The Tide Goes Out for Beach Party Co-Star Jody McCrea
Tall, strapping, square-jawed Jody McCrea who became a favorite of teenage audiences during the Sixties for his amusing performances as “Deadhead” in the series of Beach Party (1963) movies starring Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello passed away on April 4 of this year. As the dumb surfer in the bunch, Deadhead could be counted on to say something idiotic in his slow drawl. Though McCrea was always assured a laugh based on how the role was written, it is to his credit that Deadhead came off as sweetly naïve rather than a complete moron.
Jody McCrea was born on September 6, 1934 in Los Angeles. His father was western star Joel McCrea and his mother was the underrated actress Frances Dee. As a child, Jody along with his brother David worked the 2300 acres of ranch that his father bought in the San Fernando Valley. The boys toiled in the bean fields, and per his interview with TV Guide, it was Jody’s early ambition to become “the greatest bean-hoer in the State of California.” While attending the New Mexico Military Institute, Jody visited his dad on the set of the movie Lone Hand. Though surrounded by show business his whole young life, it was on this set that the acting bug finally bit him.
McCrea studied drama at UCLA and began taking acting lessons on the side. He made an uncredited appearance in Lucy Gallant (1955) but his official debut was playing Lt. Baker in the western The First Texan (1956) starring his father, Joel McCrea, as Sam Houston. Jody would go on to work with his dad in other westerns including Trooper Hook (1957) and Gunsight Ridge (1957). McCrea’s first significant part was playing Tim Hitchcock in the William Wellman-directed bio flick, Lafayette Escadrille (1958) starring Tab Hunter as the famous French flying legion of WWI.
Television fans discovered Jody McCrea when he teamed up with his dad to star in the western series Wichita Town during the 1959-60 season. Joel McCrea played the town marshal and his son was cast as his deputy. The series unfortunately was saddled with a bad time slot following the weepy This Is Your Life so when the show’s sponsor pulled out the series was cancelled. He returned to the big screen playing supporting roles in low budget comedies and westerns including Young Guns of Texas (1963) featuring second generation actors (such as James Mitchum and Alana Ladd) in leading roles.
The WWII adventure Operation Bikini (1963) was Jody McCrea’s first pairing with Frankie Avalon and movie for American International Pictures. He was cast next as Deadhead in Beach Party the same year. When that movie broke box office records for the independent company, McCrea was coaxed back to reprise the role of the dumb surfer supporting Frankie and Annette in Muscle Beach Party (1964) and Bikini Beach (1964). Due to his popularity with the teenage audience McCrea progressed to second lead in Pajama Party (1964) playing Annette Funicello’s boyfriend who prefers volleyball to romance. McCrea was finally able to shine and received good reviews for his performance.
Beach Blanket Bingo (1965) also gave McCrea a chance to do some real emoting as his character now renamed Bonehead falls in love with a mermaid played by Marta Kristen of Lost in Space fame. He received positive reviews such as in the Los Angeles Times whose critic remarked, “Jody McCrea…handles the comedy as a kooky beach bum on whom the sun really shines.” Regarding his popularity playing a doltish surfer, McCrea told Newsday, “It took me four pictures to figure it out—the kids liked Deadhead because they felt superior to me, to him.” However, McCrea was getting disillusioned with the beach movies due to the fact he was afraid that he would be typecast. After How to Stuff a Wild Bikini (1965) wrapped, affable Jody McCrea was determined to shake his Bonehead persona.
The western Stagecoach to Nowhere based on Oedipus Rex was supposed to be McCrea’s next movie but it was never produced. Instead, the tall, broad-shouldered actor was perfectly cast as a rambunctious racecar driver in The Girls from Thunder Strip (1966) and a hardened biker in The Glory Stompers (1967) co-starring Dennis Hopper and Chris Noel. The latter was co-produced by McCrea
In 1970, Jody McCrea returned to the western genre playing a mysterious gunslinger ala Clint Eastwood in Cry Blood, Apache, which was his swan song from show business. “I co-produced this movie as well,” remarks McCrea. “I did not think it was going to be my last and had plans to produce two sequels. I got married to a Native American woman from Great Family and she didn’t want me working in the industry. I couldn’t even help promote Cry Blood, Apache. She was very restrictive of my working in Hollywood and for very good reason. She kept me to herself and it was wonderful to learn about the world of Native Americans.”
Jody McCrea abandoned show business in 1971 to run a cattle and elk ranch in Hondo, New Mexico. After retiring from ranching when his wife passed away a number of years ago, McCrea concentrated on traveling and seeing the world. He resettled in Roswell, New Mexico where he spent his remaining days.
I interviewed Jody a few years ago for my book Hollywood Surf and Beach Movies: The First Wave, 1959-1969 and here are a few of his quotes and anecdotes:
Surviving Beach Party and how he continued in the series:
“I had known that taller guys were fired from the early movies. I always tried to stand burrowed in the sand so I wouldn’t tower over Frankie Avalon or John Ashley, who was about the same height. After we did a few movies, I said to Frankie, ‘Thanks for not having me fired on Beach Party.’ He replied, ‘Well, the little guy gets all the sympathy anyway.’”
His surprising non-friendship with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello:
“I got along very well with Frankie and Annette because I left them alone. They always had many lines to memorize or songs to sing. I just concentrated on my part and didn’t fraternize with either of them at all.”
Working with director William Asher:
“William Asher was best suited for directing the beach movies. He was always smiling. You would see his grin from behind the camera and it would just lift you up. He would get your confidence so high that as an actor you would try different things with your role. Most of it would work because of his faith in you. And yes, he favored some of the young guys like Mike Nader that he discovered on the beach. Mike had a lot of natural ability and Asher had a great talent for making you feel good while working with him. I think I was one of his favorites also because I had a lot of training. He liked all the things I brought to the part.”
Meeting blonde bombshell Bobbi Shaw for the first time on Pajama Party:
“I remember that nobody introduced us. Our first scene together was a kissing scene. They just told me to get into this rumble seat of this car with her. We kissed a lot before I officially met her. That was quite an experience since Bobbi was built like every girl would have liked to be. They put her in this mink bikini and physically she was a super girl. Just looking at her made me feel good!”
Being surrounded always by a bevy of bikini-clad beauties:
“The beach girls [including Patti Chandler, Salli Sachse (pictured on right), Mary Hughes (pictured on left), and Linda Opie] were more protected than nuns were. I just learned to be very careful around them. They were constantly telling the guys not to lay a hand on the girls. It was as if they were a bunch of porcelain dolls. You would have had a better chance of putting your hand on a nun’s shoulder than trying anything with the beach girls. I found out the hard way.”
Working with Dennis Hopper in The Glory Stompers:
“Dennis Hopper was an enfant terrible at times. I don’t want to say anything too negative but he wanted to direct and it worked out for him but it was hard on the rest of us. You’re not supposed to take the wheel from the guy who is the captain of the ship but our director [Anthony Lanza] was more of an editor and he wasn’t strong. Dennis was very tenacious and had a good background. I think Dennis is a very good actor but a better director. He worked with me on a scene and he was awfully good coaxing a good performance from me. Dennis was excellent but at times I was sorry that I hired him because he was so hard to deal with. He did extremely well directing his next movie, Easy Rider.”
His final remarks to me about the Beach Party movies:
“I’m delighted and happy that the beach movies have been rediscovered. They are considered cult classics now. It is like getting on a big wave and riding it. I didn’t like being typecast but I was happy to make people laugh.”