Freddie Jones was born in Stoke-on-Trent, England, in 1927. After schooling, he worked as a laboratory assistant in a chemical factory in Tamworth for 10 years while participating in amateur theater on the side. In the mid-1950s, Jones decided to take up acting professionally and won a scholarship to Rose Bruford College of Speech and Drama in Kent. He then worked in repertory theater and was acting with the Royal Shakespeare Company by the mid-1960s. His film debut came in 1966 playing Cucurucu in the Company's "Marat/Sade," after a successful run of the play in London and New York. Three years later, Jones earned the Golden Nymph Award and was named The World's Best Television Actor of 1969 at the Monte Carlo Television Festival for his portrayal of Claudius in the television miniseries "The Caesars." Around this time, Jones also gave one of his most touching film performances, that of the "monster" in the Hammer horror film "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed," in which Peter Cushing played the titular doctor. Jones appeared again with Peter Cushing in the Hammer film "The Satanic Rites of Dracula" in 1974. The 1970s brought Jones numerous roles in television and film, but his appearances in films with such prominent directors as Clint Eastwood ("Firefox"), David Lynch ("The Elephant Man," "Dune," etc.), and Federico Fellini ("And the Ship Sails On") gained him international recognition as a film actor in the 1980s. Since then, he has appeared mostly on television, especially in literary dramas. Well-known for his somewhat eccentric portrayals, Jones is also recognized as an actor of exceptional cleverness, intelligence, and perception.
Here's a 2002 interview with Freddie Jones from Charlbury People (www.systemed.net/charlbury/people.html):
FREDDIE JONES; THE MAN UNDER THE STRAW HAT
We're launching Charlbury People with the profile of the local actor and permanent barstool owner at The Bull, Freddie Jones, star of stage, screen, and TV guest appearance. Anyone strolling into The Bull on a weekday afternoon would be hard pressed to avoid brushing past the straw chapeaued thespian quaffing his jar of black and tan at the entrance end of the bar. Freddie is a long time patron and friend of landlord Roy, but you'd be forgiven for not instantly recognising his tall but unassuming stature as you elbowed your way to the crowded bar or scanned the room for an empty lunch table. You might notice him as you ordered your drinks or food and given him that second, reflexive glance: the 'haven't I seen him somewhere before?' look.
You would be forgiven because you have seen Freddie Jones before; unless of course your religion prohibits you from viewing the TV or cinema screen or you're a recently arrived alien from another planet who hasn't been properly briefed on British Theatre, Hollywood films, or reruns of "The Avengers," "Space: 1999," and "The Saint." Because yes, Freddie Jones is that man.
He is Thufit Hawat from "Dune," Cainy Ball from the film version of "Far From the Maddening Crowd," one of the quartet of alcoholics in Peter Brook's "Marat/Sade" (both stage and screen versions), the darkly confused carnival barker from "The Elephant Man," the Emperor Claudius from the c TV miniseries "The Caesars," the drunken journalist in Fellini's "And the Ship Sails On," the loopy bon viveur in one of John Thaw's cases as Inspector Morse, "Who Killed Harry Field?", and Kenneth Aubrey in director Clint Eastwood's "Firefox." Freddie was the reluctant recipient of a brain transplant from Peter Cushing, bringing Karloff-like pathos to his scenes in the c Hammer Horror film "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!" Most recently, Freddie played Colonel Villefort in Hollywood's latest attempt at re-telling the "Count of Monte Christo" and appears in next month's release of "Puckoon" based on a novel by Spike Milligan and narrated by Richard Attenborough.
Freddie is all these parts and more. A cinema and theatrical career that spans over 4 decades guarantees that you've seen Freddie Jones at some point stealing the show on some stage or screen, big or small. He is the quintessential British character actor and master of the eccentric comedy role.
Freddie Jones's performances are often misunderstood as over the top, or larger than life (and that's the polite criticism). It is symptomatic of the time Freddie has spent as an actor that in today's film and TV environment the actor appears as a brand, attracting the writer, the director and the project almost as an afterthought, once the proverbial 'bums on seats' quotient is calculated. In contrast, Freddie's acting harkens to the time of the cal actor, theatrically trained and performing as a vehicle or transmitter of deeply, iconic characters rather than naturalists who re-play the same 'real' role, be it on "Eastenders" or "The Bill."
In this sense, Freddie's craft is a direct connection to ancient Greek drama (via Shakespeare) in which the relevance of everyday morality and quandary are delivered to a sacred stage of dramatic device and metaphor. His talent is in bringing this sensibility to all of his roles across the spectrum of genres, be it 'Sir' in "The Dresser" or the pathetic monster in "Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed!"
"I have never dictated my career," Freddie offers in response to my query regarding the multiple genres he's played with, "my career has always dictated me. 90% of this business is luck; I've never known the right place to be or the right thing to do. I've always preferred to let my work speak for me rather than chasing a particular part. This may have been a cardinal error on my part but then look at Harry Corbett who was ruined by Steptoe and Son, never got past that part. Or Raymond Francis." Freddie gazed past me into a distance that I imagined to be his past.
"I see an estate agent's sign," (beat), "Harry became an estate agent". But surely there are directors and contemporaries who recognised his 'non-brand' distinction? When David Lynch made "The Elephant Man" in Britain, he wasted no time adding Jones to his gallery of eccentrics and heavies, as the twisted carnival barker, a part that launched a long term collaboration with the eccentric film director.
"At first I turned down the part and then they doubled the fee. I still turned them down and they (the producers) offered me the chance to rewrite the part myself. I couldn't understand why until I met David Lynch. He had seen me in 'The Dresser' and just decided I could play any part."
I read to Freddie from an online review (at filethirteen.com) in which the American reviewer points out Freddie's distinctive in "The Elephant Man":
"Freddie Jones is called upon to play one of the heavies in the film and he does it wonderfully well. He gives us a character who does horrible things and yet remains human. Because he does this remarkably well, we don't hate him; instead, we hate his acts. They represent the dark, confused and distorted underbelly of human nature and because he does such despicable things and yet retains his human facility, we see the point more clearly, that it is not the human that is wrong, but human nature." Before I can finish the last sentence, Freddie bellows a sound half way between a gasp and a roar. I wince at the prospect of his furious offence.
"Perfect," he exclaims, "he got it absolutely right. I was trying so hard to convey the contradiction of the character. Remember when he throws Merrick in the cage with the monkeys and throws out all of his stuff? I was sobbing in that scene and yet it never made it to the screen. Instead, I had the terrible review from Time Magazine that said I had hammed it as a villain. This guy got it right."
"I've always acted larger than life and I've always loved actors like Jack Nicholson who revolt against the naturalism trend. Ralph Richardson once described this as 'the performance had the boredom of reality' to it." "Fellini always said to me, 'pleeese Freddie, I'm paying you all of this money; can you give me jest a leetle bit less'. Freddie slips out of his mock Italian accent: "The truth is that I just love invention and imagining things."
My confidence riding from Freddie's positive bellow, I touch upon the sensitive subject of his fantastic critical success in the stage version of "The Dresser." A success that did not transport him to the Broadway or film version of the play. Although his co-star Tom Courtney was cast, a certain Mr. Finney was cast opposite instead. Freddie is adamant: he never anticipated being cast in the film version in spite of his enormously successful stage performance. Freddie has always known how things work and what works on Broadway and in Hollywood is a big name star.
"I remember when 'The Dresser' played the Queen's Theatre everyone came to see it, Gielgud, Alec Guinness and everyone was complimentary. When the Broadway casting was announced, Gielgud wrote me to say 'I do hope not taking the role was by choice and not circumstance. They did ask me but I told them I could never possibly follow your performance.' He was very kind but the truth of the matter was that I didn't go because I didn't have a green card, it was as a simple as that."
Freddie Jones has always been the choice for playing the vague, the obsessed, or the just plain loony. So, what is the 1969 winner of the Monte Carlo Golden Nymph Award for Best Actor doing in Charlbury? Freddie's road to Charlbury is a well-travelled one. Despite his Welsh-sounding name, he was actually born Stoke on Trent, in 1927. He originally worked as a lab technician who indulged in amateur theatre on the side. But all this changed (after the obligatory paying-of-dues in repertory theatre and later the RSC), with his TV break role in "The Caesars," a Granada series, in which he drew instant attention, as the decadent Emperor Claudius.
Freddie Jones and his wife Jennifer Heslewood lived in Surrey prior to moving to Charlbury where his three sons promptly forced his family out of their tiny cottage to seek larger accommodation.
"We lived in a romantic little cottage in Surrey which we sold but it took us two years to find another place. In the meantime, Andre Previn, who also lived in Surrey invited us to stay." And Charlbury, was it an area he was familiar with?
"No, we looked everywhere, but I had a friend who informed me of a part Elizabethan, part 18th century listed building that had come on the market in Charlbury called the Crinan House. A naval surgeon who had married a Wren previously owned it. The house had been empty over a year before we moved in and there was quite a bit of renovation needed. This was before the big housing boom, the M40 bypass had yet to be completed, and we actually paid less for the house than we did our cottage in Surrey."
Having resided in Charlbury for the past 25 years interrupted only by overseas film shoots and brief residences in London during play runs, Freddie qualifies as that precious Charlbury commodity: a local or as he puts it 'the oldest newcomer'. When asked about the most significant change he's witnessed in the community over the past 25 years, the topic shifts to shops and pubs.
"Sadly, the number of shops and pubs that have closed over the years. There's used to be six pubs in Charlbury and the shops never seem to last. I'm infinitely sad to see a dusty shop with an upturned chair, deserted and dirty. I guess I get sad because of the tragic similarity between a closed shop and a play that closes. All that optimism, hard work and faith winds up like the post piled up by the door. That's what I find depressing: in a world lacking in enthusiasm our hopes wind up replaced by death, dirt and dust."
Is there a kind of shop he would like to see open in Charlbury?
"A hardware shop filled with screws or tacks or lightbulbs. Hardware shops are fascinating because they're multifarious and then you have the local chap who answers every request with 'we're expecting them in on Tuesday'. Tuesday is the limbo of the week, it serves no purpose. Every joke that requires a day of the week, it's always Tuesday: it's the apology of the week." The image of a local shopkeeper who insists on every order being next Tuesday can only lead to asking Freddie about his recent cameo in the hit comedy sketch series, "The League of Gentlemen," where small town England is lambasted for its parochial distinctions between 'local shops for local people' and the never far from the surface hostility towards newcomers.
"Yes, it's true here like it's true anywhere. The newcomer at school is always a fish out of water. It's a universal phenomenon: every group requires a victim. We've seen a reduction in the ratio of locals to newcomers and Charlbury has become increasingly middle over the years. But we've gained the addition of enriching dynamic people in the community as a result, even if they are Johnny-Come-Lately, which I am after all." After 25 years?!? So how long does it take to become accepted as a local in Charlbury?
"Around 67 years. I've been here 25 so I have another 42 years to go, which I'm greatly looking forward to."
And with that parting ambition for the future, Claudius, King Lear, Professor Richter, the alcoholic in Marat/Sade, Reverend Finlayson and Thufit Hawat slid off their stool and strolled out the entrance of The Bull onto Sheep Street and the cool autumn sunlight of an ordinary Charlbury afternoon.