Shirley Jones Revisits 'Oklahoma!' and a Spectacular Career

The 80-year-old sat down with THR after introducing the TCM Classic Film Festival's opening night screening of the classic musical she made 60 years ago.
Courtesy of Michael Wilhoite

As the fifth TCM Classic Film Festival comes to a close today, I want to share my interview with the belle of its opening-night ball -- last Thursday's kickoff screening of the 1955 film Oklahoma! at the TCL Chinese Theatre -- the great actress-singer Shirley Jones.

I met up with Jones and her entourage -- Marty Ingels, her irrepressible second husband, to whom she has been married since 1977, plus her manager and publicist -- across the street from the theater at the Grill restaurant shortly after she introduced the screening of the beloved musical that she shot 60 years ago.

Can Jones, who turned 80 two weeks ago, fathom that it has been so many years since her work opposite Gordon MacRae and Rod Steiger in Fred Zinnemann's film made her a star? "I can't believe it. I was a little girl. The years just seem to have flown by," she says.

It all started for Jones, an only child born and raised in a small town near Pittsburgh, when she was just six and her powerful voice blew away the other members of her church choir. "It was a gift -- I thought everybody could sing!" she says.

Upon graduating from high school, the pretty blonde was en route to college with her parents when they stopped for a short trip in New York. There, a pianist friend told her that the casting director for Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein -- whom she had never heard of -- was holding open auditions. "Their shows ran so long that they had to keep replacing chorus people every couple of weeks," she says was told.

Jones waited in a line that curled around the block for a chance to get onstage to sing for the casting director. Once he heard her voice, he ran to grab Rodgers from across the street, where the composer was rehearsing the orchestra for Oklahoma!. He then called Hammerstein, who was equally impressed, and the two decided to make Jones the first and only person they ever put under personal contract to them. She agreed, and the course of her life was changed forever.

Jones made her Broadway debut as a nurse with one line in final three months of the run of South Pacific. Then she appeared for a time in the less successful Me and Juliet. And then she got a call to go west to California to test for the lead in a film adaptation of Oklahoma! "By that time," she says, "they had screen tested every young woman on Broadway and in Hollywood," including Debbie Reynolds, Jane Powell and Kathryn Grayson. She learned soon thereafter that the part was hers. "I was blessed. It was laid out for me."

After Oklahoma! hit theaters -- in a slow-rollout, road-show release to build word-of-mouth -- she was assigned to perform it on the stage in order to capitalize on its attendant buzz. A company under the direction of its original theater director, Rouben Mamoulian, was sent to perform it in Europe. Jones' co-star in that version was Jack Cassidy, who would go on to become her first husband and Svengali. She marvels, "That's how I met him!" Prior to that, she said, "To tell you the truth, I was never attracted to handsome men because they were so attracted to themselves!" (Jones and Cassidy divorced in 1974, and he died in a fire in 1976.)

Her next film after Oklahoma! was another Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Carousel (1956). Her co-star was to be Frank Sinatra, but he withdrew from the production shortly after it commenced, ostensibly because he didn't like having to film some scenes twice to accommodate different film stocks. Sinatra was replaced by MacRae, and his reunion with Jones was received warmly.

By the end of the 1950s, though, post-Gigi (1958), the Golden Age of the movie musical rapidly began to come to an end, threatening the careers of those like Jones, whose primary skill set involved singing and/or dancing. "My career was over," she recalls. "I was a singer, and when you were a singer you weren't thought of as an actress."

What saved her, she says, were TV anthology series like Playhouse 90 and Philco Playhouse, which gave her the chance to show that she was capable of playing dramatic parts. Burt Lancaster saw her work on the former and promoted her to Richard Brooks for the part of a vengeful prostitute in the film Elmer Gantry (1960). The director was resistant -- he wanted Piper Laurie -- but Lancaster was a producer and insisted.

"My first scene in the film was the hardest scene I had to film -- the scene where I tell the house of prostitution how I met Elmer Gantry," Jones recalls. Prior to shooting it, Brooks gave her no directorial guidance, and Jones feared she had bombed it. The next day, however, after seeing the rushes, the director called her and said, "Shirley, this is Richard Brooks. I owe you an apology. Not only are you gonna be great in this film, but you're gonna win an Academy Award."

Brooks believed that, but Jones didn't -- not when she was nominated for the best supporting actress Oscar, and not even on Oscar night, when she thought Psycho star Janet Leigh's name would be called. "Everybody thought she was going to win, because she had won all of the other ones," Jones remembers. When they instead called Jones' name, she was shocked: "I nearly fainted!"

The main impact of the Oscar win, Jones says with the benefit of 53 years of hindsight, was that people would now consider her for dramatic roles -- which enabled her, she felt, to go back and make another musical, The Music Man (1962), one of the last great examples of the genre. Relatively few musicals have ever been nominated for the best picture Oscar -- not even Singin' in the Rain (1952) -- but Morton DaCosta's pic, which paired Jones with Robert Preston, was.

Jones went on to make a few other memorable films -- among them The Courtship of Eddie's Father (1963) with Glenn Ford and Bedtime Story (1963) with Marlon Brando -- but mainly, she recalls, "I wanted to stay home and raise my kids." She was offered a chance to star on television as Carol Brady in The Brady Bunch (1969-1974) -- she turned down the part, and it went to her close friend Florence Henderson -- but she said yes when asked to play another TV mother, Shirley Partridge, on The Partridge Family (1970-1974), opposite her stepson, David Cassidy. Why? "I was the first working mother on television," she says proudly. "I didn't have to take the roast out of the oven. We had a band, you know?"

While she has no regrets about her decision to do the now-classic show, she also feels it killed her film career. "At that time, it was a step down to do television," she explains, adding with laughter, "I became Mrs. Partridge, and once you become Mrs. Partridge, you don't go back to being Lulu Bains in Elmer Gantry!"

Jones hasn't worked all that much in the years since, not for lack of interest on the part of directors -- for instance, Alexander Payne strongly considered her for the part that Kathy Bates ultimately received a best supporting actress Oscar nomination for playing in About Schmidt (2002) -- but mainly because she has always desired a well-rounded life.

Her husband Ingels points out that even when Jones won the Oscar, she declared from the podium that it was the proudest moment of her career, not her life. He adds, "Shirley truly cares about her grandchildren, children, trees, the UPS man and me -- in that order." Jones chuckles and then adds, more seriously, "I'm very proud and very lucky to have had the career I had -- and very fortunate. I've loved every moment of it. But it was my job, not my life, you understand?"

Twitter: @ScottFeinberg