R.I.P. Jane Withers, Golden Age child actor and beloved star of 1960s commercials
She costarred with Shirley Temple and received a teddy bear from President Roosevelt.
Jane Withers was born to be a star and her mother saw to it that her destiny was fulfilled. The short name “Jane” was picked so that coupled with the longer “Withers” the full moniker could still fit on a movie theater marquee.
As soon as she could walk and talk, Withers was performing on Vaudeville stages. At four-years-old, she was hosting a local Atlanta radio show called “Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop” where she nailed impressions of famous actors like Greta Garbo. By age six, she had grown too big for Georgia.
But Hollywood was a tougher racket. Her first on camera gig was a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it role in the 1932 film Handle with Care, directed by David Butler. She continued playing small parts for the next two years until Butler cast her again in the film Bright Eyes, this time as a costar to Shirley Temple. Withers played the bratty bully terrorizing America’s favorite curly-haired sweetheart and audiences loved her for it.
In 1935, Withers got her own movie – playing the title character in Ginger. She also acted alongside Henry Fonda in his debut film The Farmer Takes a Wife that same year. She continued to star in multiple films a year into the 1940s.
Withers’ strong-willed personality wasn’t put on just for the cameras. Behind the scenes, she suggested dialogue in writers’ meetings, helped cast other actors and even negotiated deals with studios. All while still a kid! She completed her full seven-year contract, the only child star of that era to do so.
Withers had friends in high places during her early days onscreen. She did a spot-on impression of President Franklin D. Roosevelt in a newsreel and he became an instant fan. However, the young actress was so busy in those days, she didn’t even have time to answer calls from the White House. Withers told The Los Angeles Times in 2004 that Roosevelt “would call me and leave a message because I was always busy.” When the president and first lady learned Withers had a growing toy collection, Eleanor Roosevelt visited the set to personally deliver a teddy bear. But that wasn’t all. “About six weeks later in the mail arrived this sweet French doll from [Mrs. Roosevelt’s] doll collection that her mom had given her,” Withers said.
By the time she was 21, Withers had over 40 projects to her name. She took a break from show business and started a family with her first husband, William Moss. They divorced eight years later. She then tied the knot with Ken Errair, member of the harmonic music group The Four Freshman. In 1956, she returned to the screen in the movie Giant, stealing scenes from huge names like Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and James Dean.
In the 1960s and '70s, Withers introduced herself to a new generation as Josephine the Plumber in commercials for Comet cleanser. She also acted in shows like The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, as Bob Newhart’s ill-fated spouse in the episode “How to Get Rid of Your Wife,” and The Munsters. She continued to appear on the small screen in later series like The Love Boat, Hart to Hart and Murder, She Wrote.
Beyond her time on set, Withers was an extensive collector of Hollywood memorabilia. At one time she had 28 truckloads worth of items from 20th Century Fox. She was also instrumental in creating the Hollywood Walk of Fame and was one of the first people honored with a star in 1960, the year it was created.
Jane Withers passed away this week at the age of 95.