The strange career of Mickey Jones – Chron

He's played with the Gambler (and Bob Dylan, too), and he's dabbled with the likes of the Incredible Hulk and the cast of Home Improvement, and gone on vacation, twice, with Griswolds (and lived to talk about it).
BURBANK, Calif. — By Mickey Jones’ count he’s killed more than 137 people. He’s stood behind Judas, but he refuses to use the Lord’s name in vain. He’s checked into the Hotel California with a family that wasn’t his own. He’s met the Beatles and been mistaken for Kenny Rogers. He’s been killed 92 times.
You’ve seen Mickey Jones, even if you don’t necessarily know it, because he’s done more than 80 movies and more than 500 TV episodes and commercials. Twice he bullied Chevy Chase (National Lampoon’s Vacation, Fletch Lives) and he spent nearly a decade making appearances on Home Improvement. He played many bikers and a lot of killers. He also played drums on hit songs and famous — or infamous — tours.
Jones has led an unthinkably strange career. A big lug of a guy who was drawn to entertainment as a kid, he’s charted a path through an unforgiving industry that seems to resemble one’s route through a darkened room. He’s the first to point out that he lacks formal training in any of his pursuits. Yet he’s been doing it for decades.
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“I’m not a method actor,” Jones says, sitting in a booth at Bob’s Big Boy in Burbank, a famed diner he’s been frequenting since 1960. “When somebody says action, I can turn it on, and when they cut, I turn it back off.”
He finishes a bite of a Big Boy burger, wipes some ketchup from his red beard. I make the mistake of looking at my eggs for a moment. When I look up, Jones is staring through me with his eyes, soulless, edgy and surrounded by creases. His lip trembles a bit over clenched teeth.
“See!” he says. A gap-toothed smile smears across his face. “I learned long ago when your face is 40 feet tall on a movie screen, you don’t have to yell or scream or jump up and down to scare somebody. They’re looking at your eyes. I can whisper and get across what I need to get across.”
He pats my shoulder and takes another big bite of his burger. He’s just a jolly guy of 67 years wearing a Hawaiian print shirt and shorts, white socks pulled halfway up his calves, and well-worn tennis shoes. His hair is in a long, wispy ponytail, his head is topped by a baseball cap. He’s an actor who cares not a whit about appearance.
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“There’s no pretense to him and none in his acting, but he can do it all,” Jones’ friend Billy Bob Thornton later tells me. “He can do anything from a kid’s enthusiasm to something real mean.”
Jones is better known for the mean.
“I think the reason I’ve killed more than I’ve been killed is that I usually kill three or four people before I get killed,” Jones states. He takes another savage bite of his burger.
Despite the flippant tone about body counts, Jones takes his work seriously. He’s spent most of his life as a straight arrow, taking a particular pride in his work, which wasn’t initially acting.
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The Houston-born Jones started playing drums around Dallas with Trini Lopez in the late-1950s. He kept the beat for Bob Dylan, Johnny Rivers and First Edition before leaving music to become an actor. He appeared in the sort of quotable movies that college students replay time and again. He also drifted through a beloved TV series that would give him one of his catch phrases. Pete Bilker, Jones’ character on Home Improvement, could answer the question the actor gets every time he carries his wide frame through an airport. Asked, “Are you that guy in …,” he can reply with the four words that served as the title of his biography: “That would be me.”
Jones got on his first motorcycle in Dallas in 1958. It was a friend’s bike. He was on the road just a few minutes when it began raining. “The light turned red, and I laid it down and slid through the intersection,” he says. “I had two choices. I could never get on that thing again. Or I could get it back to my friend and pay for his foot pedal.
“I’ve been riding motorcycles since then.”
Motorcycles are key to the second half of Jones’ career. Since he walked away from the music business in 1976, he’s been cast regularly in biker roles, partially due to his bulk, partially due to the fact Jones prides himself on always knowing his lines and hitting his marks. When he’s in a scene on a bike, he’s in the scene on the bike. “So often an actor playing a biker doesn’t ride, but with me, they can shoot the gang coming. I’m usually out there in the lead with a trail of stunt people behind me.”
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Before the bike, Jones stumbled onto the drums. His mother had a guitar, but he says he was too lazy to stick with it. She bought the teenage Jones a drum kit and he taught himself how to play. He graduated from Sunset High School in Grand Prairie and spent a few years at the University of North Texas before hooking up with Lopez, touring Texas first, later California. As Lopez’s star grew, Jones found himself on tour in Europe.
“But Trini thought we should be thrilled to play for him,” Jones says. “He’d want us to play and carry his suitcases. I told him if he wanted to pay for me to be his valet, that was fine, but I’m not doing it otherwise.”
An up-and-coming Rivers heard Jones and offered him $500 a week, a substantial raise. Jones jumped ship and became the drummer on Secret Agent Man and several of Rivers’ other defining mid-’60s singles.
Playing with Rivers meant playing at the Whiskey a Go-Go in Los Angeles, which is where he caught the ear of Bob Dylan in 1965.
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Dylan was a musician in transition at the time. His music was getting louder, and, Jones says, “I had the heaviest right foot of anybody he’d heard.”
But they had trouble connecting professionally and for another year Jones was content playing with Rivers.
Jones’ largely sober life warrants mention because his recall for dates is robotic in its precision, particularly compared to other rock types who escaped the ’60s. No doubt his career put him in close proximity to every upper, downer, twister and tweaker that one could snort, smoke, snarf or shoot.
“I’ve put cocaine in my nose twice,” he says. “The only reason I did it the second time was I thought I must’ve missed something the first. I’ve just never been into drugs or alcohol. I don’t smoke. I guess to a lot of people I’m extremely square.
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“I have a little trouble remembering yesterday, but I can tell you that on May 17, 1966, I was at the Manchester Free Trade Hall, the concert that everybody bootlegged as the Royal Albert Hall.”
That was a show on Dylan’s famous/infamous 1966 tour of Europe. Dylan was backed by Ronnie Hawkins’ band the Hawks — guitarist Robbie Robertson, multi-instrumentalist Garth Hudson, keyboardist Richard Manuel and bassist Rick Danko. Drummer Levon Helm quit touring with Dylan just before he left for Hawaii and then Europe. Dylan hired Jones.
The shows on the tour typically featured Dylan doing a set alone, followed by a set with the band. The rock set was often met with jeers, famously so at the Manchester Free Trade Hall.
To Dylan appreciators, that show resulted in a great live album. To Dylan fanatics it was a mythical happening in rock history, a musical Thermopylae (see sider). It was a moment of conflict and spiritual triumph when a heckler flung a jibe at Dylan for playing loudly and the defiant musician came back sneering and playing more loudly than before.
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Jones shot home movies throughout the tour (since released on DVD as 1966 World Tour). When he turned the camera on himself and in photos of the tour captured by Barry Feinstein, he looked like an odd man out. Dylan was busy being Dylan. The band (which would become the Band) looked like 21st-century hipsters, a handsome crew of Americana mods with shaggy hair and sideburns, quirky hats and shades.
By comparison, the moon-faced Jones looked like a kid seeking an autograph. Even onstage he seemed to lack their cool detachment. He was a big guy looming over his kit, his billowing white shirt allowing his meaty arms to work.
The Manchester Free Trade Hall concert is a thing of legend because Dylan is a thing of legend, and Jones was a significant part of it. The heckler shouted “Judas.” Dylan noodled on his guitar, Danko on his bass. In the instant between that noodling and the iconic keyboard of Like a Rolling Stone was a snare-drum shot that sounded like thunder.
“That was the hardest I’d ever slammed on my kit,” Jones says.
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Years later Jones attended a Dylan convention.
“Some of these people could tell you when Bob took a (dump) in 1978,” he says. “And they were so apologetic. They know now that it was the greatest tour in rock 'n’ roll history.”
The snare in Manchester 1966 isn’t Jones’ most-heard moment at the drums. Dylan spent 1967 recuperating from a motorcycle accident. Though he kept paying Jones, during that time the drummer was recruited to play for a vocal ensemble in California.
Kenny Rogers, a singer in First Edition, says he and Jones hit it off quickly, the result of being Texans in a band full of Californians. In fact, Rogers and Jones were born in the same Houston hospital. (Jones’ parents split when he was a child; his mother remarried and raised him in the Dallas area.)
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Rogers says he admired Jones’ drumming. He says the drummer’s heft also came in handy. “We’d rented a station wagon once in Denver,” Rogers says. “We were driving down the highway and this bass amp, 6 feet long, 4 feet wide, slid off the top of the car and down the freeway behind us. If Mickey wasn’t there, it’d still be on the road.”
As the other bearded Texan, Jones would occasionally get mistaken for Rogers. At an airport, a passerby asked Jones if he was in First Edition. Jones replied yes. “I knew it,” the guy said, pointing to Rogers. “I recognized the drummer.”
First Edition was on deadline and one song short of finishing the album that would become First Edition '69. The band ran through a Mel Tillis song, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, which had been covered by Roger Miller. With Rogers singing lead the last-minute inclusion became a Top 10 pop single. Threaded throughout is Jones’ lightly peppered drumming.
“There’s no question it’s the signature of the song,” Rogers says. “Even today when I do it, there’s that little section in the middle where that drum pattern surfaces. You can see people light up when they hear it.”
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Rogers’ star rose and the band began to fall apart. First Edition split in 1975. Jones, who’d wanted to act since he was a kid, decided to give it a try.
He endured three years of odd jobs that he says were as good as being unemployed. He was about to pop up in another odd place. Jones was in the Screen Extras Guild and got a call for a print job, which usually meant a magazine ad. He reported to a Los Angeles hotel at 10 a.m. and stood in the lobby with a camera around his neck and a fake family standing by his side. Open the gatefold for the Eagles’ Hotel California and there he is, clean-shaven and dead center among the throng standing behind the band.
Jones continues to bump into musicians and club owners from his days as a drummer. He’ll still get behind a kit from time to time, but he was glad to be done with it. “Music reached a point where it wasn’t any fun. If that candle burns out, you have to try to find a way to relight it. Only I wasn’t interested in doing that.”
After some small TV roles Jones got his first big acting break on The Incredible Hulk in 1978. He played Ricky, a young man with a mental disability who finds a friend in David Banner. Jones expected a few lines but ended up with 54 pages of dialogue in a 56-page script. He was 37 and playing 19. The lines around his eyes gave away the age disparity (especially in the outdoor scenes), though Jones’ ability to slip from gleeful to wounded served the character well enough.
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An ad for Breath Savers might be Jones’ best-known clip. In biker mode, with long hair and beard, he looms over two women on a subway who comment on how pleasant his breath smells. “I’ve enjoyed your breath since 96th Street,” one says. The ad required a day’s work and aired for six years. Jones estimates it earned him three-quarters of a million dollars.
If you have a television and it has been plugged in anytime since 1978 you’ve likely seen Jones. He made appearances on V, 21 Jump Street, Matlock, The A-Team, Baywatch and dozens of other shows.
Two roles — one tiny, the other substantial — are among his best known. He played a dirty mechanic who shook down Chevy Chase’s Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation. Griswold asks what he owes after having his destroyed station wagon hauled out of the desert. “All of it boy,” Jones replies.
He got more face time on Home Improvement, playing Pete Bilker, a recurring character during the show’s long run. Jones seems most enthused by his work on the family-friendly comedy. “Best job I ever had. I got paid to sit around and laugh on the job,” he says.
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“You’ve got to go out of your way to be a (jerk),” Jones says. He recalls working on Drop Zone with Gary Busey, who turned away when an extra asked him for an autograph. “I believe if you spend three minutes with somebody, they’ll remember it a long time. Act like a jerk, and they’ll remember it forever.”
Rogers says Jones “has never met a stranger. If somebody meets Mickey, they’re best friends forever.”
That trait has served Jones well. He admits it can be difficult for actors older than 50 to find work. He grumbles about how many TV shows are shot in Canada, which requires a number of Canadian actors to be hired for each American star. He understands the financial reasons reality TV is so prevalent — lower cost, higher revenue — but grouses that a show like The West Wing (“a little liberal for me, but a well-made show … my wife loved it”) could get replaced by “something like Wipeout or ‘World’s Craziest Ninja.’ It’s a sad statement about our industry.”
Jones lives with his wife in Simi Valley, a 40-minute drive from Los Angeles. He recently shot a pilot (he plays a veteran biker, naturally) for HBO, though there’s no word yet about whether it’ll air. He also runs a video-editing company, putting together reels for actors. Because he’s done so much work, residuals trickle in all the time. He mentions a TV commercial that used Secret Agent Man. “We were just about to inquire about that one and the next day a check showed up for $1,500,” he says.
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His goodwill and bizarre career have led to specific jobs. Thornton cast Jones in Sling Blade, partially to return a favor after Jones had been so good to him a decade earlier, partially because he needed a big, burly biker type who could play drums in a band with Dwight Yoakam’s character.
“I told him, ‘Mickey, I need you to be awful,’ ” Thornton says. “He said, ‘I can do that.’
“If I could say just one thing about Mickey Jones at the end of the day, he’s just truly an ambassador for the entertainment business. If you need something done, he’ll do it. He’s reliable and talented, and he’d give you his left arm, whether it’s on a shoot or all the charity work he does. With his legacy — Dylan, Kenny and all that — for him to have that passion and love, he knows something the rest of us don’t.”
Andrew Dansby covers culture and entertainment, both local and national, for the Houston Chronicle. He came to the Chronicle in 2004 from Rolling Stone, where he spent five years writing about music. He’d previously spent five years in book publishing, working with George R.R. Martin’s editor on the first two books in the series that would become TV’s “Game of Thrones. He misspent a year in the film industry, involved in three “major” motion pictures you’ve never seen. He’s written for Rolling Stone, American Songwriter, Texas Music, Playboy and other publications.
Andrew dislikes monkeys, dolphins and the outdoors.


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