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Jean Willes

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Birthdate:  April 15, 1923 in Los Angeles, California, USA

Date of Death:  January 3, 1989 in Van Nuys, California, USA
Cause of Death:  Liver Cancer

Filmography:  Movies
Filmography:  Television

Biography:  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.

Born 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)*, then 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 about Provo.

I don't know anything about this period of her life.  Anyone who knows anything about it, please CONTACT ME.

Jean 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 parts.

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 receptionists.

*  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.

In 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.

In 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 and there.

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 ME.

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.

1960 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.

Movie 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.

What 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.