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Movie role appeared like 'Manna From Heaven' for Shirley Jones

| Sunday, Sept. 14, 2003

You can star in great movie musicals such as "Oklahoma!," "Carousel" and "The Music Man," and you can win an Academy Award as a prostitute in "Elmer Gantry."

But do a TV sitcom as popular as "The Partridge Family" (1970-74), and you may never fully separate yourself from the narrow identification.

So it goes for Shirley Jones, a Smithton native who bounded from the Pittsburgh Playhouse to Broadway, becoming the only performer ever to be under personal contract to composer Richard Rodgers. And then went on to Hollywood and TV.

She has a non-singing role in "Manna From Heaven," a PG-rated family comedy opening Friday exclusively at the Oaks in Oakmont.

You won't find it advertised on TV. The Buffalo-made film won't be opening in dozens of other theaters. It's appearing market by market, as Pittsburgh's "The Bread, My Sweet" has, hoping for word of mouth to build the bonfire that independent films rely upon.

It's a Five Sisters production. And the Burtons really are sisters. Gabrielle C. and Maria co-directed. They co-produced with Charity, Jennifer and Ursula. Parents Gabrielle B. and Roger executive-produced. The mother also wrote the script. And most of the Burton clan appear in secondary parts. "It's amazing what those remarkable young women are doing," Jones says.

The Burtons had created "Just Friends" (1997) and "Temps" (1999) out of whole cloth. They do everything themselves, from mailing out press notes to driving the prints of their films from city to city.

Gabrielle C. Burton delivered "Manna From Heaven" to the Oaks while on her way to Buffalo. Or was it Toronto• If it's Sunday, this must be ...

"They just called me and asked me to do 'Manna From Heaven,'" says Jones, who had admired one of the sisters' previous films.

"They already had several actors involved with the film who I knew, including Cloris Leachman, Jill Eikenberry and, of course, Frank Gorshin, who is from Pittsburgh (Lawrenceville, specifically).

"I read the script and loved the part (of Bunny, wife of Ed, Gorshin's part) because I'm always looking for something that's a little different for me. I'm trying to get out of the Mrs. Partridge part that will follow me for the rest of my life. Doing that show was OK, but I want to show different sides of me as an actress."

It's a modern fable about a large, financially needy family who finds thousands of dollars blowing about in the street.

Decades later, the youngest of the daughters, who has become a nun, resolves that all of the money must be repaid. To whomever and wherever. But the money is long gone, and no one among her sisters and their spouses can bankroll her anxious conscience.

Besides Jones, Leachman and Louise Fletcher, all Oscar winners, the cast includes Shelley Duvall, Seymour Cassel, Austin Pendleton, Harry Groener and Wendy Malick.

Coincidentally, after Jones and Gorshin completed "Manna From Heaven," they were signed independently for Christopher Coppola's "Bloodhead," in which they share no scenes. It is nearing release.

"It's a very dark piece," she says. "I play the mother of two guys, one an African American and one white. They're motorcycle street guys. I'm dead -- I'm a ghost -- but I created this thing at the beginning about looking for a buried treasure in a trailer park. A monster is created because it's an Indian burial ground."

Jones will be more visible in an NBC mid-season replacement sitcom called "Come to Papa."

At 69, and a professional's professional with an exceptionally sunny disposition, Jones finds herself in a reversal of career circumstances.

She built a career working for such greats as Rodgers, Fred Zinnemann and Richard Brooks. Now, her work and theirs very often is unfamiliar to the ever-younger people writing, directing and producing in Hollywood.

"I was discussing this with my son Patrick, who is an actor. When you're in show business, you spend much of your life waiting for the next job.

"Patrick said: 'Mother, it's such a tough business,' and I said, 'Yes, but you know, so much of it was handed to me. I never had to reach for anything. I only had to audition once or twice, I think."

Now when she goes for auditions, they ask her what she's done.

"... a lot just know me from 'The Partridge Family,' and that is a problem for me. They don't know the 30-odd characters I had done before that."

She recalled a story about Zinnemann, the director who won two Oscars ("From Here to Eternity," "A Man for All Seasons") and who also made "Oklahoma!," "High Noon," "The Nun's Story," "The Sundowners" and "Julia."

"When Fred was in his later years," Jones says, "a young producer called him in to talk with him about directing a film.

"The producer said, 'So nice top meet you, Mr. Zinnemann. Now tell me, what have you done?'

"Fred said, 'You first.'"

Additional Information:

Details

'Manna From Heaven'

When : Opens Friday

Admission : $5; $4 on Tuesdays

Where : Oaks Theater, Oakmont

Details : (412) 828-6311 (recording), (412) 828-6322 (box office) or theoakstheater.com

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