by Angela Walker
The man perhaps best known for his roles in the Herbie the Bug (as in Volkswagen Bug) films and Disney family comedies has a long list of credits in film and stage acting, the latest of which includes a lead role in the film Mandie and the Secret Tunnel. Dean Jones made his film debut in 1956 in an uncredited role, then came to the public's attention in several films in the 1960s and 70s.
These days, Jones is known for his highly acclaimed one-man show St. John in Exile, which producer Dan Curtis brought to life on film, as well as his portrayal of the disciple Luke in the Visual Bible presentation of Acts. Most recently, he joined producers Owen Smith and Joy Chapman to star in their adaptation of the beloved children's book Mandie and the Secret Tunnel.
In a recent interview, Jones talked about the appeal of making a children's film like Mandie. "Mandie appealed to me because it was taken from a book that had already sold seven million copies. It was being produced and directed by Joy Chapman and Owen Smith, who are dedicated to family films.
"The story is powerful because it pits a very young woman against forces she cannot control and events she cannot possibly know about. She's in way over her head, and the audience will be pulling for her from the opening scene."
Mandie and the Secret Tunnel is a period piece, and the sets and costumes all beautifully reflect the setting of the story. But the truths it communicates are as fresh today as they were when originally written, and are equally applicable no matter the time frame. "Does it make a difference that John is ending a relationship with a quill pen instead of by e-mail? Not much," Jones said when asked about doing a period piece. "Why and what he is feeling are the important points. The play's the thing."
A typical day on the set meant Jones spent quite a bit of time around young people. "It was a joy to hear all the young people laugh! The advantage of being old is that you can more deeply feel the beauty of having been young."
When asked about his work with some of today's up and coming young producers, Jones replied, "After 50 years in the motion picture business, I'm still learning my trade.
"Mandie and the Secret Tunnel was a revelation. You have to admire this new breed of young filmmakers like Owen Smith and Joy Chapman. They beat the bushes for financing and then started shooting, never intimidated by the filmmaking process. Working with them is like catching a commuter train; the doors are open but the train doesn't stop."
From his many years in television, film and stage production, Jones offers some sage words of advice for young producers. "It's a fine line. Test the spirit. Will this film bring the audience closer to the victory they need to get through the week? Or will it convince them to give up trying because the world is going to hell anyway? Somewhere along the way, inject a spirit of power that will crush fear and release joy."
Jones' convictions about film come from his faith in Christ. He became a Christian when he was middle aged, and it immediately began to influence the roles he selected. "I won't blaspheme God. This immediately eliminates most scripts, but I see no reason, since I need all the help I can get, to encourage God to vacate the premises.
"The Spirit of a film is decisive. With the least bit of discernment, you can figure what motivates a person, their business, the movie they produce or direct, or the character they play in it. The Spirit of a character can be discerned and matched up against the Spirit of God. Is it a spirit of hope and love or the result of their lives being a series of angry blasts and fears?
"To try and discern the spirit of a script, what it does in the final analysis, what is its effect upon an audience, and how will the audience react," those are questions Jones asks himself as he considers roles. "Will the audience leave the theater anxious and angry or will they see a way, as a result of what's in the film, to attack the problems they face? That's the bottom line for me. In other words, does the movie produce good or evil?"
In the 60s and 70s, Jones appeared in some of Disney's most beloved family classics, working with some of the most talented actors to appear in films. "My first scene in a movie was with James Cagney. There I was, just out of the U.S. Navy, without an acting lesson to my name. In walks Cagney and says, 'Walk to your mark and remember your lines. That's all I've been doing for fifty years.' You can't take credit for blessings like that."
Jones also spends a great deal of time working with the charity he founded, the Christian Rescue Committee. He talked about the group's beginnings. "I was doing Show Boat at the Kennedy Center when a Jewish friend came backstage and said, 'We Jews couldn't have gotten our people out of the Soviet Union without the help of the Christian church. How come you Christians aren't helping the 200 million of your brothers and sisters who are being persecuted?'
"The next week I was told that 15 Christians were imprisoned in Saudi Arabia for having a prayer meeting. We sent an advocate and with the help of two U.S. Senators, three weeks later the Christians were on a plane leaving Saudi. I've been working with the committee ever since to help get people who are seriously persecuted for their faith escape to safer living conditions."
Whether it's rescuing persecuted Christians, working with young actors on film sets, or bringing Biblical characters to life, Jones pursues his career with passion, dedication and determination.
All photos courtesy of Lost World Productions