Former child star Jane Withers died on Saturday evening in Burbank, surrounded by her loved ones. She was 95.
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The Atlanta native began a career in show business as a young child thanks to her mother’s determination to have one child in show business. Even her name was picked specifically so that “even with a long last name like Withers, it would fit on a marquee,” according to a statement from her daughter Kendall Errair.
“My mother was such a special lady, Errair said. “She lit up a room with her laughter, but she especially radiated joy and thankfulness when talking about the career she so loved and how lucky she was.”
No official cause of death has been revealed.
By the time Withers was 2, she was enrolled in tap dancing classes and learning to sing. Her career officially kicked off a year later after winning a local contest called Dixie’s Dainty Dewdrop, which earned her a role in the Saturday-morning children’s show Aunt Sally’s Kiddie Revue. After a move to Hollywood, she caught a break: a supporting role opposite Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes.
Her first starrer was the 1935 film, Ginger, which she began filming on her ninth birthday. That same year, she starred in The Farmer Takes a Wife opposite Henry Fonda who was making his feature debut. For the remainder of the 1930s, Jane appeared in three to five films per year including Little Miss Nobody, The Holy Terror, Rascals, and Always in Trouble.
From a young age, Withers was heavily involved in all aspects of her films; sitting in writers’ meetings and suggesting dialogue, offering casting choices, and negotiating deals with the studios. Jane Withers was the only child star to complete a seven-year contract.
She continued thriving by the time she was a teen, working on such films as My Best Gal, Affairs of Geraldine, and Johnny Doughboy under her new contract with Republic.
By 21, Withers retired from Hollywood to focus on her home life. She was married twice and had five children. But she returned in 1956 for the film Giant where she collaborated with George Stevens.
It would be the role that opened up more opportunities for Withers in both film and TV. She appeared in episodes of General Electric Theater, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, The Love Boat, and Murder, She Wrote. Withers also worked in stage productions of Mame, Hello, Dolly!, and No, No, Nanette., while raising her children.
In 1960, she took on what would become one of her most popular roles, as Josephine the Plumber in TV commercials for Comet cleanser. Withers was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame that same year.
Withers also was a voice actress in the Disney animated films The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1995, and its sequel in 2002. She landed the role after Mary Wickes, who voiced the gargoyle, died while the former was in post-production.
Active in dozens of charities, Jane served as a board member of the local branch of the American Cancer Society and in 2003, she received a Living Legacy Award from the Women’s International Center.
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