Jimmy Dean

d. June 13, 2010

Jimmy Dean, the popular performer who made an improbable second life for himself as a sausage tycoon, died June 13 at his home in Henrico County, Va. He was 81.

After 20 years as a recording star, television host and sometime actor, Dean played a prominent supporting role in the seventh James Bond film, "Diamonds Are Forever," released in 1971.

Dean, a Texas native, came to the Washington, D.C., area in the late 1940s for a hitch in the Air Force. While stationed at Bolling Air Force Base, he played the accordion on weekends with a country music group before starting his own band, the Texas Wildcats, in 1949 with three other airmen. They played regularly at the Maryland and Virginia honky-tonks that surrounded Washington in those days.

After their discharge, Dean and his group signed with Mercury Records and Dean landed a radio show on a local country station. In 1955, Washington's ABC television affiliate made Dean the host of Town and Country Time, a weekday afternoon show that eventually was syndicated in 50 markets. This success led to a network deal with CBS. Dean's national launch in the spring of 1957 came at 7 a.m. as one of the many unsuccessful attempts to compete with NBC's Today show. Dean, like Walter Cronkite, Jack Paar, Dick Van Dyke and others who had preceded him in the CBS morning slot, failed to make a dent in NBC's ratings and he was soon moved to a later daytime slot. He also hosted a CBS prime time summer replacement show in 1957. Both the weekday and the prime time shows were produced on the cheap in Washington instead of in the network's New York studios.

In 1961, Dean had his biggest recording hit with "Big Bad John," a song he wrote himself which had enormous crossover appeal with pop radio stations and record buyers. It topped the Billboard charts for weeks and won Dean a Grammy for best country-western song, and led to increased record sales, club dates and TV appearances. He was one of many performers who hosted a week of The Tonight Show in 1962 during the six-month stretch between Jack Paar's departure and Johnny Carson's arrival. The next year, ABC offered him his own weekly variety hour.

The Jimmy Dean Show premiered in September 1963 and was notable not only for giving wider exposure to country performers but also for the weekly appearance of Rowlf the Muppet dog. Muppets creator Jim Henson also started in Washington and Dean knew his work from Henson's Sam and Friends show on the NBC station, as well as a wildly popular series of coffee commercials that featured early versions of the Muppets. Dean invited Henson to join his new series, giving Henson and the Muppets their first national exposure.

Dean's show was a Thursday night hit for two seasons, but ABC moved him to Friday nights at 10 for his third year, putting Dean directly opposite the hugely popular second season of The Man From U.N.C.L.E. By April 1966, Dean's show was off the air. He resurfaced in 1968 by joining the cast of NBC's Daniel Boone series as Josh Clements, a fur trapper and new sidekick to Fess Parker's Boone. It was Dean's first real acting job (he had played himself in a 1963 episode of The Patty Duke Show shortly after both their series debuted on ABC), and he went on to appear in several made-for-TV movies, including "The Ballad of Andy Crocker" (1969) with Lee Majors and Agnes Moorehead, and "Rolling Man" (1972) with Dennis Weaver, Slim Pickens and Moorehead again. He later turned up in a few episodes of those refuges for stars of another era, Fantasy Island and Murder She Wrote. He had a recurring role in Dale Robertson's short-lived 1987 series J.J. Starbuck, and appeared in the 1990 feature film "Big Bad John" that was supposedly inspired by his song.

Early in 1971, production of the seventh James Bond picture, "Diamonds Are Forever," was getting under way. The film's most notable angle at the time was Sean Connery's return to the role of Bond after he'd grown weary of the character, the films and their attendant mania, and had refused to appear in the previous picture, "On Her Majesty's Secret Service."

When the producers announced that Jimmy Dean also had been signed to appear in "Diamonds Are Forever," Bond fans could be forgiven their assumption that Dean would play Bond's CIA pal Felix Leiter, described by Bond author Ian Fleming as a lanky, drawling Texan. But Dean played an entirely new character dreamed up by producer Cubby Broccoli: an alliteratively named, publicity-shy billionaire who lived in a Las Vegas penthouse and hadn't been seen in public for years. The character of Willard Whyte was obviously a knockoff of Howard Hughes, the eccentric producer Broccoli knew from their days in Hollywood but who was best known by then as a reclusive, oddball billionaire who rarely ventured out of his Las Vegas penthouse.

Dean actually was working for Hughes, performing at the Desert Inn — the Las Vegas hotel owned by Hughes which he so secretively lived atop — when Broccoli arrived to scout locations, saw Dean's act and decided he was the one to portray the film's ersatz Hughes.

The screenplay, dispensing completely with Fleming's plot, had Whyte kidnaped by SPECTRE chief Ernst Blofeld so that Whyte's industrial empire could be used to launch a satellite weapon with which to blackmail the world. It was quite a comedown from previous Bond adventures, and Dean's performance as Whyte was one of the few highlights of an otherwise disappointing film.

Another Jimmy Dean Show aired weekly in syndication in 1974 and 1975, but Dean's TV appearances afterward were largely confined to the many commercials he made for his eponymous pork product. Dean got into the sausage business almost accidentally when he took a failing Texas hog farm off the hands of a relative. Ignoring business advice to view the purchase as a write-off, Dean and his two brothers opened a meatpacking plant in 1969 and Jimmy Dean Sausage soon hit the market. The company was sold to Sara Lee Corp. in 1984, with Dean continuing to appear in commercials until 2003, when the company ended his role as product spokesman.

Dean blasted Sara Lee, claiming he was dumped because of his age. He retired with his second wife (and an estimated net worth of $75 million) to a 200-acre Virginia estate on the James River near Richmond. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame this year but was too ill to attend the ceremony in February.


Jimmy Dean in 1950s publicity shot.

Dean and Rowlf on “The Jimmy Dean Show.”

Dean as Willard Whyte in “Diamonds Are Forever,” above, and with Sean Connery as James Bond, below.