Jane Withers had an uncanny ability to make audiences laugh, sing and dance along with her throughout her illustrious career. She rose to prominence in the 1930s as the bratty young actress who bullied Shirley Temple in the film "Bright Eyes," which helped her land a contract with 20th Century Fox. Withers also gave Temple a run for her money as that era's biggest child star, often cast as the girl who could beat the boys at their own game. She had her first starring role in "Ginger" (1935), as an orphan who was far from helpless. After a break from the film industry, Wither reemerged in the 1960s as a character actor on television, as well as played Josephine the Plumber in a long-running series of advertisements for Comet cleanser. Withers' portrayal of a cheery female plumber and housewife not only helped boost sales for the product, but also established the hardworking and talented actress as a cultural icon who survived her childhood stardom to become a beloved personality on the big and small screen.
Jane Withers was born on April 12, 1926 in Atlanta, GA to Walter and Ravinia Ruth Withers, who entered the precocious and freckled future star in show business at a young age. Her talent showing by the time she started walking and talking, Withers won an Atlanta talent show as a toddler and appearing on a Saturday morning children's radio program called "Aunt Sally's Kiddie Revue." She took vocal and dance lessons at three years old, and starred in her own local radio show, Dixie's Dainty Dewdrop, a year later, on which she impressed her listeners with spot-on impersonations of celebrities from Charlie Chaplin to W.C. Fields. When Withers' family moved to Los Angeles, due to her father's work, she enrolled at Lawlor's Professional School, where she started making a name for herself by booking modeling jobs and performing at benefit concerts. One of her first appearances was an uncredited part in the 1932 film "Handle with Care." She had another uncredited role as a girl playing hopscotch alongside W.C. Fields in the comedy, "It's A Gift" (1934). The actor, who was notorious for his dislike of children, was so impressed by Withers that he reportedly told her mother, "You have a very talented little girl here; I think she's gonna go very far."
It did not take long for Withers to land a featured film role. The young actress played a terrible, doll-ripping spoiled brat who bullies curly-haired moppet Temple in "Bright Eyes," beginning a rivalry between the two for the title of Hollywood's most popular child star. While Temple, with her cherub-like features and charm, became the perennial favorite, Withers' enfant terrible performance in "Bright Eyes" landed her a contract with Temple's home base of 20th Century Fox. Often cast as a rambunctious tomboy, Withers' roles were often on the opposite end of the spectrum from Temple's precocious good girl image. She delighted audiences with a starring role in "Ginger," as an orphan living with her foster-uncle. The film also featured a hilarious scene of the young actress performing the famous balcony scene from William Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet." Withers received $125 weekly for six months from the studio, but some famous names took notice of the little girl's talent, including Franklin D. Roosevelt. The President became a fan of the star after seeing her impression of him in a newsreel. Withers and Roosevelt maintained a friendship until his death in 1945.
Fox cast Withers in over 30 films over the next 12 years. The studio also allowed her the opportunity to work with the same crew, whom were later nicknamed "the Withers Family." Her unparalleled energy and charm landed Withers starring vehicles in a number of musicals and comedies, including "Paddy O'Day" (1935), where she played an immigrant girl who lost her mother; Pepper (1936), about a girl living with a sour old millionaire; and "Angel's Holiday" (1937), a comedy where her character rescues a movie star held for ransom. Much like studio-mate, Temple, the actress even became a brand in the early 1940s after her parents licensed her image and name for a series of dolls and young adult mystery novels.
When Withers entered her teenage years, the studio was still insistent on casting her in juvenile projects that did not allow her to grow professionally. Frustrated with such typecasting and eager to please her fan base, the 15-year-old actress starred in the film "Small Town Deb" (1941) under the pseudonym Jerrie Walters. The film focused on a teenage girl whose mother prevented her from growing up, which Withers later explained paralleled her own experience with her movie studio. Using her star power to help others, the actress performed for children at orphanages and hospitals, and toured the country during World War II, raising money for the war effort by donating dolls from her collection as well as gifts from fans.
Taking on more serious films such as the war drama "The North Star" (1943), about a Ukrainian village overtaken by the Nazis, proved much more challenging for the actress. The now teenager had a hard time convincing audiences she was a dramatic actress and her popularity began to wane. She retired from acting in 1947 and married Texas oil tycoon, Bill Moss. The couple had three children and divorced in 1954. Withers enrolled at the University of Southern California in 1955 to study film directing. She returned to acting after director George Stevens at USC asked her to take a supporting role in his classic film, "Giant" (1956) starring James Dean, Rock Hudson and Elizabeth Taylor. Withers and Dean became fast friends and the actor even entrusted her to wash his favorite cowboy shirt. Withers did not have a chance to return the shirt because Dean tragically died of a car accident in 1955 soon after production wrapped. She resurfaced in Hollywood as a character actor, appearing on television shows such as "The Alfred Hitchcock Hour" (CBS, 1962-64; NBC, 1964-65), "The Love Boat" (ABC, 1977-1986) and "Murder, She Wrote" (CBS, 1984-1996).
But it was appearing in advertisements for Comet cleanser that put Withers back on the map and made her a pop culture icon. Advertising legend Milton Gossett wanted the actress to portray Josephine the Plumber, a knockoff of famous World War II image Rosie the Riveter, for the household brand. Withers' cheery personality and ability to connect with the audience helped Procter and Gamble sell their cleaning product to millions. The ads also turned the one-time child actor into one of the most recognizable faces of the 1960s and 1970s. Around this time Withers married Kenneth Errair, who sang in the 1950s group the Four Freshmen. They were married until he died in a plane crash in 1968.
In 1996, Withers was asked to finish voiceover work for the animated character Laverne in Disney's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." Actress Mary Wickes, who originally voiced the character, died before production finished and Withers stepped in to play the female gargoyle and Quasimodo's guardian. The actress returned to voice the role in the 2002 sequel "The Hunchback of Notre Dame II." Aside from acting, Withers also dabbled in photography, which later led to an amateur career behind the camera. She even collaborated with the Kodak Corporation to discuss her photography. The star was also honored for her philanthropic work, receiving a Living Legacy Award from the Women's International Center in 2003.
Cast (Feature Film)
Music (Feature Film)
Landed her first supporting role, opposite Shirley Temple in "Bright Eyes"
Featured in "The Farmer Takes a Wife," starring Henry Fonda
Received positive reviews for Lewis Milestone's "The North Star"
Retired from acting for several years after marrying wealthy Texas oil man, William P. Moss Jr.
Returned to acting to star opposite James Dean in George Stevens' "Giant"
Co-starred in the film, "The Right Approach"
Lent her voice to one of the gargoyles in "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," after the death of Mary Wickes