Christopher Jones

In a scene from "Wild in the Streets," Christopher Jones, center, sings with Diane Varsi and Larry Bishop, right. (Los Angeles Times)

As far back as 1968, rising star Christopher Jones — who seemed to have everything at 26, including sensitive good looks, adoring fans and a steady stream of film offers — said he wasn't much devoted to acting.

"I think of acting as only a means to an end," Jones, who was often compared to James Dean, said in a Los Angeles Times interview. "Acting's just my work." Later that year Jones starred in the youth rebellion film "Wild in the Streets" and had a major role as a British officer in David Lean's 1970 epic "Ryan's Daughter."

But he meant what he said. Except for a cameo in a friend's movie, Jones turned his back on Hollywood after the Lean film. Even as prominent a director as Quentin Tarantino was not able to lure him back onto the screen.

Jones, who continued to live in Southern California, was not much interested in explaining why he left the business at his peak. "I am happy," he told the Chicago Tribune in 2000. "I did exactly as I pleased — within my world."

Jones, 72, died Friday at Los Alamitos Medical Center. He had been diagnosed in December with gallbladder cancer, said his partner, Paule McKenna. He had been living for the last several years with McKenna, with whom he had four children, in Seal Beach and working occasionally as an artist.

Even after he quit the business, Jones, who grew up in a children's home in Tennessee, was besieged with offers. "I was sent many scripts that I never even looked at or acknowledged," he said in a 1999 interview with the Toronto newspaper Globe and Mail. "I was too busy living and having fun."

But his former manager, Sherry Dodd, said Jones had no interest in films after the brutal murder of actress Sharon Tate with whom he had grown close. Tate was one of five people murdered in her home by Manson family members in 1969.

"He had a breakdown," Dodd said of Jones.

His only exception was to appear in a small part in "Trigger Happy" (1996), also known as "Mad Dog Time," at the request of director Larry Bishop who also appeared in "Wild in the Streets." Jones told the Globe and Mail it was "just something to do."

He was born as William Franklin Jones on Aug. 18, 1941, in Jackson, Tenn. He changed his name when he got into acting, Dodd said, because it conflicted with the name of an established actor.

His father sent Jones to a children's home in Memphis at an early age because his mother had become ill. Jones joined the Army at the age of 16 with the permission of his father, but went AWOL, resulting in a prison term.

He eventually made his way to New York and took up painting, but he was also interested in acting, and at a casting call for the 1961 Broadway debut of Tennessee Williams' "Night of the Iguana," he was personally chosen for a small role by the playwright. In 1965, Jones married Susan Strasberg, daughter of the director of the famed Actors Studio theater workshop, Lee Strasberg. It was a stormy marriage, according to the actress' autobiography, "Bittersweet." His only marriage ended in divorce in 1968; she died in 1999.

Jones' career took its first big leap when he was cast as the title character in the ABC-TV series "The Legend of Jesse James" that ran for more than 30 episodes in 1965 and 1966. He got thousands of fan letters a week and later appeared on episodes of "Judd for the Defense" and "The Man from U.N.C.L.E." before making "Wild in the Streets" about a rock star who gets elected president when the voting age is lowered to 14.

Tarantino wanted to cast Jones in the small part of Zed in "Pulp Fiction" (1994). "Quentin was really sweet and very gracious to offer him the part," McKenna said.

But Jones turned down the role of the violent character who rapes another man in the movie — a decision with which she agreed. "I told him I didn't want him to do a part that would not be good for his children to see," she said.

Jones maintained in interviews that he didn't miss that career, but he made statements that had an air of mystery. "I'm not bitter and I have no reason to be bitter," he told the Globe and Mail. "Fate is fate. That's the way it was. As for the rest, I want my epitaph to read: 'Some things are better left unsaid.' "

Jones is survived by daughters Jennifer, Delon and Calin; sons Tauer, Seagen and Chris; brother Bobby; and several grandchildren.

david.colker@latimes.com