Christopher Jones - Wild at Heart
by Jan E. Morris
In 1968, life above the Sunset Strip at the Chateau Marmont was a world apart from Jackson, Tennessee where Billy Frank Jones was born (August 18, 1941). The younger son of J.G. and Robbie Jones, Billy Frank spent the first three years of his life living in a cramped apartment over a grocery store. His father earned their living as a grocery clerk. His mother was a talented artist. His father spoke highly of Robbie's talent, "How she could draw! She'd look at a scene or a face and then with a pencil or crayon she would bring it to life again on a sheet of paper. It was a wonder to watch her. And even as a youngster, Billy Frank had the same ability." But Robbie was a fragile soul and the emotional instabilities she struggled with took her away from her sons in 1945 when his father had her admitted to the State Hospital in Bolivar, Tennessee. The treatment of mental illnesses was as harsh as the social stigmas surrounding it in those days and there was little hope for her recovery. She would remain there until she died in 1960. Chris barely remembers her. "I can remember her picking me up once." he's said, "but I can't remember what she looked like."
Without his wife, J.G. was unable to care for his two lively little boys. The boys were split up and Billy Frank was sent to live with an aunt in Mississippi. Two years later he was reunited with his brother, Robert, and the boys were placed in Boys Town in Memphis, Tennessee. Billy Frank lived there until he was sixteen. In spite of his rebellion against the uniforms and the regimentation of life in Boys Town, his intelligence, charm and talent won people over. Other boys looked up to him and he channeled much of his frustration through his sketching. Joe Stockton, the executive director of Boys Town during much of Billy Frank's time there, was impressed with the boy's artistic ability enough to arrange a scholarship for him at an art school. Even though he lost interest with the classes, Billy Frank designed a crest for Kingsbury High School while he was at Boys Town that has been used for many years. "This boy was no punk," Stockton is quoted to have said, "Don't ever believe anything you might read that would make you think that. He was bright and he was good. He should be living proof to other underprivileged boys that you can become a fine man and find your own place in life no matter what has happened, if you just aim for the heights."
Chris remembered one hot summer day when he was called into Mr. Stockton's office. "I must have been 14 or 15 years old at the time and I was sure I was going to be punished for something. Instead, the man handed me a copy of Life magazine with a photo of James Dean [from Giant] on the cover. After a long silence he said, 'You know Billy, you look just like this guy!' and as I studied the picture, he sat staring at me. I saw a resemblance, although I'd never seen a picture of James Dean before." Stockton later took him to see Rebel Without a Cause when the film first came to town in 1955. He'd seen an article about James Dean's death in a car accident, which made the actor more fascinating for a young man who was surrounded with the hot Chevy's and Ford's being produced in the fifties, more than one of his friends had driven those fast cars to their death. In Memphis, Elvis and Rock & Roll and fast cars were KING. His first heroes were Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. "Dean had a sophisticated subtility about him and although people have always compared me to him, at the time I would have preferred to be thought of as more flashy, like Elvis. After seeing Love Me Tender and East of Eden at about the same time, I realized how brilliant James Dean was. I've always been torn between the two role models though."
His father remarried and had three other children, but the boys were only allowed home to visit on holidays. Billy Frank walked away from Boys Town just before his 16th birthday, he went home to Jackson and spent the next year living with his father's new family. He passed the time babysitting for the children and going to the movies. The first time he saw a movie, he knew he would not spend his life in Tennessee. His quote from a 1966 interview, "I adored movies. Everything was so clean and uncomplicated in the movies. All those important people in their big houses. That was my ideal. I wanted to be a movie star. The movies kept me going for a long time. They kept me going until I learned in New York three years ago that there is no ideal, that there are very few people who aren't hypocrites."
His family asked no questions and made no demands on him living at home, but Billy Frank was restless to find out what was beyond the horizon. One day he brought home papers for his father to sign to enlist him into the army. The strict regimentation of military service wasn't what he had planned on and one night, impulsively acting on an urge to go to New York, he walked away AWOL. He stole a car and drove to New Orleans, then on to New York, stopping at James Dean's birthplace in Indiana along the way. It's hard to imagine how many people have walked up to the front door of the Dean's family homestead, but Billy's striking resemblance to Jimmy opened the door and got him invited in to a warm reception.
"The Winslows were very nice people and made me feel right at home." Chris remembers, "Marcus [Jimmy's cousin] was not home, I suppose he may have been in school. They took me up to Jimmy's room where his Levi's were lying on the bed waiting for him to jump into them and there were several pairs of boots on the floor just where he had left them. His Uncle showed me his motorcycle and took me to the barn to see Jimmy's hand print they had put in the cement when he was nine years old. He also told me Jimmy fell while he was playing and his Father made him a plate which he wore for the rest of his life." Years later, Jack Simmons, who appeared with Dean in "Rebel," told Chris sometimes Jimmy would break the plate and could be seen without it at Googies Coffee Shop next door to the famous Schwabs Drug Store on Sunset Blvd.
In New York, a friend convinced Billy to turn himself in to the army and he was shipped off to serve out a sentence on Governors Island. When he was released six months later, he eagerly hit the streets of New York. He met a painter and studied painting for a while, an art form that remains a life long passion for him.
He made friends with an actor studying under Frank Corsaro who talked Billy into going to a couple of classes with him. He fit in with the actors and became serious about acting, soon changing his name to Christopher Jones. Corsaro, having been a close friend of James Dean, introduced Billy to classical music, just like he'd done for Dean a few years before. "I've always felt there was a supreme hand at work during my whole experience in New York. It was as if I'd been sent to fill an emptiness in a void left after Dean's death. Some were men, some were women, some were famous, some had never made it to the business, but Jimmy had left a big impression on them just the same." Even his future wife, Susan Strasberg, had known Dean quite well. Chris had his own ideas, "I never took the resemblance and comparisons to Dean too seriously, I felt that I had talent in my own right."
When Shelley Winters met Christopher on the stage of Tennessee William's Night of the Iguana, it was the beginning of a lasting friendship. Shelley embraced her two young Iguana proteges, Chris Jones and Jimmy Farentino. "Every night we would take the Jaguar out of Shubert Alley and Chris and Jimmy and Alex and I would find belly dancers in the Village, Mabel Mercer on the East Side, and jazz in Harlem. We once broke into Al Roon's Health Club at 3:00 A.M. for a swim. I was able to lock the door as we left, and thus escape arrest. We once ran out of gas on the West Side Highway. Nobody would walk to the nearest gas station. We just sat there, looking at the lights on the Jersey shore. There we sat, three handsome young men and a platinum blonde sitting on the hood of an enormous two-toned gray Jag with a British license plate . "
One night Shelley and the boys were having dinner at Downey's and Susan Strasberg walked in. Christopher recognized her and begged Shelley to introduce him, "That's Susan Strasberg, " he said, "I'm going to marry her." Susan remembered her first impression of Chris, "[Shelley and I] talked for a few minutes and she introduced me to Christopher. He had medium brown hair streaked with gold, deep brown eyes, high cheekbones, and a bowed sensual mouth. He was wearing a shirt unbuttoned to the waist, skin tight faded jeans, and although it was freezing outside, a lightweight leather jacket I hadn't even caught his name."
Christopher's path crossed Susan's several times in the months ahead. He was admitted to Lee Strasberg's Actors Studio as an observer and watched her intensely from the balcony. Susan remembered one weekend in 1961 when a group of friends were invited to Long Island for the weekend. "There was a thunderstorm that night. It was terrifying, yet beautiful. Christopher tore off his shirt and ran onto the beach into the pelting rain. 'I'm going swimming,' he called. 'You're crazy, come back inside ... it's not safe,' we implored him. Instead, he began to do a rhythmic, erotic dance between the flashes of lightning. It was as if in the eye of the storm he became the storm itself. And, like it, appeared both beautiful and dangerous."
Not long after, Susan found herself walking with Christopher on the streets of New York. The afternoon stretched into the next two weeks. It was the blissful beginning of a turbulent lover affair that spanned many years of the most influential decade of a generation, the 1960's. While Christopher was still serious about acting, his association with the Strasberg Actor's Studio and Susan's father, Lee Strasberg, was filled with conflict.
In 1963, Chris and Susan accepted an invitation to drive to Los Angeles with their close friends the Orbach's, Jerry and Marta. While they were on the road they heard the news of the Kennedy shooting, the world they were living in was changing on many levels. When they arrived in Los Angeles, they checked into the Chateau Marmont. The Sunset Strip was already showing signs of the coming of age of a new generation.
Their love affair became more intense, more complicated. Christopher told Susan about the year his mother had died. How he couldn't sleep lying down the whole year after. He would sleep fully dressed, sitting up watching TV. One night he was watching one of Susan's movies, The Cherry Orchard. There was one scene with a close up of Susan's character smiling. Christopher was stuck by her resemblance to a picture he had kept of his mother smiling into the camera. As he watched, the image from the photograph superimposed itself over Susan's. Susan allowed Chris to become the center of her universe never knowing what trigger might turn his tender adoration into jealous violence. To add to the paranoia, the drug culture swirled around them and the lovers found themselves drawn into a lifestyle of all night parties and wasted days.
In 1965, Christopher landed the lead in a TV series The Legend of Jesse James. Susan was sure things would be different, Chris would be the wage earner for the first time in their relationship and he wouldn't feel threatened by her. Within weeks after the show aired, Christopher was receiving more fan mail than any actor at Twentieth Century Fox since Tyrone Power. A few months later, Susan found out she was pregnant with the couple's first child. They were married in September of 1965 in Las Vegas. The TV show was picked up for another season, but even with the birth of their daughter, Jenny, Christopher was never able to break free from the darkness that haunted him.
The series ended after the second season and movie offers started pouring in. Christopher was offered a film called Chubasco and after several difficult attempts to find an actress that Chris would approve to play his character's love interest, they convinced Susan to take the part. In 1967, after the filming ended, their marriage fell apart.
With his personal life in turmoil, Christopher exposed himself full force to the seductive lure of Hollywood. He'd acquired a taste for expensive clothes, sports cars and beautiful women and accepted two key roles that fit his smooth, slow simmering style. Wild in the Streets was an instant success and the release of Three in the Attic followed shortly after, inking in Christopher Jones as the hottest property in Hollywood.
Wild in the Streets hit the screens in 1968. The second wave of baby boomers, more indulgent and more numerous, were teenagers cutting their teeth on the full swing of the cultural revolution. When the long party came to an end in the early seventies, this younger, more flexible group were the first to cut their hair and blend in with the establishment, but they never forgot the one piece of knowledge Christopher's character in Wild in the Streets had made them aware of ... the collective power of their number. In retrospect, Max Frost had a lot of support from the real Establishment. Wild in the Streets may seem a bit campy from our lofty positions in the nineties, and originally it was intended as a spoof on the hypocrisies of its time. Yet, Christopher Jones projected the kind of charisma powerful enough through his character in a silly B-Movie to influence the Mayor of Chicago during the 1968 Presidential Convention to hire security to protect the water supplies of the city from being laced with LSD. Today, it's hard to write about it without sudden outbursts of laughter. Back then they had good reason to worry, in the hot summer of 1968 the American youth were a majority (52% of the population was under the age of 25), making their presence known on the streets of our cities by protesting a war the world has never been able to come to terms with.
Hollywood was a small town back then, it still is. The Doors were riding high on the success of Light My Fire and commanded the attention of the intellectual, rebellious elders of their generation. Away from the spotlights, Jim Morrison divided his time between his girlfriend's (Pamela Courson) apartment in Laurel Canyon and the hotels on Sunset Boulevard. One afternoon, as Christopher pulled his shiny sports car into the garage of the Chateau Marmont, a pretty redheaded girl climbed onto the hood of the car demanding to know who he was. She introduced herself as Pam Morrison, Jim Morrison's wife. While Christopher knew nothing about Pamela, Morrison's friends knew the couple was inextricably joined in a love affair that would end only by death. Jim, raised in the same southern traditions as Chris, loved the ladies too and the rapidly changing rules of sexual freedom allowed young men the opportunity to pursue any impulsive desire. It was not cool for a girl to demand fidelity in her lover, Pamela, however, was not above showing Jim she could play the game as well as he and seductively paraded some of the most beautiful men in Hollywood past Morrison to prove it. Chris, thinking Pamela was married, was not interested until Pam admitted she was not legally attached.
Christopher spent time with Pamela on occasion over the course of the next few months. When Christopher flew to London to begin filming The Looking Glass War, Pamela accompanied him. Things went well for a couple of weeks until Christopher wrote a letter to his ex-wife, Susan. Pamela read the letter and flew into a rage, throwing the hotel key at Chris and disappearing with her suitcases. Back in Los Angeles, Morrison came to the decision his breakup with Pamela had gone on long enough. He disappeared without telling anyone, flew to London to find Pamela and bring her home.
The Looking Glass War was Chris' first "big" picture. He had dismissed his previous projects as garbage and longed for a chance to do serious work. The film was released in the spring of 1970 a few months before Ryan's Daughter. During the filming of War, Chris fell in love with his leading lady, Pia Degermark. Perhaps more evenly matched then some of his previous relationships, he considered her a friend as well as a lover. They stayed in Italy together for the filming of a second picture, Brief Season. Chris was again at odds with the filmmakers, for him the shoot was both degrading and frustrating.
As his relationship ended with Pia, Christopher met Sharon Tate. Sharon was in Italy filming 13 (Eye of the Devil). She was already married to Roman Polanksi and carrying his child, but Roman couldn't get a Visa into Italy to be with her. Chris became a close friend of Sharon's, taking it upon himself to watch after her while she was alone in Italy.
In March of 1969, Chris flew to Ireland for the filming of Ryan's Daughter. It was the most anticipated studio film of the year with a big budget ($12 million) and distinguished cast. The coast of Ireland was picked for its location because of its reputation for fierce coastal storms, 1969 proved to be a drenching the filmmaker's were not prepared for. The cast and crew brought their eccentricities along with them. Between the director, David Lean's, hold outs for sun or the right cloud in a scene and the crew growing stir crazy in the remote rural setting, the shoot seemed doomed from the start.
In one of the scenes Chris' character, Major Doryan, first meets Rosy, played by Sarah Miles, in this bar scene. Rosy calms Doryan after an episode of shell shock and the energy between them explodes in a burst of passion. Doryan throws himself against Rosy pinning her to the wall in a passionate kiss.
The film was shot in sequence, so this was the first time Chris and Sarah worked together on the set. They played out the scene and David Lean, the director, asked for a retake. The actors replayed the scene through several more retakes, each time Lean came over to push Chris against Sarah. About the 4th retake, as Chris pushed Sarah against the wall, the glass in the picture hanging behind them shattered and glass fell from behind Sarah cutting Chris' hand as it fell to the floor. The picture was taken away and fitted with plexiglass. Lean continued to cut the scene, leaving Chris to wonder what could be missing in his performance. Some thirty takes later, Lean gave in and angrily yelled "print it".
In the remote location, rushes took several days to send to MGM for processing and get back to the set, and when Lean saw the scene on film, he found Chris to make an apology, telling him he saw where Chris was at with his performance, he couldn't see it until it was on film.
Olivia Hussey arrived for a visit during the filming and stayed in Ireland for weeks on end to be with Chris. At one point Christopher decided to marry the eighteen year old star of Romeo and Juliette, but his managers convinced him to wait until after the release of Ryan's Daughter. Olivia never forgave him for changing his mind. She married Dino Martin (Dean Martin's son) in 1971.
On August 9, 1969 Sharon Tate and four others were brutally murdered by the Manson Family in Benedict Canyon. A darkness fell over the entire Hollywood community. One of Chris' managers owned the property where the murders took place and left immediately for Los Angeles. To make matters worse, Christopher had actually lived in the house. The murder of his close friend was particularly devastating for Christopher. Already isolated from the others, he suffered in silence.
As shooting progressed, Chris had another memorable experience. The filmmakers were working on the scene where Major Doryan stops the revolutionary's truck along side the road. As he played out one of the takes, Chris thought his work was where it should be, the other actors played along and Lean took the scene as it evolved. When the dailies came in, Chris was horrified by how badly he had actually looked in the scene and that Lean would have allowed him to play the scene through.
As a bonus for Brief Season, Dino De Laurentiis gave Chris a silver 1969 365 GT Ferrari, he'd shipped it from Rome against the producer's wishes and that day after seeing the dailies, he impulsively jumped in it to take a drive and cool down. There were very few cars in Northern Ireland in 1969, certainly nothing like the sport scar he was driving. He was alone, Olivia had left for Italy to accept an award for Romeo and Juliette and he'd turned down a request by one of her friends to ride along. The road was paved and he cruised easily at about a 100 mph. He drove through a small village passing a Convent. As he came over a rise, he spotted a pretty Nun walking beside the road toward him, their eyes met as his car approached and he remembers the glint of sunlight from her crucifix as she reached for it when he passed by. The moment struck him as a strange omen, but before he had time to contemplate what it might mean, the road dipped sharply, and formed a sharp L shaped turn with a pole standing straight ahead. Chris slammed on his brakes and the tires began smoking until they blew out, one after another. The car slide sideways toward the pole. Unable to do anything to avoid the impact, Chris pushed himself backward into the back seat. The impact rolled the car sideways over a six foot drop, the windows breaking around him. It came to an uneasy rest, teetering on the edge of a hundred foot drop off. The motor was still running and the music of Monterey by The Animals was still playing on the eight track tape. Fearing the car would catch fire, Chris climbed quickly out of the passenger door. A couple in a Jeep had seen the crash, and a peasant woman came running toward him and he was taken back to the set. Except for a few cuts and bruises, he was unhurt.
A few days later, on the set of the scene where Doryan comes to the hill above Rosy's house and she runs to meet him, Chris was sitting waiting for the shoot and David Lean turned to him and asked "Were you scared?"
In retrospect, for all the years of rhetoric and speculation about the difficulties between Lean and Chris, it should be noted that both director and actor made piece with the experience long before the filming made it the mythological legend it remains today. In his 1997 book, David Lean: A Biography, it is noted there were certain parts of the filming that Lean was very pleased with Chris. He is quoted to say, " he had this extraordinary quality of screen personality which I always find terribly difficult to describe or even to understand." Chris is also quoted in the biography, "But you know, I loved Lean, and he liked me and we got along great most of the time. Just a few times it was head-to-head. But I totally respected him. A brilliant director. The best there was."
When a grueling year of filming came to an end, Christopher Jones flew home to Los Angeles and vanished from the public eye. "I'd had a nervous breakdown over Sharon Tate's death. I had done three pictures in a row in Europe, and had so many love affairs I was exhausted. I was tired, man." Chris explained in a 1996 interview. The Looking Glass War premiered in February of 1970 and Ryan's Daughter opened in November, Christopher Jones was noticeably absent. The two films were not a great success, but Christopher was still sought after for future projects. His managers were wheeling big deals but their star was reluctant to continue with the exhausting pace. He'd moved into his manager's guest house on the property where the Tate killings had occurred in Benedict Canyon. Chris, still very upset over Sharon's death, watched unbelieving as the owner's guests were shown blood stained carpets and repeated grizzly stories over and over. When they suggested he go for a week of retreat in Virginia, putting him through a bizarre attempt to get him back into the swing of things, Chris walked away cold, making himself unavailable to anyone in the industry.
A new decade had dawned, The Age of Aquarius, we were told, but the years of revolution had taken their toll. When Chris returned from Virginia, he took up residence for a while at the Ramada Inn on Sunset Blvd. Christopher may have been alone, but had he known, he was in good company. If you were a part of the Los Angeles hippie culture and focused enough to see through the purple haze, you might have recognized Christopher slumming around the Sunset Strip in 1970. A few blocks over on Santa Monica Boulevard, you might have recognized a bearded Jim Morrison drifting through the strip clubs and reading for hours on sidewalk benches. They had both wanted out long before their professional contracts released them, both Jones and Morrison were at the peak of their careers in 1968. Less than a year later, exhausted by the excesses of his life and the pressures of fame Morrison publicly destroyed his professional career on a Miami stage. Sadly enough, the media covered every inch of his demise and the beautiful young lion grew old before our eyes, less than three years later he was dead at the age of 27.
The news of Morrison's death sent another wave of devastation through an already troubled Jones. "The death of Jim Morrison really upset me more than anything else." Chris has been quoted to say, "I felt empathy for him, and I identified with what he was saying. The fact that he died that young really affected me."
Chris kept a low profile for the next few years. He was very effective at avoiding the media, but rumors within the Hollywood community circulated randomly and the longer he remained unavailable, the more outrageous the rumors became. He owned a home in Doheny Estates for most of the 1970's but spent very little time there, preferring to stay with friends in Hollywood. In 1974 through early 1975 he lived in the Hollywood Hills with Sherry Dodd. To say those years were emotionally difficult for him would be an understatement, he struggled with the reality of his fame and the disillusionment it had left in its wake. He struggled with the years he experienced status as a hot property in Hollywood, years filled with more obligations than time to live life. He contemplated power and his feelings of powerlessness in the aftermath of Sharon's death. Yet, unlike many influential people of his generation, Chris Jones survived, finding his way on his own terms. He'd earned over a million dollars since making Wild in the Streets, he had his Porsche and people he considered his friends. His next role would prove to be his greatest.
In 1974, Chris met Carrie Abernathy and a year later Chris' son was born. Christopher Jr.'s birth in 1975 was another turning point in his Father's life and Chris settled down to play a major role in raising him. "My Dad is a great Father, he would do anything to make his kids happy." his son says today. Relying on money earned during his film career, the family lived in the San Fernando Valley and Chris devoted much of his energy to his son and his painting. Chris has never lost interest in perfecting his talent as an artist, and while he started by sketching, he has painted with oils and watercolors over the years and now prefers to work with acrylic paint, having developed a technique to give acrylics the rich textured appearance of oil painting.
In the early 1980's Chris' relationship with Carrie ended and his financial resources were depleted. He was again adrift, staying with friends, never staying anywhere for long. Then in 1984, he met Paula Mckenna. The couple began a love affair that would last for the next ten years and produce four beautiful children. From time to time a filmmaker would seek Chris out with an offer of work, but Chris was content to raise his new family. "I gave up a lot these last few years, I stayed home and paid attention to my kids." Chris said in a recent interview.
In 1994, Quentin Taratino went looking for Chris hoping to cast him in what would become one of the breakout hits of the mid 1990's, Pulp Fiction. Quentin was a big fan of Chris' in the sixties and although they had long conversations over acting and Taratino's upcoming project, Chris was reluctant to return to acting and on the advice of those close to him, he turned down the offer.
This biography is in the process of being rewritten from Chris' own perspective. This current edition has been published with his personal approval.