Jean Willes was a popular actress in the 1950s and 1960s, known for her roles in B-movies and television shows. She played a variety of characters, from glamorous gold-diggers to tough gun molls, and often appeared as a foil to comedians like the Three Stooges and Bob Hope. She also had some memorable roles in A-list films, such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers and The King and Four Queens. But what was the cause of death of this versatile and vivacious starlet?
Early Life and Career
Jean Willes was born on April 15, 1923, in Los Angeles, California, to William Simmons Willes and Velma Harrington Duncan Willes, both of whom were teachers. She spent part of her childhood in Seattle and part in Salt Lake City. After she and her parents returned to Los Angeles, she began acting with a little theater group there .
Willes started her film career in 1942, using her birth name, Jean Donahue. She appeared in comedy shorts for Columbia Pictures, working with actors like Harry Langdon, Andy Clyde, Eddie Foy Jr., Joe DeRita, Sterling Holloway, and Hugh Herbert. She also had bit parts in feature films like So Proudly We Hail!, Here Come the Waves, and Salty O’Rourke .
In 1947, she changed her screen name to Jean Willes, using her maiden name. She began to get more prominent roles in B-movies, such as Revenue Agent, A Yank in Indo-China, and Jungle Jim in the Forbidden Land. She also became a favorite of director Edward Bernds, who cast her in many shorts and features .
Breakthrough Roles and TV Appearances
Willes achieved more recognition in the mid-1950s, when she landed some roles in major films. She played Nurse Sally Withers in the original movie version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), a sci-fi classic about alien pod people taking over a small town. She was one of the four women pursuing Clark Gable in The King and Four Queens (1956), a western comedy about a gambler looking for hidden gold. She also had small parts in Son of Paleface (1952), a Bob Hope comedy, and From Here to Eternity (1953), a war drama that won eight Oscars .
Willes also made the transition to television, appearing in dozens of series in various genres. She guest-starred in westerns like The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp, Maverick, Bonanza, Bat Masterson, and The Beverly Hillbillies. She appeared in crime dramas like Perry Mason, Richard Diamond, Private Detective, The FBI Story, and Kojak. She also showed up in comedies like The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, The Great Gildersleeve, Hazel, The Munsters, and McHale’s Navy. She often played unsympathetic or scheming characters, but sometimes showed a softer or more respectable side .
Later Years and Death
Willes continued to work in films and television until the mid-1970s. Her last film roles were in McHale’s Navy (1964), The Cheyenne Social Club (1970), and Bite the Bullet (1975). Her last TV appearances were in Police Woman (1975) and The Streets of San Francisco (1976) .
Willes died of liver cancer on January 3, 1989, at the age of 65. She was survived by her second husband, Gerard Cowhig, a former NFL football player whom she married in 1950. They had one son, Gerry. Willes is buried in San Fernando Mission Cemetery in Mission Hills, California .
Jean Willes was a talented and versatile actress who left a lasting impression on many fans of B-movies and TV shows. She was able to play a range of characters with charm and charisma, from glamorous to tough to funny. Her cause of death was liver cancer, but her legacy lives on through her films and TV shows.