Joan Staley, the accomplished actress who counted loveable sad sack Don Knotts as one of her onscreen romances, died this past week at the age of 79. Along with Knotts, Staley also could boast bragging rights for starring onscreen with Elvis Presley in Roustabout and serenading Audie Murphy in Gunpoint.
Joan Staley’s biggest accomplishment might just be in capturing the hearts of a million and one oddball pre-adolescents who thrilled to her exploits as the not so hapless potential Girl Friday to the character of Luther Heggs (the aforementioned Don Knotts) in 1966’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. And I should know of whence I speak; I was one of those oddball boys who was still too young to really concern himself with the fairer sex but who was still inexplicably spellbound by the innocent allure of Joan Staley and the sneak preview she seemed to offer me of an adolescence that was fast approaching, whether I was ready or not.
Born in Minneapolis, Minnesota, but growing up in Los Angeles, California, Mrs. Staley – whose father was a minister – quickly developed an affinity for music thanks in no small part to her mother who was accomplished at playing violin, viola, organ and piano. Music was her access drug into the world of Hollywood and filmmaking and she marked as her film debut the 1948 Billy Wilder (The Apartment) directed film, The Emperor Waltz where she shared brief screen time with silver screen legends Bing Crosby and Joan Fontaine.
It wasn’t a straight line however for Mrs. Staley and film stardom; before fully committing herself to a film career, she finished out school in locales as diverse as Chicago, IL, Washington, D.C., Munich and Paris before briefly attending college and then moving on to working as the only teletype operator at a distinguished brokerage firm.
When Joan Staley finally did commit fulltime to an acting career, she did so with a gusto that was revelatory; between 1958 and the time she made The Ghost and Mr. Chicken in ’66 she starred in or was heavily featured in film and television projects ranging from Bells Are Ringing, The Untouchables, The Tab Hunter Show, The New Phil Silvers Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show. In addition to those standouts, she also appeared in cinematic touchstones such as Cape Fear and A New Kind of Love, the latter of which she was rightfully proud of.
But it’s really director Alan Rafkin’s The Ghost and Mr. Chicken that most fans remember Mrs. Staley for all of these years later. As the character of Alma Parker, Staley brought sincerity and warmth to what could have otherwise been a cardboard cutout of a character in a less capable actor’s hands. In only a limited amount of screen time (Chicken was, after all, a true Don Knotts showcase), this thespian proved to be the perfect romantic foil for Knotts and his famous Nervous Man character of which he seemed to always play some variation of from project to project. Patient, kind, caring and believing, Staley’s Alma proved to Knotts’ Luther that he needn’t look far to find happiness and true love in the kooky little town his newspaperman wannabe resided in. Somehow that gave all of us future lovelorn’s enough faith to carry on in the still-mysterious and choppy waters of love; after all, if Luther Heggs could find true love, mightn’t we, too?
In promoting The Ghost and Mr. Chicken, Staley and Knotts toured around the country, popping up at various movie theaters where the film was playing and giving fans a little extra treat for their money. This was still a time in Hollywood before the heralded second Golden Age of film had occurred, when there was still a little magic and fun behind a movie opening and Staley recalled the tour with some affection in later years to The College Crowd Digs Me. When recounting the film and what it meant to her, Mrs. Staley had this to say: “I thought…Wow! This really clicks all the way through…And it was such a joy, after all of the westerns, and the saloon girl characters, and the silly characters, to be able to simply play it straight. It was such a joy.”
Mrs. Staley, you were such a joy to watch onscreen. Thank you for all of the years of enjoyment and pleasure you gave the world. You will be missed.