, 1995-2004) as an older woman who becomes Drew’s romantic interest, as well as in the comedy “Grandma’s Boy” (2006) as a sexually aggressive senior citizen.
Audiences were reminded of Jones’ dramatic talents with the 2006 TV movie “Hidden Places,” which cast her as the Bible-quoting aunt of a young Depression-era widow left to care for her family’s farm. Jones received considerable praise for her performance, netting an Emmy nomination as well as a nod from the Screen Actors Guild. That same year, she returned to series work with the short-lived daytime serial “Monarch Cove” (Lifetime, 2006), a soapy drama based on a German telenovela. Two years later, she joined the cast of the long-running soap “Days of Our Lives” (NBC, 1965- ) for a six-episode stint as Colleen Brady, a mysterious member of the perennially troubled Brady clan. Meanwhile, she received critical kudos for her turn as the alcoholic mother of an angry and stressed talent manager (Noah Bean) being counseled by a recovering drug addict (Benjamin Bratt) on the short-lived drama, “The Cleaner” (A&E, 2008-09). Jones’ turn put her in contention for an Emmy Award for Outstanding Guest Actress in a Drama Series.
The above TCM overview can also be accessed online here.