Despite more than 100 film and television credits, Dickie Jones was best known for a movie in which his face was never seen. As a child actor, he voiced the role of Pinocchio in the enduring 1940 animated film by Walt Disney.
Jones, who died July 7 at age 87, began performing when he was 4 and was billed as “the world’s youngest trick rider and trick roper” in his native Texas. He became a protege of the cowboy actor Hoot Gibson and had begun appearing in a series of low-budget westerns by the time he was 7.
After roles in the “Our Gang” serial and in the 1937 melodrama “Stella Dallas” starring Barbara Stanwyck, Jones won an audition to become the voice of Pinocchio. He beat out 200 other child actors for the part.
“Pinnochio” was Disney’s second full-length animated feature, following “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” (1937).
Because each frame of the film was drawn by hand, it took nearly two years for “Pinocchio” to be completed. The story is about a wooden puppet, Pinocchio, who longs to become a living boy and the trials he undergoes along the way.
For the performers, the film was like a radio play, with Jones reading his part in a studio alongside the other voice actors, including Cliff Edwards as Jiminy Cricket, Walter Catlett as the devious J. Worthington Foulfellow and Christian Rub as Gepetto, the woodcarver who made Pinocchio.
“‘Pinocchio’ was a tough job for me because I didn’t like being so cooped up,” Jones said in 2009 to Britain’s Daily Telegraph newspaper, recalling the film from a boy’s point of view. “I preferred being outdoors all the time — that’s why I like making westerns so much.”
When he had to sing in the movie, Jones thought his voice sounded like “a squeaking door closed under protest.” But he was so, well, animated while reading the script that Disney’s cartoonists sometimes used his facial expressions to depict Pinocchio.
At one point, however, “they threw their hands up in the air.”
In the scene, Pinocchio and J. Worthington Foulfellow, a fox bent on leading the young lad astray, walk down a path, singing “Hi, Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me).”
“They just couldn’t figure out how to do it,” Jones said in 2009. “So they dressed us up in costume and built a set for the road, and we acted the thing out two or three times until they said, ‘Aha! Now we’ve got it.’ “
With Jiminy Cricket as the movie’s moral compass — “Give a little whistle, and always let your conscience be your guide” — Pinocchio encounters deceit and danger in his effort to transform himself from painted wood to a flesh-and-blood boy.
When he tells a lie, his wooden nose grows longer, sprouting leaves.
“A lie keeps growing and growing,” a fairy tells him, “until it’s as plain as the nose on your face.”
When “Pinocchio” was released in 1940, it was a huge hit, and it continues to hold a universal and long-lasting appeal.
Because of the film’s protracted production schedule of “Pinocchio,” Jones found time to act in 27 other movies from 1938 through 1940, including two with James Stewart, “Destry Rides Again” and “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which he played a Senate page.
“Of all the movies I made,” Jones said in 1992, “I never in my wildest dreams thought that ‘Pinocchio’ would be the one that would endure. It was just another job at the time.”
Richard Percy Jones Jr. was born Feb. 25, 1927, in Snyder, Texas, and was the son of a newspaper editor. After his early start as a pint-size cowboy and his years as a child actor, he appeared in 1943 and 1944 as Henry Aldrich, the central character in the popular radio comedy “The Aldrich Family.”
Jones later performed as a rodeo cowboy and Hollywood stunt rider before getting roles in movie and TV westerns including “The Range Rider” and “Annie Oakley.”
As “Dick” Jones, he starred in the short-lived television series “Buffalo Bill Jr.” in the mid-1950s and in the 1958 teenage gang film “The Cool and the Crazy.” After appearing in his final film, “Requiem for a Gunfighter” (1965), Jones worked in real estate for many years. He was named to the “Disney Legends,” a hall of fame for people who made substantial contributions to Disney movies, in 2000.
Jones died at his home in Northridge, California, his daughter Jennafer Jones said. She did not know the specific cause.
Survivors include his wife of 66 years, Betty Bacon Jones of Northridge; four children, Melody Hume of Las Vegas, Richard P. “Rick” Jones III of Medford, Oregon., and twins Jeffrey Jones of Aliso Viejo, California, and Jennafer Jones of Northridge; six grandchildren; and five great-grandchildren.
“Pinocchio” remains one of Hollywood’s greatest animated films, but Jones was not listed in the credits for the role in which he left his most lasting mark.
“I may not get the recognition, but I can at least console myself that my nose never grew like Pinocchio’s,” he told the Montreal Gazette in 1992, “No, I learned my lesson a long time ago and I never tell whoppers anymore. And my nose has been fine for all these years.”