The daughter of an aggressive (but comparatively benign) stage mother, Jane Withers was taught to sing and dance before she was three. At four, Withers was starring on her own radio program in Atlanta, doing imitations of such celebrities as Greta Garbo, ZaSu Pitts, and Maurice Chevalier. Relocating to Hollywood with her mother in 1932, Withers began her film career in bit parts, eventually winning the plum role of the obnoxious brat who bedevils sweet little Shirley Temple in Bright Eyes (1934) (throughout her career, Withers had nothing but nice things to say about Temple; for her part, Temple claimed that she was terrified of Withers, both on and off camera). This role won Withers a contract at Fox Studios (later 20th Century Fox), and for the next seven years she starred in a series of energetic, medium-budget comedies and musicals bearing such titles as Pepper (1936), The Holy Terror (1937), and Arizona Wildcat (1937). The script for her 1941 vehicle Small Town Deb was penned by Withers herself, using the nom de plume Jerrie Walters. After the end of her Fox contract in 1943, Withers attempted to establish herself as an ingenue in such films as Sam Goldwyn's The North Star, but her offbeat facial features and her inclination toward stoutness limited her choice of roles. In 1947, the newly married Withers decided to retire from films, something she was fully prepared to do thanks to her oil-rich husband and the generous trust fund set up by her parents. The collapse of her marriage and a severe attack of rheumatoid arthritis dealt potentially fatal blows to her optimistic nature, but by 1955 she was back on her feet, attending the U.S.C. film school in hopes of becoming a director. Hollywood producer/director George Stevens, a frequent U.S.C. lecturer, cast Withers in a sizeable supporting role in the 1956 epic Giant. Withers' second career as a character actress flourished into the 1970s; during this resurgence of activity she married again, only to be left a widow when her husband died in a 1968 plane crash. To TV viewers of the 1960s and 1970s, Jane Withers will be forever associated with her long-running (and extremely lucrative) stint as Josephine the Plumber in a popular series of commercials for Comet cleanser.
by Hal Erickson biography