Christopher Jones, an actor who seemed poised for stardom before abruptly abandoning his movie career in the late 1960s, died on Jan. 31 in Los Alamitos, Calif. He was 72.
The cause was gallbladder cancer, said Paula McKenna, his longtime companion.
Jones made only a few films, but his talent and star power drew comparisons with James Dean, whose brief career his own mimicked in some ways. Like Dean, Jones studied at the Actors Studio, worked on Broadway and in television and projected an aura of wild yearning and raw energy, which he showed in films such as “Wild in the Streets” (1968) and “Ryan’s Daughter” (1970).
No one seemed to know why Jones dropped out of the movie-star business. Speculation ranged across several possible explanations: a troubled personal history, a rebel’s rejection of the strict regimen of filmmaking, his shock when a loved one was murdered because of her fame.
Jones told an interviewer in 2007 that he had been having an affair with the actress Sharon Tate when she and four others were viciously killed on Aug. 9, 1969, by members of the Charles Manson cult in the California home of Tate’s husband, the director Roman Polanski, who was away. Jones was filming “Ryan’s Daughter” in Ireland at the time.
His year there was one of the worst of his life, he told The Chicago Tribune. He was traumatized and depressed over Tate’s death and at odds with his co-star, Sarah Miles. “I had absolutely no desire to do anything for a long time,” he said.
He appeared in only one more film — “Mad Dog Time,” a 1996 comedy in which he had a small role — as a favor to a friend, Larry Bishop, the film’s director.
Yet directors and agents sought him out for years. Ron Howard once offered him a part, McKenna said. Quentin Tarantino sent him the script of “Pulp Fiction” while casting it.
“I didn’t know who he was,” Jones said in 2000. “And I wasn’t interested.”
Jones made his living in later years as a painter and sculptor, McKenna said, and became deeply involved in bringing up his children, five they shared and two from previous relationships. “He wanted to be there, the way he never had it,” she said.
William Frank Jones was born in Jackson, Tenn., on Aug. 18, 1941. His father was a grocery store clerk. His mother was an artist, who entered a mental hospital when he was 4 and died there when he was 19. Jones and his older brother, Bobby Joe, ended up in an orphanage.
When he came of age, Jones joined the Army, then went AWOL and spent six months in jail. Finding his way to New York, he worked odd jobs, studied painting, met artists and landed a small role in the 1961 Broadway production of Tennessee Williams’ “The Night of the Iguana.”
In 1965, he married Susan Strasberg, the daughter of the acting coaches Lee and Paula Strasberg. That same year he was cast in the starring role of the television series “The Legend of Jesse James,” which lasted one season. He and Strasberg divorced in 1968.
Besides McKenna, Jones is survived by his brother; four sons, Seagen, Tauer, Jeromy and Christopher; and three daughters, Calin, Delon and Jennifer Jones.
Jones’ second film, the low-budget satire “Wild in the Streets,” put him on the movie-star map in 1968 in the role of a rock star who becomes president of the United States and dispatches everyone over 30 to re-education camps for compulsory LSD treatment.
The film, which remains a cult favorite, struck a nerve in a year of political upheaval and brought Jones’ looks and charisma to wide attention. In quick succession, he was cast in “Three in the Attic” (1968), a tale of infidelity that also starred Yvette Mimieux; “The Looking Glass War” (1969), a spy thriller based on a John le Carré novel; and “Brief Season,” a story of star-crossed love.
His stardom peaked in 1969 when David Lean, the director of “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” “Lawrence of Arabia” and “Doctor Zhivago,” cast him as the romantic lead in “Ryan’s Daughter.” Jones portrayed a brooding British army officer, stationed in Ireland during the 1916 Easter rebellion, who becomes involved with an Irish woman (Miles) who is married to an older man (Robert Mitchum).
The movie was a box-office hit but received mixed reviews, and Lean himself considered it a disappointment, according to Kevin Brownlow’s biography of him. Lean and Jones had many conflicts on the set, but despite that, he told Brownlow, he found something special about Jones.
“He had this extraordinary quality of screen personality,” Lean said, “which I always find terribly difficult to describe, or even to understand.”