“Let them call me rebel, and welcome; I feel no concern from it. For I should suffer the misery of devils, were I to make a whore of my soul.”
– Thomas Paine
Last week while much of the world mourned the death of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, the passing of another actor went virtually unnoticed. Largely forgotten today, at one time he was poised for stardom and compared to James Dean, whom he greatly resembled. He died of gallbladder cancer at the age of 72 in Los Alamitos, California on January 31. His name was Christopher Jones.
Jones made only 6 films, most notably The Looking Glass War, based on the John le Carre bestseller, and David Lean’s Ryan’s Daughter, before he gave up acting to lead a quiet and obscure life.
Born in Jackson, TN, after joining the Army and serving a sentence for being AWOL, he moved to New York where he made his Broadway debut in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. One of the actors in the production, Shelley Winters, introduced him to actress Susan Strasberg, the daughter of famed Method acting coach, Lee Strasberg (Ms. Strasberg played a small part in my decision to seriously begin practicing Buddhism some 30 years ago). Jones and Strasberg were married in 1965. They later played opposite each other in Chubasco (1968) and were divorced soon thereafter.
Jones came to Hollywood in 1966 and starred in The Legend of Jesse James. Although the television series lasted only one season, Jones received more fan mail at 20th Century Fox than anyone since Tyrone Power years before. Jones went on to act in just those half-dozen films and then gave it all up, supposedly in reaction to the murder of Sharon Tate with whom he may have been having an affair. He stated that it caused him to have a nervous breakdown (that and the pressure of his many love affairs). Tate and four others were murdered by the Manson Family in 1969. Strangely though, Jones later lived in the guest house of the Benedict Canyon house where the murders took place
It is a shame Jones was never cast as James Dean because no other actor then or now would have been more prefect for the part, and it was seeing Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, that inspired him to become an actor. I remember Christopher Jones best for starring in one of the most “far-out” movies made by American International, the studio that produced Roger Corman’s films, Vincent Price’s horror movies, the Beach Party series with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello, and a slew of biker flicks. In Wild in the Streets, Jones plays a rock star who frustrated that his 14-year lead guitarist is too young to vote starts a protest movement (“Fourteen or Fight!”). Eventually, the character, Max Frost, becomes President, and decides to put everyone over the age of 30 in “re-education camps” where they are forced to take LSD.
Wild in the Streets also featured Shelly Winters, as Max Frost’s over-wrought mother, and Hal Holbrook, in what became a breakout role for him. Holbrook was cast as a U.S. Senator and then went on to a similar role in the TV series, The Bold Ones. Also in somewhat of a breakout part was a young comedian named Richard Pryor, who played the drummer in Max Frost’s group, The Troopers. The scene where Jones and Pryor share a smoke would hardly raise an eyebrow from today’s movie audiences. But back in 1968, a white man and a black man putting their lips on the same cigarette was downright subversive.
Jones seemed to have no regrets about dropping out of the acting business, and offered no explanations. “I am happy,” he told the Chicago Tribune in 2000. “I did exactly as I pleased – within my world.”
I thought the passing of this forgotten rebel deserved some mention.
And now, without further ado, here is Christopher Jones, as the one and only Max Frost, lip syncing the classic, “Shape of Things to Come”: