Jane Withers, ’30s Child Star & Josephine the Plumber, Dies @ 95

Jane Withers, an actress known as a foil for Shirley Temple as a child actress, as a star of the movie classic Giant, and as larger-than-life Josephine the Plumber on a long-running series of TV spots, has died at 95.

At the peak of her fame (Image via 20th Century Fox)

Withers died Saturday evening, surrounded by her loved ones, according to Deadline.

Born on April 12, 1926, in Atlanta, Withers had a mother whose own thwarted dreams of performing directly led to young Jane's early introduction to show biz. Withers said during a 2006 TCM interview, "I had the most wonderful mother in the entire world, and her dream from the time she was 15 years old was to have a little girl that would be in some way connected with show business because she thought it would be a very interesting thing to do." Her mother chose her first name so it would fit better on a marquee.

"Honest — I came out of the womb ready to go to work," Withers summarized of her early passion for acting.

Enrolled in lessons for tap dancing and singing while still a toddler, Withers won amateur contests and got her first break in radio, where she would mimic popular stars of the day, including vamping as Greta Garbo. This led to her own radio show, Dixie's Dainty Dewdrop, in 1929.

Moving to Hollywood with "Mama" while her father remained in Georgia, Withers first appeared as an extra in the 1932 film Handle with Care. She appeared in several other films uncredited, including in the original version of Imitation of Life (1934).

It takes an angel to play a brat. (Image via Fox)

After working on-screen with W.C. Fields in 1934's It's a Gift, she won a supporting role in the Shirley Temple film Bright Eyes (1934). In the classic comedy, Withers — in life universally recognized as relentlessly positive and faultlessly polite — played a brat to Temple's heroine. It was a smash, and Withers won a long-term contract with Fox.

By 1935, Withers was the star of her own film, Ginger, and was receiving accolades from such luminaries as President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

A tremendously popular and versatile child lead throughout the rest of the '30s, she shone in such fare as Gentle Julia (1936), co-starring Marsha Hunt, still alive today at age 103.

During this period, Withers developed a love for movie memorabilia, collecting items as if she were not a star herself, a passion she shared with Debbie Reynolds. Her penchant for collecting was enhanced by a personal friendship with first lady of film Mary Pickford.

She also amassed a legendary collection of dolls — and was the subject of a branded doll of her own, not to mention dresses, jewelry, a book series, and more.

In an unusual development for child actors, Withers completed her entire seven-year contract, transitioning to young adult roles in films like Boy Friend (1939) and Youth Will Be Served (1940). Taking the initiative, she provided the story for her 1941 vehicle Small Town Deb. With a screenplay by Ethel Hill, it was a rare wholly female-crafted script.

Working steadily through the '40s for Fox and Republic, she continued to star in popular B movies. The Withers family, noted for their generosity, splurged on starlet-appropriate theme parties that included Jane celebrating her 18th birthday at Madison Square Garden with U.S. soldiers as her guests.

Withers mostly retired from moviemaking at age 21, when she wed entrepreneur William Moss. Following their 1954 divorce, she returned with a bang as Vashti Hake Snythe in Giant (1956), with Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and James Dean, with whom she later said she had formed such a special bond that he entrusted her with the task of washing his beloved pink cowboy shirt. His death late in the film's production devastated her, and she later said she had held on to the prized shirt for the rest of her life.

Though Giant was a monumental success, she appeared in just three more films, keeping most of the rest of her acting gigs on episodic TV.

From 1963-1974, Withers' career took on a new phase with her acceptance of the role of Josephine the Plumber for Comet cleanser. In hundreds of commercials, she cheerfully embodied the perky pitchwoman.

"When I started doing my commercials," she recalled in a 1978 interview, "I asked them in the beginning if they would help me with my fan mail. They said, 'This is a commercial — you don't get much mail.' I said, 'I guarantee you, you're gonna be hearing from folks. Well, they got so many letters in the first two weeks — telegrams, phone calls — they could not believe what happened, and I know personally, I had four people helping me answer mail just from Josephine alone."

She earned "five figures" for her first few ads. (Image via Comet)

She made her Broadway debut in 1971's Sure, Sure, Shirley with her old co-star Shirley Temple; dazzled in a medley of "The Girl That I Marry"/"I'm a Woman" alongside Mitzi Gaynor, Suzanne Pleshette, Ted Knight, Jerry Orbach and Cliff Norton on Gaynor's Mitzi... A Tribute to the American Housewife TV variety special in 1974; and was asked to enhance the voice of Laverne in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1996) when the actress Mary Wickes died during production.

She went on to repeat her work in the 2002 Hunchback sequel, which became her last performance in any medium.

Dead entertaining on Murder, She Wrote (Image via CBS)

In her later years, Withers appeared at autograph and award shows and was interviewed numerous times regarding her unique position in film history, crying easily and often punctuating her stories with phrases like "jumpin' Jehosaphat!"

Following her divorce from Moss, Withers married Kenneth Errari, and was widowed when he died in a plane crash. She is survived by four of her five children.

Jane with a fan in 2012 (Image by Matthew Rettenmund)

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