Shirley Jones

Shirley Jones

Her first stage appearance was as a nurse in that same Broadway musical “South Pacific”. Rodgers and Hammerstein then graduated their fresh discovery to a small role in their new musical “Me and Juliet”. She was so good she would play its lead in the subsequent national tour. It was during that tour that preparations for the movie version of “Oklahoma!” began in Hollywood.

Competition for the coveted role of Laurey was mounting furiously and attracting national attention. Along with scores of contenders, R&H arranged for young Shirley Jones to interrupt her tour to fly to Hollywood for a screen test. Months had passed and she had just about forgotten her trip when the call came backstage to the little theater in Wheeling, West Virginia. It was a Hollywood message scribbled on the back of a coffee wrapper pinned to the bulletin board for Shirley Jones, Oklahoma’s new Laurey and America’s new Sweetheart.

The film follow-ups to the “Oklahoma!” smash hit came like rapid-fire for the nation’s girl-next-door: “The Courtship of Eddie’s Father” with Glenn Ford. “Bedtime Story” with David Niven and Marlon Brando, “The Happy Ending” with Lloyd Bridges. “The Cheyenne Social Club” with Henry Fonda and James Stewart. “Never Steal Anything Small” opposite James Cagney. “Two Rode Together” co-starring Richard Widmark and James Stewart. “Pepe” with Cantinflass, “April Love” with Pat Boone. And of course, she starred opposite her “Oklahoma!” co-star Gordon MacRae in the R&H movie musical “Carousel”.

Then, famed director Richard Brooks and Columbia Pictures set out to film a devastating indictment of subject matter never before dealt with on screen. Starring Burt Lancaster, it featured a lost and touching prostitute who all but topples the growing empire of an ambitious evangelist- and again the candidates for the relatively x-rated role poured out of the woodwork. It was Burt Lancaster, after viewing Shirley’s Emmy nominated performance on TV’s Playhouse 90, who insisted that Shirley Jones would be perfect for the much sought after part. Director Brooks was not convinced that America’s ultimate girl-next-door could play the role. However, Burt Lancaster won and Shirley won the Best Supporting Actress Award for her powerful portrayal of Lulu Bains in the ageless American classic “Elmer Gantry”.

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