LOS ANGELES — Actor Dick Jones appeared in more than 100 films and television shows in his long career, but he is best known by far for a role in which he was not seen on screen. At about 10, when he was known as Dickie, Jones was chosen by Walt Disney to be the voice of Pinocchio in the classic 1940 animated film.
At the time, it wasn’t common for children to voice roles in animated movies. “They started off with adults, and when Walt first heard the ones trying to act like kids, he said no,” Jones said in “The Making of Pinocchio,” a 2009 documentary.
Disney wanted a real youngster for the part of the wooden character who wanted to be a real boy, and Jones’ voice entered animation history.
Jones, 87, died Monday night after a fall at home in the San Fernando Valley community of Northridge, said his son, Rick Jones. The cause of death has not been determined.
Jones’ preteen voice and performance was a spectacular fit for the character, said Mike Gabriel, an artist and director on several recent Disney animated films. “He’s just unbelievably lovable and likable in his innocence, in his excitement about everything,” Gabriel said of Jones’ performance. “You just fall in love with that little guy the minute he starts talking.”
But Jones was anything but naive about Hollywood, even at that young age. He had already acted in several films, and he didn’t always like what he saw.
Richard Percy Jones was born Feb. 25, 1927, in McKinney, Texas. His father was a newspaperman and his mother was a bit of a stage mother. By the time he was about 5, Jones was performing at rodeos, billed as the world’s youngest trick rider and roper.
His big show-business break came when movie cowboy Hoot Gibson saw him perform at a rodeo in Dallas. “Hoot told my mother the famous words, ‘That kid ought to be in pictures,’” Jones said in a 1984 Los Angeles Times interview. “She said, ‘Whoopee!’ and away we went to Hollywood.”
His first movie appearance, uncredited, was in the musical number “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” in the 1934 Al Jolson film “Wonder Bar,” in which he appeared in blackface. He worked almost steadily, often in westerns.
He was in a variety of big pictures, including “Stella Dallas” (1937), “Young Mr. Lincoln” (1939), “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” (1939) and “Destry Rides Again” (1939). He was also in some “Our Gang” shorts.
But he wasn’t much enjoying the acting life. “I didn’t like going to school on the set. I wanted to get back to the public school,” he said. “I wanted to be a real boy.”
He called some of his fellow young actors “Hollywood phonies.” Worse, some were becoming addicted to drugs. “I don’t know how I didn’t get on it, but I didn’t,” he told Leonard Maltin in a 2008 interview. “I didn’t make many close friends.”
The voicing of “Pinocchio,” which took place over about a year and a half, was more enjoyable, in part because he got along well with adult actor Cliff Edwards, playing Jiminy Cricket. At times Jones’ lip movements were filmed in close-up to help guide animators working on the character. For the musical number “Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee,” he was dressed in costume and filmed as he danced, also as a reference for animators.
The most difficult sequence was when Pinocchio had to speak while under the sea. “They had a real problem trying to make me sound like I was underwater,” he said in the Times interview. He was even subjected, briefly, to an infamous interrogation technique.
“They had me lie on a table and poured water in my mouth while I tried to read the dialogue — I almost drowned.” The problem was finally solved by the use of a rotating gadget while he spoke.
It was the biggest role of his movie career. He was drafted into the Army in 1944, and after his discharge he appeared in several more films. In the 1950s, his career got a boost in early television, with roles on shows such as “The Lone Ranger.” And he played the title role in the 1955 “Buffalo Bill Jr.” series.
But late in the decade, when landing roles became tough, he started to get involved in real estate. “He didn’t want to do commercials,” Rick Jones said. “So he said, ‘The heck with it,’ and got himself a regular job.”
Jones founded a real estate agency. His last acting roles in the 1960s included episodes of “The Blue Angels” and “Wagon Train.”
In addition to his son Rick, Jones is survived by his wife of 66 years, Betty; son Jeffrey; daughters Jennafer Jones and Melody Hume; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.