Jones graduated from Harvard in 1969 with a BA in English, but he’d been bitten by the acting bug. He moved to New York City, and booked a few Broadway gigs while working steadily on the ABC soap opera “One Life to Live.” After impressing as a disillusioned escaped convict in the above-average Roger Corman-produced prison exploitation flick “Jackson County Jail,” Jones landed the role of Vietnam vet Johnny Vohden in John Flynn’s cult actioner “Rolling Thunder.”
Jones’ Johnny registers strongly as a former POW who’s failed to adjust to a post-Vietnam United States. Like many war veterans, he keeps his despair and fury to himself. He’s racked with shame and devoid of purpose. So when his friend and fellow former internee Major Charles Rane (William Devane) asks his help in taking revenge on the border-town thugs who killed Rane’s wife and child, Johnny doesn’t hesitate to pitch in. “Let’s go clean ’em up.”
Screenwriter Paul Schrader’s dialogue for Johnny is terse. Most actors would’ve taken this as an invitation to portray Johnny as a deranged, dead-eyed warrior with a death wish. Jones, however, uses his chiseled features and sunken eyes to convey a deep sadness and, most acutely, a sense of shame. When Johnny tells a sex worker he’s “gonna kill a bunch of people” prior to the climactic shootout in a Juarez whorehouse, his robotic delivery is kind of depressing because, prior to this, Jones has imbued this killer with a soul. He’s gotten us to mourn for this spiritually adrift working-class Texan who was betrayed by his country. In some ways, we ache more for Johnny than Rane (who’s close to a full-blown psychopath by this point).
As he would do many times throughout his career, Jones finds the tender areas lurking within a hard man, a man we’d like to understand and, perhaps, have a beer with. Johnny may not be the quintessential Jones character, but he was the entry point to a career that would quickly, if briefly, blossom.