Thursday, January 27, 2011

Hungry? How about a little Sam-wich?

A whole slew of kids watched Buster Crabbe enact the role of Flash Gordon in several movie serials back in the 1930s. To a later generation, one who attended movies in the early 1980s, there was another actor who embodied the role, albeit just once and in a film that wound up only being marginally successful in the U.S. The actor was Mr. Sam Jones.

He was born Samuel Gerald Jones in Chicago, Illinois on August 12th, 1954, but was raised in West Palm Beach. Florida. His youth was spent swimming, surfing, scuba diving and playing sports in the sand along the Atlantic Ocean. While still in his teens, he joined the U.S. Marine Corps, serving for two years, something that would come in handy later in his life when called upon to portray soldiers of fortune.

Afterwards, he worked at odd jobs (even selling shoes at one point. I doubt that anyone really looked at his or her feet when Sam was down there slipping the footwear on!) He played a little semi-professional football and also did some local modeling. (He was, after all, 6’ 3” and drop dead gorgeous.) Finally, he decided to give Los Angeles a try and moved there in the mid-70s.

Unable to secure acting roles of any significance, he continued to pursue modeling and, with nothing to be ashamed of physically, he even posed for Playgirl Magazine under the assumed name Andrew Cooper III in 1975. Like many performers before and since, these photos would later be dug up in order to cash in on his newfound fame.

Despite his staggering handsomeness, his winning smile and beguiling charisma before the camera, it took until 1979 for him to land a part in films. Blake Edwards selected him to portray the husband of Bo Derek in the movie 10. The Dudley Moore/Julie Andrews comedy turned Derek into an international sensation as she was featured running along the beach in a flimsy swimsuit while her hair was done in beaded cornrows. (Many a less attractive hag came back from vacationing in the islands with this look, which seemed to suit no one else on Earth except Miss Derek!)

He and Derek made one super beautiful couple, though his participation in the film wasn’t nearly as considerable (nor as attention-getting) as hers. Nonetheless, he was featured in a hit movie amongst famous costars and directed by a well-known filmmaker. He swiftly appeared in a TV-movie pilot (that went nowhere) called Stunts Unlimited. The series would have had a team of former stuntmen-turned-espionage agents doing battle each week, but it didn’t sell.

This hardly kept him from achieving success. In fact, freedom from being on a TV series probably aided him in securing his next part, that of a classic, iconic comic strip and serial hero: Flash Gordon.

Producer Dino de Laurentiis was putting together an elaborate, lavishly decorated update of the famous character and was casting the title role from a pool of hopefuls. Kurt Russell was under consideration for a while, but he felt that the character lacked personality and called off negotiations. Jones had appeared on an episode of that eternally tacky game show The Dating Game and caught the eye of de Laurentiis’ mother. One thing lead to another and Jones was cast as the title character in Flash Gordon!

Brown-haired Sam had his locks bleached blonde to match the famous space traveler, but he wasn’t able to endure the blue contact lenses intended for him, so he kept his own light brown eyes. Ironically, his female costar Melody Anderson had always been blonde, but had to go brunette for her character of Dale Arden. The updated version of the story had Flash as an American football player, something Jones (now billed as Sam J. Jones.) was able to convey without concerns.

Expertly cast as the exotic villains were Max Von Sydow as Ming the Merciless and Ornella Muti as his daughter, Princess Aura. Much the way Buck Rogers had been sexually toyed with by Princess Ardala in the late-70s TV show Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Muti was simultaneously pitted against and yet attracted to Jones. For part of the film, Jones was clothed in nothing but a small pair of black pleather briefs. (This was my favorite look on him for obvious reasons!)
Meanwhile, Anderson, was gussied up in some ornate headgear and costuming as part of Von Sydow’s plans for her. They made a beautiful couple, though superstardom was not in the cards for them, such as it had been for the main trio from Star Wars. Incidentally, George Lucas wanted to make a film version of Flash Gordon and when the rights were not available, he went off and wrote Star Wars in the same action-filled, serialized fashion, complete with an all-powerful villain and heroes worth rooting for.

Filming of the expensive and garish movie was torturesome and complicated, with director Mike Hodges and producer de Laurentiis at loggerheads for much of the time. Hodges later referred to it as “the only improvised $27-million movie ever made.” Jones eventually departed the production after some sort of dispute and, as a result, wasn’t on hand to re-record many of his lines. An unnamed actor did the voice-overs for a significant part of his dialogue.

As anticipation for the movie grew, Sam found himself being profiled and promoted in the entertainment magazines and newspapers. This clipping to the right from Rona Barrett’s Hollywood magazine is typical of the types of little blurbs and mentions he was getting in the press. (Click to enlarge, natch!)

Playgirl, recognizing this new leading man as one of their old centerfold models, reprinted his photos along with other previously unpublished ones, and created a whole new spread with shots of him from Flash Gordon interspersed. Thus, an unintentionally naughty perception of him was created before the public when he had been cast in the role because of his extremely wholesome and earnest looks!

Upon release, the picture was a considerable flop in America, perhaps containing too British a sensibility or maybe just not coming at the right time. Though it was popular in the U.K. and in Europe, and featured some interesting music by Queen, Flash crashed in the U.S. Any thoughts of a sequel, at least one with Jones in it, were dashed, especially once the falling out had occurred. It did, however, pick up a cult following that remains strong even today.

With no other feature film prospects on the horizon, Jones took a role in an Irwin Allen produced TV series called Code Red. Starring Lorne Greene as a fire chief with two fireman sons, Jones and Andrew Stevens, it was an adventure show along the lines of Emergency!, only with more emphasis on family. Julie Adams played Greene’s proud wife and Adam Rich, fresh off the cancellation of the series Eight is Enough, played their younger adopted son.

While working on Code Red, Jones found himself on the ABC team at the 1981 Battle of the Network Stars. Across the nation, girls (and some boys, surely) licked their TV screens as he competed in events wearing a little green Speedo with white piping detail. He swam the last leg of the relay, losing to the very athletic Mark Harmon, and was anchor on his team in the kayak race, but his lead was overtaken by Dallas’s Jared Martin in a photo finish. Jones could barely believe it when he realized he’d lost by such a narrow margin. Even an amazing turn by him in the running relay, in which he made up for time lost by another teammate, didn’t result in a win. At least he did it wearing only a white cap and white shorts. No shirt. Ha ha!

Unfortunately, Code Red only ran for part of one season (less than twenty episodes) before the grim reaper of cancellation appeared. In the wake of this, Jones appeared as a guest star on several of the popular action series of the day including The A-Team, Hunter, Riptide and Hardcastle and McCormick.

By 1986, he got another shot at a feature film, this time as the male lead in support of a female star. The mid-80s was a time of romantic pairings that bucked convention, be it Class, which had a student getting it on with his classmate’s mother, or My Tutor, which featured a young man getting help with his grades (and other things!) from an older woman assigned to him. Thus, My Chauffeur was born, in which Deborah Foreman (the female star of several mid-80s films before virtually disappearing) played a female chauffeur, rare now, but very rare then.
She comes upon a lot of opposition from her peers and challenges from her clients, but eventually works for a wealthy and handsome man who falls for her. Naturally, Jones played this part, a character named Battle Witherspoon(!) Never meant to be a sensational blockbuster, it found an audience on cable and home video. E. G Marshall and Penn and Teller had supporting roles in it. Foreman certainly made one VERY happy bride, judging from her expression here, though one can hardly blame her. Her groom is fall-down-on-the-floor gorgeous.
Next up was a limited run on the HBO original series 1st & Ten, a comedy (mixed with dramatic storylines) about the shenanigans of a pro football team that featured sex, brief nudity and all sorts of tacky jokes and situations. Jones played a cocaine-addicted quarterback and a major asshole named Johnny Valentine.

Though many of the scenes for this series took place in the locker room (or the bedroom!), Jones, sadly, never even took off his shirt during his tenure on the series. He was most often seen in the now-amusing sportswear of the day, a sort of Miami Vice meets Izod Lacoste type of look. The most kin he ever showed was a very brief glimpse of some leg in one scene. Otherwise, he was covered up. Nonetheless, he looked fantastic and was quite effective playing a jerk.

He primarily worked alongside series star Delta Burke and also Jason Beghe and Patrick’s little brother Don Swayze, who excelled (perhaps a bit too well!) at playing unappealing slime balls and rednecks. The two would work together later on a straight-to-video movie called Driving Force. Unfortunately, his story arc only lasted four episodes and so it was on to the next job before long.

His next role obscured part of his face, but he was playing another old time comic hero, this time The Spirit, in a made-for-TV movie. Concerning the exploits of a police detective believed dead, but now solving crimes in his own way while under the disguise of a mask, it was meant as a pilot for another series. Campy on purpose, it seemed to please fans of the original strip, but couldn’t secure a large audience. At least the makers had the good sense to show off his beautiful mug whenever possible. He even had his shirt ripped apart in one scene. Unfortunately, this too was not picked up and is rarely seen today. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’s Nana Visitor, blonde in this part, played his leading lady.

His next attempt at a series was picked up. Premiering first as a TV-movie, The Highwayman was a 1987-88 show about a U.S. marshal in a souped-up, eighteen-wheel truck who went where ordinary laws do not reach in order to bring criminals to justice. Not only did he carry one serious gun, but his vehicle was capable of turning invisible on command, had a car that could shoot out from the bottom of it and a helicopter that could fly out from the top! This series, however, didn’t last either and was gone by the tenth episode.
In yet another attempt at essaying a comic strip character, he took part in the film Jane and the Lost City, a spoofy, British-made film about the title character (a British comic strip heroine) and Jones going to Africa to retrieve some jewels before the Nazis can get their hands on them. The whole exercise seemed to be an excuse to get the lead actress (Kirsten Hughes) undressed at every possible opportunity. Fortunately, there was one extended scene that had Sammy tied down, shirtless, while spears fell from the roof all around him! Here, he showed off a still very impressive physique.

The next year, Jones made Under the Gun, an action drama that costarred Vanessa Williams (recently profiled here at the Underworld.) Now, by the late ‘80s, the market of straight-to-video films was discovered to be immensely popular. There was little or no prestige in making these movies that never saw the light of day in a movie theater, but there was significant profitability because they were placed in rental stores all across the nation and generated income that way.
Jones became a mainstay of these types of cheaply made, explosive action flicks. Celebs whose cinematic shelf life had expired could often find work in these projects. Titles like Silent Assassins (with Linda Blair), Driving Force (with the aforementioned Don Swayze - shown to the right in his eternal loveliness...), One Man Force (with John Matuszak and Ronny Cox) and In Gold We Trust (with Jan-Michael Vincent) dotted his resume during this time and kept him able to continue to make money as an actor.
Occasionally, some change of pace might come along like the cheap kiddie flick Earth Minus Zero (directed by Joey Travolta!) Pat Morita starred as a diminutive alien come to Earth to collect a human specimen while Sam played a good-looking father trying to protect his children and the world from him. In one sequence, he is shrunken and inhlaed into his pet dog's nose! At least it gave him a break from all the muscleman/gunman characters.
Things would continue in this vein throughout the ‘90s with occasional guest appearances on TV shows like Baywatch, Thunder in Paradise, Diagnosis Murder, Renegade, Walker, Texas Ranger and Silk Stalkings. In 1998, he had one more go ‘round with a series called Hollywood Safari, playing a park ranger married to a veterinarian who take care of training animals for the movie business, but it was short-lived.

With more than twenty-five years in front of the camera in countless TV shows and made for video movies, Jones was always busy, but eventually he went into business for himself as the founder of a security company that protects clients from crime and other danger. He has almost given up on performing as an actor, but he did make a rare appearance in 2007 as a guest on the youth-oriented Sci-Fi Channel revamp series Flash Gordon! This bit of stunt-casting is the last thing he’s done on film, though he occasionally appears at comic book and sci-fi conventions, sometimes with his old costar Melody Anderson, both of them having reverted to their usual (if perhaps not natural) hair colors.

Twice-married and the father of five, he is by virtually all accounts a kind, fun, pleasant person, one who has been given several honors over the years by the State of California and organizations associated with show business. In The Underworld, he is a favorite for his chiseled, manly looks and his easy charm before the camera. If life was fair, he’d have had a more significant acting career. (But “nobody ever said that life was fair, Tina!”)


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