Some years ago I showed the 1939 classic Destry Rides Again to my class at USC; most of the students had never seen it. Following the screening I introduced Dick Jones, who appeared in the film and was featured in the penultimate scene with James Stewart. We talked about the fact that he worked with Stewart that same year in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, and also spent some time at the Walt Disney studio recording the dialogue for Pinocchio. I turned to the class and said, pointedly, “He was the voice of Pinocchio.” This was greeted by a chorus of oohs and ahhs and immediately changed the tenor of the evening.
Pinocchio gave Dick a kind of immortality, but if it affected him he certainly never showed it. He was gracious and self-effacing, proud of the work he did in show business but not one to live in the past. When jobs became scarce, he moved on, obtained a real estate license, and made a good living, specializing in appraisals. Or as he liked to say, “I didn’t retire from the motion picture business; I’m just an actor without a job right now.”
My wife was tongue-tied when she first met him, (as she had a crush on Dickie, as he was then known) from his days on early television as the sidekick to Jock Mahoney on The Range Rider and the star of his own series, Buffalo Bill, Jr. The fact that he was so warm and likable made it all the more rewarding to know him and his cheerful wife Betty.
I think one reason Dick remained down-to-earth is that he’d been through so much in his life. Earning prizes as a champion horseback rider in Texas rodeos at the age of 3, relocating to Hollywood, going out on auditions, winning some parts and losing others, serving in the Army during World War II then coming home and not finding any jobs…and so much more.
After the war he wanted to get married and start a family. Unable to find work in movies, he took a job at a gas station. “Then I started working as a carpenter; I worked apprentice to get a journeyman’s on that, and I was doing pretty good. I was making $35 dollars a week, if it didn’t rain. We had [our first child] Melody and paid for it out of $35 dollars a week. Boy, you can’t have a baby today at that price. I worked all kinds of jobs ‘cause I had a sexy brunette wife and babies to feed. I stood in the unemployment line one time and that was so degrading, I said, ‘No way! I am healthy, I’m not going to do this; I’m going to earn my keep.’ And I never did stand in line again. Then getting that job with Gene Autry...I don’t know what happened but right after that I got all kinds of calls.” Autry cast him in some of his Westerns, then put him to work with Jock Mahoney on The Range Rider, which showed off Dick’s remarkable agility and horsemanship.
He and “Jocko,” one of Hollywood’s most talented stuntmen, got on famously and devised their own elaborate action scenes for the half-hour series, which was filmed at a breakneck pace. “Oh, man, we had so much fun,” Dick recalled. “We’d stay up at night and conjure up things and say, ‘Well, has this ever been done?’ ‘No, but we’re gonna figure out [how] it can be done.’ We did stuff that’s never been on television before. Our timing was identical. We could say, ‘OK, one, two, three’ and walk around the block and come back and we’d still be on the same count.”
Yet he was a man of quiet contradictions. Although he was once billed as The World’s Youngest Trick Rider and Trick Roper he confessed to me that he never liked horses—and didn’t own one. And while he was happy to be identified as the voice of Pinocchio, he admitted that it was one of his toughest assignments because he always felt claustrophobic indoors. “Most of the time they’d have to spend half an hour trying to find me ‘cause I’d be around the studio somewhere.”
Yet it’s that credential more than any other that will keep Dick Jones’ name alive in movie history.
Our condolences go out to Dick’s wife and family. He lived a full, rich 87 years…but we’ll miss him just the same.