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Shirley Jones on ‘Oklahoma,’ ‘Elmer Gantry’ and Guys Named Oscar

Variety called it a “Cinderella” story: Teenager with the voice of an angel meets famous producers, and a star is born. Shirley Jones would go on to become a music maven, a leading lady — and an Oscar winner.

How did you meet Rodgers and Hammerstein?

I was very young; I had just graduated high school and was on my way to become a veterinarian. Animals were the light of my life. But I was born singing — it was a gift. I had studied some acting and dancing at the Pittsburgh Playhouse during the summer. So I went to an audition in New York with my parents on vacation. A pianist I’d worked with at the playhouse told me a casting director for Rodgers and Hammerstein was having open auditions. I didn’t even know who Rodgers and Hammerstein were — I was that green.

I take it the audition went well.

The casting director brought Richard Rodgers in to hear me personally, who in turned called Oscar Hammerstein to come in from home. Three weeks later, I was in my first Broadway show, “South Pacific.”

What doors did this open for you?

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I was put under personal contract for Rodgers and Hammerstein. After we made the movie, they sent me on tour to do “Oklahoma” onstage. That’s how I met my first husband, Jack Cassidy, who played the male lead. When we came back, they put me right into “Carousel.” I feel very blessed. I’m still doing concerts all over the country and still working. People are taken aback by how fast it happened and how long it’s lasted.

What did you learn from working with Rodgers and Hammerstein?

They were so wonderful. They produced “Oklahoma” themselves. They were on set every day. Oscar would decide what kind of costume I should wear. Oscar would decide how my hair should look. Richard Rodgers was a different kind of a guy. He liked blonde women and I had a problem with that. Fred Zinnemann was our director, and he was sensational. I was so fortunate to have that man be my first director in a movie. When I went to California to screen test for the role, he asked me if I’d ever acted in front of a camera before. I said no, and he said, “Don’t change a thing. You’re a natural.”

Did you enjoy working on “Oklahoma”?

We were in Nogales, Calif. Everything was very real: They planted the cornfield; they built the house. But it was also very hot. This was a time when actors worked 15 hour days, seven days a week — before the unions came in and said you can’t work actors that way. I wondered to myself after I finished the movie, do I really want to be in this business?

Did anyone look out for you on set?

(Co-star) Charlotte Greenwood became my grandma. I was a big eater. Hammerstein didn’t want me to gain one pound. And she would say, “Just have one egg, Shirley!”

Who were your contemporaries at the time?

Debbie Reynolds. I screen tested for “Singin’ in the Rain” — and she got it! I was not very happy about it. It was on Broadway before it became a film.

What do you consider your big break?

“Elmer Gantry,” of course. I’d done all the big musicals, but they stopped making them because they weren’t doing too well in Europe. My career was virtually over, so I went into television. I did a “Playhouse 90.” Burt Lancaster saw that show and called me. I didn’t believe it was him, and I hung up on him. He fought for me to get the part in “Elmer Gantry.” I had to prove myself as a dramatic actress.

What have you learned about show business?

Do your job the best you can. A lot of actors walk on the set and say I don’t want any direction. I’m not that way. I was given something extraordinary — my voice was a God-given gift. The showbiz life wasn’t the first thing in my life. Family always came first for me. The most important moment in my life was when I gave birth and married two extraordinary men — even when I won the Oscar.

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