Jump to: navigation, search

The Guardian (13/May/1999) - Obituary: Henry Jones

(c) The Guardian (13/May/1999)

Henry Jones

A movie stalwart memorable in Vertigo and countless character roles

With his bug eyes, receding chin, and canine features, the face of supporting actor Henry Jones, who has died aged 86, was not easily forgotten even if his name was. His most famous roles were as Leroy, the screwy janitor in Maxwell Anderson's Bad Seed, on Broadway in 1954, and in the movie version two years later, and as the coroner in Alfred Hitchcock's 1958 masterpiece, Vertigo. His last film was Stephen Frears' The Grifters (1990).

In The Bad Seed, a study of a murderous child (Patty McCormack), the character is described by the girl's mother as "emotionally immature, torn by irrational rages, a bit on the psychopathic side... definitely a schizophrenic with paranoid overtones", which Henry Jones' portrayal didn't belie. He is the only one who sees through the "innocent girl". "I been way behind the times heretofore," he says in his distinctive whining and swooping voice, "but now I got your number." She promptly gets rid of him by burning down the garage in which he sleeps. His cynical and dry four-minute summing up on the death of a woman who has fallen from a tower, watched by a helpless James Stewart, in Vertigo, is an exemplar of how a good supporting actor can make much from little. After implying that the agoraphobic Stewart failed in his duty, he ends by telling the jury: "It's nothing to do with your verdict. It's a matter be tween him and his own conscience."

Henry Jones was born in Philadelphia, where he graduated from St Joseph's College. In the 1930s he acted at the Hedgerow Theater in Moylan, Pennsylvania, and debuted on Broadway in 1938 in Hamlet, with Maurice Evans in the title role, playing the Second Gravedigger, and by the end of the run, the First Gravedigger. He did more scene-stealing as Silence in Evans' production of Henry IV, Part One, and as Dudley Bostwick in William Saroyan's saloon-bar play The Time of Your Life. The playwright described the latter character thus: "His face is ridiculous. His personal rhythm is tense and jittery. His speech is shrill and violent," exactly as Jones played it. As a wartime private he appeared as a singing soldier in Irving Berlin's This Is the Army as well as in the 1943 film version.

His film career proper started in 1951 and continued until The Grifters. Among his best roles were as comic figures in two Frank Tashlin-Jayne Mansfield movies, The Girl Can't Help It (1956) and Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter? (1957); the preacher in Support Your Local Sheriff (1969) and the bicycle salesman in Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid (1969).

On Broadway in 1958, he won a Tony as best supporting actor for his role as Louis McHenry Howe, the small, asthmatic confidant of Franklin D Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy) who inspired him to stand for the presidency, in Dore Schary's Sunrise At Campobello. On television, Jones appeared in series such as The Defenders, Quincy and Murder, She Wrote. But it was as Judge Jonathan Dexter, Cloris Leachman's conservative stepfather in the sitcom Phyllis (1975-77), that he became a household face, using his droll voice to devastating effect.

Henry Jones, who was married and divorced twice, recalled that because of his unprepossessing appearance he had had a difficult time at the beginning of his career. He therefore contented himself with being a character actor, and was never out of work.