Disney: “Pinocchio,” Dickie Jones, and “Wrong Way” Hodgkins”
Dickie Jones didn’t see it coming. Neither did I, and as a result, we nearly ended up in Gary, Indiana.
Don’t get me wrong…Northern Indiana was indeed beautiful on June 23, 2000. And all we missed was a highway off ramp. It’s just that Dick, his wife Betty and I were due back in Rosemont, Illinois to give a presentation to a convention hall full of Pinocchio fans, and, since Dick had lent his voice to the animated title character in Disney’s 1939 classic, his appearance was just the other side of compulsory.
We should have simply remained at the hotel, but the weather was sunny and warm, even by California standards, and both Dick and Betty wanted to see downtown Chicago. So see it we did…from Wrigley Field to Soldier Field and back again, as Dick told us stories of previous visits, highlighted by a huge, star-studded rodeo he participated in at the latter venue.
On the return trip, however, due to some inopportune road construction and (let’s be candid, here) a less-than-attentive rental car driver (me), we missed our turn, and found ourselves heading south instead of north on Interstate 90, with signs indicating that we would soon be in Gary, Indiana, and not Louisiana; Paris, France; New York or Rome.
Or, most importantly, Rosemont, Illinois.
But then, it wasn’t the first time that Dick Jones’ career had taken an unintentional turn.
Born February 25, 1927, in West Texas, Dick was a veteran in the saddle before he was old enough to start school. By the age of four, he was billed as the “World’s Youngest Trick Rider and Trick Roper.” Trained for a career in rodeo, he was instead personally recruited to Hollywood by none other than silent cowboy star Hoot Gibson. Convinced by the actor that he had everything it took to make it in western pictures, Dick (and his mother) soon relocated to Los Angeles, where the young man quickly found work in the plentiful horse operas of the day.
He soon graduated to roles in other film genres as well, and may have created a new niche market playing what he calls “as-a-boy” roles. In other words, he appeared in the first reel or flashback scenes of several bio-pics and fictional flicks of the day, playing the lead character as a youth. Dick is pretty certain he appeared in more of these roles than any other child actor, and he makes a compelling argument. A quick glance at his IMDb page indicates he played characters listed in the official film credits as: “David as a child,” “Donald Pecos as a boy,” “Lee Danfield, Age 11,” “Matt Howard at 12,” “Samuel Clemens – age 15,” and my favorite, “Dick Abbott – Age 8-12.” And these represent less than half of his total “as-a-boy” roles.
By 1938, when he was cast as Pinocchio in Walt Disney’s second full-length animated film, he was a celluloid veteran, with credits in more than 40 features and serials. He would eventually appear in more than 100 films and 200 television episodes. But it was because of the long-term popularity of his one Disney project that he, Betty and I were in Chicagoland in the first place, heading the wrong way on Interstate 90.
Fortunately, a timely “U” turn was executed safely, and we arrived back at the Rosemont convention center with enough time for a shower and wardrobe change. Grace in abundance was extended to me by both of the Joneses, but it didn’t stop Betty, who handles most of the correspondence with good humor, from ribbing her directionally-challenged chauffeur annually on the Jones family Christmas card (see detail below).
Once on the stage, Dick continued spinning his fun tales. He also continued to express surprise that anybody would be interested in his life story. I kept assuring him between questions that everyone present was there for precisely for that reason.
No video or audio exists of our show (at least officially), but Dick was a candid delight. As with many child actors, his memories of the adults he worked with were limited (Kathryn Beaumont, Disney’s Alice and Wendy, has told me she was almost always doing schoolwork in a trailer between takes, leaving little or no time to chat with the other performers). He did, however, remember one particular skill of Walt Disney’s…his ability to throw push-pins like darts.
Animators and story men used the old style push-pins (the ones shaped like little “rooks” from a chess game) to construct their storyboards, so they were always around in great numbers. If Walt was around during a lull in production, he would challenge everyone to a contest. He threw them underhand, with great accuracy. Dick remembered trying to throw them, with comical results.
In addition to his Disney memories, I asked questions about his other work, and so the audience learned of, among other things, his excellent performances in two classic James Stewart films released the same year as Pinocchio…Destry Rides Again, and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
The next time you watch Mr. Smith, (and I suggest that you do it sooner than later) keep an eye out for the spunky U.S. Senate pageboy who gives Mr. Stewart’s title character a quick tour through the august chamber before the junior senator is sworn in. And when Mr. Smith asks the boy his name, our hero answers, “Richard Jones.”
Only in Hollywood.
Here I am with Betty and Dick after finishing our seminar
In the 1940s, Dick was one of the actors who played the role of Henry Aldrich on the popular radio program, The Aldrich Family. He also book-ended a stint in the Army with several more film roles, and finished out the decade under contract with Gene Autry’s Flying “A” Productions. It was this work which led to career transition to the small screen.
In 1951, Dick was cast alongside fellow stuntman and actor (and eventual screen Tarzan) Jock Mahoney in the Gene Autry television production of Range Rider. Playing the part of the Range Rider’s sidekick Dick West (the “All-American Boy”), Dick was able to play both comedy and drama, and put his skills as a trick rider and roper to good use. He also did all of his own stunts.
Here’s an episode of Range Rider, featuring Dick and star Jock Mahoney. Their obvious on-screen chemistry was one of the reasons for the show’s success.
The next couple of years, Dick appeared frequently in other Autry TV shows, including the flagship The Gene Autry Show, and Annie Oakley. In 1955, he was cast in a show of his own, the syndicated Buffalo Bill, Jr., also a Flying “A” Production.
Even though he was now the star, he continued to do his own stunts.
When he retired from the screen in 1959 (he occasionally took roles as a favor to good friends such as Alvy Moore of Green Acres fame), Dick moved on his next career in real estate. Honored as a Disney Legend in 2000, Dick is also a member of the Hollywood Stuntmen’s Hall of Fame and is a Golden Boot Award-winner, which honors actors, actresses, and crew members who have made significant contributions to the genre of Western television and movies.
These days, Dick and Betty live on their ranch in the San Fernando Valley, and spend a good deal of their time with their children and grandchildren, although Dick occasionally sneaks away for some deep sea fishing. The two also visit the occasional cowboy festival, and have been making appearances this year that coincide with Pinocchio‘s 70th Anniversary and it’s release on Disney DVD and Blu-ray.
PS: For essays on my events and experiences other Disney personalities, just select the “Disney” category from the drop down menu in the right sidebar.