Jane Withers, the former child actor who bedeviled Shirley Temple on the screen and went on to star in a series of B movies that made her a box-office champion, has died, her daughter said. She was 95.
Withers, also known as "Josephine the Plumber" from TV commercials in the 1960s and '70s, died Saturday, her daughter Kendall Errair said. Withers was one of the last remaining stars from the 1930s and 1940s, the height of Hollywood studio dominance.
After a series of minor roles as a child actress, Withers was cast by Twentieth Century-Fox in the 1934 "Bright Eyes," as the nemesis of lovable Temple, then Hollywood's most popular star.
"I had to play the meanest, creepiest little girl that God ever put on this planet," Withers recalled in 2000. "I ran over Shirley with a tricycle, and a baby buggy. And I thought, 'Oh dear, everybody's going to hate me forever because I was so creepy mean to Shirley Temple!' "
Here Ms. Withers is as Josephine the Plumber.
From her obituary:
Withers was one of the biggest child stars of the 1930s, sometimes acting as a foil to the superstar child actress Shirley Temple (1928–2014). Withers tended to play mischievous little girls and tomboys, a formula that followed her into her teens. Her notable films as a child star included “Bright Eyes” (1934), “Ginger” (1935), and “The Holy Terror” (1937). She became a popular actress, with licensing deals for dresses, paper dolls, jewelry, and more under her name, as well as starring in a series of mystery novels. In her teens, Withers occasionally played romantic roles, but her fame began to wane as she aged, and she retired at age 21.
Withers returned to the big screen for a supporting role in “Giant” (1956) and thereafter continued to work intermittently. She appeared on TV shows including “Bachelor Father,” “The Munsters,” and “Murder, She Wrote.” Her greatest later-career fame came when she accepted a role as Josephine the Plumber in a series of Comet cleanser ads in the mid-1960s. She continued playing the role for a decade, becoming highly recognizable to TV viewers. Later, Withers took over for the voice of Laverne the gargoyle in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996) when the original voice actress, Mary Wickes (1910–1995), died before the film was completed. She played Laverne in the movie’s 2002 sequel.
After winning a local talent contest, Withers was cast on “Aunt Sally’s Kiddie Revue,” a Saturday morning children’s show, and was later given her own radio show at only 3 years old. Just before Withers’ sixth birthday, she traveled to Hollywood with her mother and began to book acting, voiceover and modeling gigs.
Withers’ big break came in 1934, when she was cast opposite Shirley Temple in 1934’s “Bright Eyes.” Withers played Joy Smythe, a spoiled, mean foil to Temple’s sweet character. Withers then signed a seven-year contract with Fox Film Corporation and scored her first starring role in “Ginger” (1935).
A gaggle of credits followed, with Withers starring in an average of three to five films per year during the 1930s. In no time, she had become one of the most popular child stars of Hollywood’s golden age. Withers’ credits from that time period include “Paddy O’Day,” “Gentle Julia,” “Little Miss Nobody,” “Pepper,” “The Holy Terror,” “Angel’s Holiday,” “Checkers,” “Rascals” and “Always in Trouble.” Withers was the only child star of her time to complete a seven-year contract.
As Withers grew older, she expanded into writing, penning the screenplay for the film “Small Town Deb” under the pseudonym Jerrie Walters. Withers also starred in the film, which followed a teenage girl whose mother would not allow her to spread her wings and find herself — a parallel to what Withers was feeling as a grown-up child star.
In 1941, Withers signed her second seven-year contract with Fox, starring in films like “Golden Hoofs,” “A Very Young Lady,” “Young America” and “The Mad Martindales.”
Withers retired from Hollywood at 21, opting instead to focus on raising a family. She married twice and had five children.
In 1955, after her divorce from her first husband, Withers pursued a degree in film at the University of Southern California, looking to shift to directing. But, she landed a supporting role in the 1956 film “Giant” and slid back into the world of acting, making appearances in television shows like “Pete and Gladys,” “Murder, She Wrote,” “The Love Boat,” “The Alfred Hitchcock Hour” and “General Electric Theater.”
She was a very big child star and USA TODAY notes, "Her popularity led to Jane Withers dolls, hair bows, socks and mystery novels. At her peak, she was earning $2,500 a week and $50,000 a year in endorsements. Unlike other child stars, her earnings did not disappear."
This is C.I.'s "