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1923 in Los Angeles, California, USA
Date of Death: January 3, 1989 in Van Nuys, California, USA
Cause of Death: Liver Cancer
Jean Willes has always fascinated
me as an actress. She had such a range that it was a shame she
couldn't fully break out of the "character actress" image. What's
unique about Jean is that she did so much work, in film and television,
that she became a "name" actress all by herself. She could REALLY
act, and was undeniably sexy. She's owed all the recognition she
has earned. I find Jean so intriguing that I present her
biography in stages. If you know anything that could help with
this tribute to Jean, or if you just admire her work, please CONTACT ME.
on April 15, 1923, Jean Donahue spent the first ten years of her life
moving up and down the West Coast of the United States. Born in
Los Angeles (California), she was raised in Provo (Utah)*,
moved with her family to Seattle (Washington).
* David Cowhig,
Jean's nephew, says that his mother told him that Jean grew up in
Provo. Other sources say Salt Lake City, but David is positive
don't know anything about this period of her life. Anyone who
knows anything about it, please CONTACT ME.
Willes made her film debut in 1943's "So Proudly We Hail".
Looking at her filmography, you can tell work was slow for her in her
first few years of acting. She made only one movie in 1943, one
in 1944, and two in 1945. Willes was uncredited in all these
movies besides her film debut...lending us to believe these were bit
Beginning with her first movie in 1946, Willes was billed in movies
under the name of Jean Donahue.* Why she switched from Jean
Willes to Jean Donahue is a question I'd like answered. She made
an impressive 6 movies in 1946 and another 6 in 1947. Her star
was on the rise and she was becoming a notable character actress in
Columbia Pictures' Three Stooges and Blondie films. She was
only uncredited in 2 movies during this period, which were the
"Blondie" movies. Jean Donahue was finally getting noticed and
coming out of an almost entirely uncredited acting resume.
The Blondie films she starred in were #18 "Blondie Knows Best" (1946)
and #21 "Blondie in the Dough" (1947); both of which she played
* David Cowhig,
Jean's nephew, does not know
where or why the Donahue name came about. As far as he knows her
maiden name was Willes.
1948, Jean Donahue became Jean Willes again. She made only 2
movies that year, and only 2 in 1949. Why the sudden decline in
film appearances?* If you know, please CONTACT ME.
* An anonymous
source gave me a copy of Jean's obituary, and from
this I can deduce that Jean married football player Gerry Cowhig in
1951. So I'm guessing that her son named Gerry came sometime
after this. That blows my theory about 1948 and 1949 out of the
water. This source (and David Cowhig) have told me that she had
only one child.
1950 saw a great upswing in Jean's film appearances. In that
year, she was in an incredible 14 movies! Only 5 of these were
uncredited. In 1951, she made 7 movies. Not too
shabby! Only 1 of these movies was an uncredited
appearance. Jean had become a fixture in Hollywood and work
seemed to come pretty steady. She wasn't a big star, yet, but
chances were if you saw a lot of movies in the early 1950s you would
see Jean Willes in SOMETHING.
1952, for the most part, would follow the same basic trend as the
previous two years, but roles were really starting to open up.
She made 8 movies that year, 3 of them uncredited. Her first
really notable film role would come with the movie "Jungle Jim in the
Forbidden Land" opposite movie-star Johnny Weissmuller. The
Jungle Jim movies, although B-movies, were quite popular and led to
even bigger pictures for Ms. Willes. Later that year, she was in
the still-popular "Son of Paleface" movie with Bob Hope. Although
an uncredited appearance as a college girlfriend, this was a mainstream
movie that would only bolster her career.
1953, the number of Jean Willes' film appearances were fewer, but more
notable. This is what every actress strives for! She made 5
movies that year, but 2 of them were real biggies: "Abbott &
Costello Go to Mars" and "From Here to Eternity"! She was now
established as a character actress in A-pictures. She had
advanced past the B-pictures, although she would still do those here
1954 only saw one film appearance. She also did a few TV shows in
that year. I don't know why she didn't do more. If you
know, please CONTACT
Eight movies would come in 1955. Nothing too major here.
1956, however, was another very good year! She was in 5 movies
including the ever-popular cult classic "Invasion of the Body
Snatchers" as a zombie nurse and one of Clark Gable's four leading
ladies in "The King and Four Queens". Between 1957-1959 she
made 8 movies. Nothing too big during this period. An
interesting movie from 1958 is "No Time For Sergeants" starring a
yet-to-be-real-famous Andy Griffith. Willes plays the lady
captain who chews Andy out! This movie has probably become more
popular after "The Andy Griffith Show" than when it was first released.
brought even more interesting film projects from Ms. Willes. She
starred in the TV movie "The Slowest Gun in the West". At this
time, the idea of made-for-TV movies was new and highly
unexpected. The "Elmer Gantry" movie from that year brought about
an infamous role with Jean as a prostitute. Although not a real
big role, a lot of people still talk about this film character.
In 1960, prostitute characters in film just weren't that
prominent. In a way, Jean Willes was a trendsetter for our more
modern cinema. She bridged the gap between classic cinema and
more sophisticated entertainment. Then, of course, she was in the
HUGE "Ocean's Eleven" movie which has since been remade. Film
roles, however, became fewer in the 1960s as Willes was starting to get
a bit older. She was still sexy, no doubt about it, but she was
nearing that ever closer 40-year-old mark that has foiled the careers
of so many actresses all throughout movie history. 3 movies came
in 1960, 3 in 1961, and only 1 movie in 1962. In 1963, something
highly irregular happened: For the first time in twenty years of
movie-making, she made NO film appearances. In 1964, however, she
came back with a substantial role in the movie "McHale's Navy" as
McHale's would-be girlfriend. At this time she was 41 years old.
Willes made no movie appearances during this time. I'd like to
know why. If you know, please CONTACT ME.
roles were pretty lean during the last half-decade of her film
career. Jean Willes only starred in 2 movies. "The Cheyenne
Social Club" was her 1970 contribution, and "Bite the Bullet" came in
1975. She was 52 by the time she made her last movie.
Still attractive, but noticeably older, Willes left the movies in 1975
and never returned. She continued with TV appearances through
1976, but finally gave that up at the age of 53. But don't feel
sorry for her. She has a long and extremely impressive
filmography in both movies and television with memorable roles and, for
the most part, extremely steady work. All in all, she was a very
talented and lovely actress who certainly deserves the recognition as
an experienced actress.
Ms. Willes did during her final years is a mystery to me.* She
died of liver cancer on January 3, 1989 at the age of 65. If you
know anything, please CONTACT ME.
* David Cowhig, Jean's nephew,
says that during her final years
she lived with her husband Gerry Cowhig in Van Nuys, California.