For over 50 years, L.Q. Jones was a familiar supporting character actor in some 100 films and hundreds more television shows. Lanky, tough, and athletic, Jones could tackle any role although was often cast as the ‘heavy’ in westerns and dramas, projecting the ‘bad guy’ image with merely a sinister smirk or a menacing twinkle in the eye.
But on August 21, when Jones hosts a movie event in Los Angeles celebrating his 90th birthday (two days earlier), the only evil lurking in the veteran actor will be his ‘wicked’ sense of humor. Consider, for instance, his home answering machine message: “I’m around somewhere, probably just counting my money. When I get through, if I’m not too tired, I’ll return your call.”
“I’m hosting a showing of “The Wild Bunch” at Grauman’s (now the TCL) Chinese Theatre – I was in it!” said Jones from his home in LA. “I’ll be doing a Q&A, so I better try and stay alert.”
Born and raised in Texas as Justus McQueen, relatives took care of the young boy after his mother was killed in a car accident.
I was born in Beaumont, although they may try to disclaim me, but it’s too late now!” he said. “We moved around quite a bit, to Houston to Dallas to Oklahoma City, back to Beaumont, and finally Port Neches. I had a horse by the time I was 8 or 9, and grew up around tough rodeo people – my uncle was into roping – so westerns were easy and fun.”
In college, at the University of Texas at Austin, his roommate for over a year was Fess Parker. While the future ‘Daniel Boone’ actor moved west to Hollywood, McQueen headed south and took up ranching in Nicaragua. When Parker sent his buddy a copy of Leon Uris’s war novel “Battle Cry,” about to be filmed, McQueen thought one character could be his ticket to Hollywood.
“Fess encouraged me to come out and drew me a map on the back of a laundry shirt stuffing showing how to get to the studio. Within 2 days of arriving, I had the part of L.Q. Jones in ‘Battle Cry’ and probably would never have been in the business had it not been for Fess.”
Despite lacking Hollywood experience, McQueen had worked some comedy acts during college to help pay the bills, so played the comic relief character in the 1955 war drama to like a veteran. Adopting his screen character’s name as his own, the lad from Texas quickly settled into Hollywood.
“Who’s dumb enough to change their name from Justus McQueen to L.Q. Jones? But that’s what the studio wanted so I didn’t care.
In fact Jones says that, to this day, “I can tell where I knew someone from by what people call me. If I knew you growing up in Texas, you probably still call me Mac. If we knew each other at the University of Texas, you call me Dodo – a nickname a guy gave me when I mistook him for someone named Dodo Young. And if you call me LQ, we’re old Hollywood buddies.”
But developing long-lasting Hollywood friendships wasn’t always straightforward.
“It’s very strange. You might work on a picture with a hundred people for a month, 2 months, or longer. You see them every day and they become your family. But when it’s over, you’re an ‘orphan’ and may never see many of them ever again. That happens over and over on each new project, and it’s a weird feeling.”
But, he says, you do ‘bump’ into colleagues, sometimes in the strangest places.
“I remember driving down the 405 freeway in Los Angeles. I’m doing 65 mph and this damn car bumps me from the back. I’m about to throttle somebody, and it’s Jack Lemmon! We’d worked together years before and he spotted me. So he decides to say ‘hello again’ by bumping into me – at 65 mph for God’s sake. But that’s the way it is in this business.”
Then there was Strother Martin.
“My second film was ‘Target Zero,’ another war film. At the beginning, Strother gets injured and I have to carry him on my shoulder throughout the rest of the picture – literally. Wherever possible, I’d point his butt towards the camera rather than his face. At the end of the film, we presented poor Strother with an award because of what I did to him – a small statuette we made and called an ‘Asscar.’ But we did become good friends and worked together a lot.”
The two crossed paths for the last time in 1980. “I was driving in Beverly Hills with my family and turning a corner when some guy almost walks in front of me. I started screaming ‘nit-wit’ and it was Strother. We talked for a couple of minutes until the cars behind began honking. Three days later, I heard he had died. So weird things happen.”
The pair worked together in Sam Peckinpah’s “The Wild Bunch,” Jones being a favorite among the director’s casting repertoire. “Sam was a genius and I loved him, but he was a basket case. He drove everybody nuts.”
That was evident during the production of “Major Dundee” with Charlton Heston.
“Heston was using a real saber for one scene. Sam made him so mad, Chuck came within an eyelash of cutting Sam in two – and it scared Chuck because he damn near did it. Sam found a way to get under your skin to get
what he wanted out of you.”
On the same film, LQ wasn’t spared Peckinpah’s wrath.
“Sam built a 9-foot tower on rails over a river so he could follow us in water scenes. Ben Johnson, Warren Oates, and me were chasing a band of Indians up the river and must have done something to tick Sam off. As we came back, he yelled out “You SOB’s, you have no talent. I’ll see you never work in motion pictures again!”
Peckinpah, says Jones, wouldn’t let it go.
“I’m steaming mad. So I rode back to the tower, stood in the saddle and climbed up the tower and told him ‘Peckinpah, you don’t have enough talent to direct me to the men’s room.’ Absolute quiet, as everyone waited for me to be dispatched – the end of my career! But Sam just giggled and everything was OK. It was just Sam being Sam. If God had been on the set, Sam probably would have had some choice words for him, too.”
While Jones calls “The Wild Bunch” a “hell of a movie,” he says Peckinpah’s “Ride the High Country was the best Sam ever made, just gorgeous to watch, although I cry like a baby at the ending.” Jones plays a member of a ruthless family that tackles Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott as they attempt to rescue Mariette Hartley.
“Joel was the best human being I ever met and Randy wasn’t far behind him, so the two of them together make one of the best Saturday afternoon westerns you could ever sit and watch over a bowl of popcorn.”
While he had a few lead film roles throughout his film career, Jones says he enjoyed his supporting work and went after every job he could. But there was one he missed.
“I was at my agent’s one day and the phone rang. It was Stanley Kubrick offering a part in ‘Dr. Strangelove.’ Well, I would have walked barefoot across the state to work with him, but when he was ready to shoot I was tied up with another picture. The role (of Maj. ‘King’ Kong) went to Slim Pickens. But thank goodness it did, could you imagine anyone else in that part?”
Jones appeared in movies with countless fellow character actors, not mention big stars such as James Coburn, Audie Murphy, Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, and Glenn Ford. He even appeared in three Elvis films, the final being “Stay Away, Joe” in 1968.
“We were filming in a junkyard in a little Arizona town with a population of about 5,000 people, but there must have been seven or eight thousand people who had come out to see him work. I’d done my close ups and he was doing his when I noticed this old truck on the other side of the highway. It must have been 30 years old and was held together with baling wire. I noticed a little old lady tied to a rocking chair in the back of the truck! Well, there’s no way I’m going to ignore this, so I go on over.”
It turned out the guy driving was her son who had brought her, along with his wife, to the movie set.
“But the mother was too ill to bend to get inside the truck, so they tied her to the chair and drove some 200 miles so his mother could see Elvis! So I go tell Elvis, and he stops everything. He and his band come over, break out their instruments, and give a 30-minute recital to the lady. That was Elvis, a huge star but not a conceited bone in his body.”
That generosity was typical of the people Jones worked with. “I’d never seen a movie camera until I worked on ‘Battle Cry.’ Then I had a hundred ‘directors’ – lighting, sound, wardrobe people, all the crew helping out a rookie actor. You learn from them, work your butt off, and with a little luck have a successful career.”
So did he miss the recognition that comes from being a big star?
“That would have been great, especially to have more say in the roles I took. The only thing you really miss is the money – but then who needs more money, I’m independently poor! I did have lead roles in some films no one’s ever heard of, so I suppose I could have worked my way up the acting food chain. But character work was very rewarding and great fun. I loved playing the heavies because I could do what I wanted and got to work with the best in the business, so I consider myself very lucky.”
proc. by MOVIES