Despite making almost three dozen movies and being Oscar nominated, Jones is and will undoubtedly remain best known as Morticia on TV’s The Addams Family. Texas-born Jones was eager to get into acting from an early age, seeing it as a form of escape from her loneliness, awkwardness, low self-esteem and ailments ranging from asthma to acne. After high school she worked as a DJ and spent her earnings on self-improvement, investing in cosmetic treatments and speech lessons. To get past the 18-or-over entrance rule of the Pasadena Playhouse company, she reportedly lied, adding three years to her age. While there, she was briefly married to another student, but found a more lasting mate and creative partner in 1953 when she struck up a relationship with actor, playwright and film-making hopeful and future “King” of TV Aaron Spelling. Their marriage would last for the next 13 years. Since it was Jones who talked Spelling into giving up acting and concentrate on his writing, we must profusely thank her for decades of fun, sometimes campy appointment television, whether it was Charlie’s Angels, Dynasty or 90210.
Jones made her film debut in The Turning Point, and after playing a lady turned to a wax Joan of Arc in the appropriately titled The House of Wax, Jones was in The Big Heat, where she was rather memorably beaten by Lee Marvin. Big Heat director Fritz Lang suggested Jones to Fred Zinneman for his project From Here to Eternity, but Donna Reed got that role; some stories say that pneumonia forced Jones to pull out of the picture, but apparently the reason was that Jones was deemed “not a big enough star” to share the screen with Montgomery Clift. After this disappointing setback Jones kept toiling away at smaller roles and films for another few years, but on the plus side she definitely got lots of practice distinguishing herself, because she stood out in the tiniest, otherwise throwaway moments, and often succeeded in stealing the spotlight from much bigger stars. Just look at Invasion of the Body Snatchers or The Seven-Year Itch; it’s not just her distinctive eyes and dramatic look that made her one of the people you’ll remember from most of her movies, it was her talent; she turned a mere six minutes in The Bachelor Party into an Oscar nod. When she did get the bigger roles, as in Baby Face Nelson, Marjorie Morningstar, and The Man in the Net, she had presence in spades.
In 1954, soon after her missed opportunity in Eternity, and before her then-husband Spelling had landed his first big writing gigs, Jones appeared in the noir Shield for Murder. Her little part is compelling, and she commands attention alongside one of the most intense and fascinating pros ever to grace the screen, Edmond O’Brien. O’Brien plays a crooked cop who cold-bloodedly kills a bookie—I mean literally blows him away, right out of the frame, in front of a deaf mute window witness, before the credits even start rolling– with plans to use the money he steals for a down payment on a house. According to author Tom Weaver, Jones earned $500.00 a day for playing the bruised, fatalistic, spaghetti-craving floosy in Shield. She earned every penny and more, serving up one of her scene-stealing moments when she spies O’Brien in the mirror at the cellar bar, and during the course of their short acquaintance makes some keen observation about men who stare at themselves, about police and her own bruises, and teaches him how to hold a cigarette and be “tough”. The meeting ends badly when O’Brien dispenses some violent payback upon Claude Akins, leaving Jones a hysterical wreck.
As the 1950’s drew to a close, Jones was becoming pegged, in her words, as the go-to “kook.” Due to the steady work, and possibly the accompanying disappointment at being typecast without much progress, she was increasingly and thoroughly stressed out, and began fulfilling the press’ characterization of her as a real-life oddball as well. After finishing work on The Ice Palace with Richard Burton and Robert Ryan, Jones suffered a breakdown and attempted suicide, which led to husband Aaron Spelling helping her get psychiatric treatment and keeping her out of the public eye for a year and a half. Though she credited his support for saving her life, it was only a few years later in 1964 that the Spellings split amicably. Aaron reflected that they were probably married too young, and their constant concerns about landing the next job as well as the stresses of, and absences caused by, work inevitably got in the way. They remained close, and Spelling was the one who encouraged her to take The Addams Family, so as we thanked Jones for helping reveal to her husband his true calling, we must thank Spelling for helping to give us Morticia, one of the most memorable characters ever to grace the tube. All things considered, and obviously speaking strictly as a classic TV fan, it was a highly successful marriage from which emerged two lasting talents and household names.
The Addams Family was only on for a few years but ended up being Jones’ signature role by miles, fixing her in the minds of millions as the ultimate goth chick. After the series was canned by ABC, Jones kept working, often on Spelling’s shows. She was also politically involved, campaigning for Kennedy and Johnson, and seen on the picket line (where she would stop to sign autographs) when the Screen Actors Guild was on strike. Her second marriage was to a vocal coach, and her third was to a Canadian actor. Jones died aged 54 in 1983 after a long battle with colon cancer, which only near the very end forced her to leave her last acting job, on the TV soap Capitol. She’d been ailing for years but tried to hide it in order to keep working, since work always was for her a comfort and escape from personal troubles.
*A version of this article previously appeared in Dark Pages (the newsletter for Noir lovers, hence the focus on Shield for Murder)