Jean Bell Speaks!

There’s a small but pivotal character in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets rarely discussed: Diane, the Black topless dancer at Volpe’s bar whom Charlie, the restlessly ambitious protagonist, is fixated on. When he feels he’s on the verge of being handed his own restaurant by his crime boss uncle, he has a convenient premise to ask her out, ostensibly to meet and discuss a job opportunity for her. Diane clearly does not want to talk to Charlie – she probably doesn’t want to talk to any man who’s seen her in this club, let alone this mobbed-up slickster – but when he mentions that she could earn more money and not have to show flesh, she’ll take that meeting. Of course, because Charlie can’t deal with bucking against anyone, or against ingrained racism, he stands her up. She’s probably not surprised. And at the movie’s end, when his world turns into a literal bloody mess, he sees her in a nearby coffee shop, coolly smoking a cigarette, either oblivious to him, or ignoring him, as if to say crime and death don’t faze her anymore because she’s worked within it to a harsher degree than him. There very well could be a whole other movie centered around her life earning a living as the only Black woman in the pub among antediluvian Italians.



If there is a word to capture the essence of Annie Judis, before, during and after her eight year acting career as Jean Bell, it would have to be discipline. The few times that she has granted public statements, past and present, she has spoken more about her personal bedrocks and rarely about acting. In the ‘70s, when the press was mostly prodding her for details about her brief relationship with Richard Burton in 1975, she always rebuffed, even turning down large money offers to spill the cocktail, curtly replying that she enjoyed his company, did not enjoy his carousing, and could sense what he really wanted was to reunite with Elizabeth Taylor. In a more recent interview for Amy Rose Spiegel’s “Power” podcast on Hugh Hefner, she stated that during her days as a Playboy playmate, she was not a hobnobber, observing, “Coming from Texas, where everyone would go to bed early at night, California, you stay up all night long, [you] wonder where everybody’s going?…I kinda like stayed home a lot.” The same results-driven intensity that inspired her to pursue an entertainment career and avoid foolishness during that time, is what stirred her to leave it behind when it no longer provided what she wanted. And that discipline that fueled the athletic energy behind her two iconic starring roles in TNT Jackson and The Muthers is still present in her current profile as a three-time Guinness World Record holder and advocate for physical fitness.

In the decades since her retirement from show business, Ms. Judis has never been interviewed at length about her experience in film and television as Jean Bell. It is an enormous privilege to be able to conduct the first such in-depth email interview with her on that compelling era, and her life now.



What would you like to say about your background, and what your formative years were like?

I was uneducated about Hollywood, and not impressed with the people or lifestyle. I just wanted to make money and raise my child. I was very introverted. I didn’t drink, smoke, do drugs, or go to parties. I was a loner. I went from job to job, not paying attention to building a career in Hollywood, but just trying to learn new skills to keep working and make a living.

I was oblivious to the people and not impressed or star-struck with the people.  I dated high profile men in pursuit of a better life for me and my son. I never wanted to be a star or famous. Eventually, I met the right man for me and settled into a lifestyle that he and I built together! I can give you what you are looking for in an interview. I am really flattered and appreciative that your interest in my legacy is so strong.

I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, and raised in Houston, Texas, with my parents & three sisters in Fifth Ward.  Yes, where Debbie Allen was raised.  At 13 years of age, I obtained my Social Security card and began working. After school, I would go to work part time at a movie theater selling tickets in a little booth in front of the theater. I remember meeting Tina Turner and B. B. King, they came to the theater, of course I didn’t know who they were until later. I participated in archery, volleyball, softball, art classes, bowling, typing, learning shorthand & sewing! SCHOOL & WORK, I never missed a day. I received many certificates for “Perfect Attendance.“

After graduating, I began my modeling & acting career. There was a photographer, C-Boy Vaughn, who worked for a popular newspaper called The Forward Times, he’d always snap photos of me, kept me in the papers every week, he made me feel like I was a big star…hahaha.  Every contest I entered, C-Boy followed and snapped my picture for The Forward Times. He made me feel like I was a star. Every week I would look in the paper to see what photo he would use.



Was there any special inspiration/tribute in mind when you chose your stage name?  And for the record, what was the preferred spelling? Wikipedia uses “Jean Bell,” IMDb has “Jeannie Bell,” the AFI has “Jeanie Bell,” – it really messes with the archivists! (And, as someone with a last name that’s been misspelled/mispronounced since childhood, I sympathize.)

I was chosen to be in the centerfold, I said to myself, I have to come up with a name. My photographer asked me what name I want to use. I thought about it and I said I wanna keep my real name to myself,  Annie Morgan. I can’t lose myself, I’ll always know who I am and where I came from. With a fictitious name I can play and be anyone with the name “Jean Bell.“ Bell had a southern ring to it…hahahah. I start thinking “Jean Bell,” the more I say Jean Bell, the more I like it. And that’s when JEAN BELL was born in 1969. There were people asking me, how do you spell your first name, I would tell them, somehow they would spell it different ways: Jeannie, Jeanie, etc. Later I would be told, just make sure people spell your name correctly. What do I know, I’m from the South.



Your first film credits are particularly notable because they were often with Black directors like Hugh A. Robertson, Ivan Dixon, and Gordon Parks Jr., working in the studio system. Was there extra excitement about being in such creative environments?

I was too busy; I never had a chance to meet any of the black directors.

Similarly, with the exponential rise in roles for Black talent, you were now among a wave of beautiful women of color working in mainstream projects and becoming marquee names. Did you feel that brought about more camaraderie, or more rivalry, among the performers you encountered reading for parts?

I would go for private readings, I never got a chance to meet other actresses; I was always alone for some reason.

How did you become involved with Mean Streets?

I was dating Ted Ashley, he sent me to meet Martin Scorsese for this movie; of course, I didn’t know who he was at the time. I had to read for the part. He liked me and cast me.

What were your impressions of Martin Scorsese and his associates? Did you ever think during your time working with him that this motormouthed movie lover from New York would go on to become a titan of world cinema?

Martin Scorsese, he was very nice to me. He talked very fast, I had to listen carefully to what he was saying. Everyone else was great, I had a good time working with everyone. I didn’t realize until later that I was working with some big names in show business.



Your character Diane doesn’t have much dialogue or screen time, but there are terrific grace notes in your performance that allude to a deep backstory for her. Did Scorsese coach you in those details or did you invent them yourself?

This is when you have to have talent and appearance. I invented everything.

What was it like on the set when shooting your scenes? Did you get along with the leads and the other players?

Yes, everyone was very professional with me, with my southern accent; they loved hearing me talk…hahaha.

Were there any fun moments during shooting or off the set?

I’m a loner. I went home, had dinner, got some sleep, and ready for work the next day; didn’t have time to socialize. I’m not a socializing person; I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I didn’t like parties, it’s not my thing. I was raised not to smoke, drink, or gamble.

Maybe that’s why I couldn’t have married Richard Burton, because of his drinking, and I didn’t drink..hahaha.



What was the reaction of you and your friends when Mean Streets was released? Were you all surprised that it has become a classic?

I was very surprised. I didn’t realize that this movie would be a classic. All my friends would ask me what it was like to work with Big Stars. They loved my performance.

What kind of attention, if any, did you experience from this film, versus your previous bit parts, and did you find it pleasant or unpleasant?

To me it was just another day at work. I do the best I can, and I move on waiting for my next job.



How did you come to the attention of Roger Corman, and how long after that did you get the starring role in TNT Jackson?

After coming back from Mexico starring in my movie. Just a normal casting call; my agent sent me on this interview, I met Roger Corman.  In two months, I got TNT Jackson.

What, if anything, did you do to prepare for being the lead in this action-heavy project?

Stan Shaw gave the green light for me to be cast. Margaret Avery was originally cast before they saw me. She dropped out because she was expecting a child. They saw me and I was the best out there. I beat out Nichelle Nichols from “Star Trek,” it was between the two of us and they picked me. I was happy to travel again, to the Philippines & China. I started training, working out, jogging, lifting weights, to get in top shape for this movie.



What was your impression of Cirio Santiago as a director?

Cirio Santiago was a very professional man, and lotta personality, patient, and a family man. I would sit next to him by the camera, and he would explain to me how this scene is going to work, this amazing creative person, I learned so much from him. I thought some day that I want be a director, he made it look so easy.  RIP my friend.

Corman has often told the story of how his publicity man Jon Davision came up with presenting you with the “Ebony Fist Award” to get publicity for the film. Did you get to keep the actual award, and if so, do you still have it?

 I never heard about this award.



After filming this movie, I started dating Richard Burton, moved to Switzerland, and lived with him a while, so I didn’t really hear about all these awards.

You returned to the Philippines with Cirio Santiago to make The Muthers as part of an all-star cast of contemporaries: Roseanne Katon, Trina Parks, and Jayne Kennedy. What was that like?

Making The Muthers movie, I had so much fun working with great actresses.



Quentin Tarantino wrote this about The Muthers: “It’s the playful execution of a preposterous story that’s key to the film’s charm. A friend once made the observation that if you were to watch three children play act a scene from ‘Starsky & Hutch’ that they’d seen on TV the night before, say Starsky and Hutch interrogating a prisoner, the children’s level of intensity and commitment to what they were doing would be both more charming and sincere then the same scene played by Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul. Well both Bell’s and Katon’s performance achieve this kids-at-play quality. They could very well be two little girls playing pirate in their backyard. Add that to the Modesty Blaise meets Pippi Longstocking conception of their characters, and the genuine camaraderie the two women share, maybe only The Little Rascals could’ve packed more charm into its 88 minutes. Considering how many movies Santiago made, it’s a damn shame he didn’t make one more Bell & Katon pirate adventure.” Were any of those concepts what you had in mind when you were making the film?

It would’ve been nice if [Cirio] did make a movie with Bell & Katon as pirates, that would’ve been fun.



You did another foreign-located project, Casanova & Company with Tony Curtis, which put you in the company of some of the world’s most lovely actresses of the time: Olivia Pascal (Vanessa), Marisa Mell (Danger Diabolik), Sylva Koscina (Lisa and the Devil), and fellow Playboy alumna Lillian Muller. What are your memories of that production and that cast?

 Filming felt like I was in a fantasy world, with all the wonderful costumes and wonderful people. I felt like was dreaming.



Did you maintain any further contact with anyone you worked with from your acting days?

Yes!…Trina Parks, Jayne Kennedy, Rosanne Katon, Joyce Williams from Playboy days, and Stan Shaw.

I’m so proud of Stan Shaw, my co-star in TNT Jackson, who’s gone on to make incredible historic accomplishments in our industry. He’s starred in the first film about Vietnam, The Boys in Company C, Alex Haley’s grandfather Will Palmer in “Roots: The Next Generations,” won the Emmy for Kurt Vonnegut’s Pulitzer Prize-winning short story Displaced Person, Harlem Nights, as well as a great number of films. He’s currently the newest star added to the cast on BET+’s “The Family Business!”

Aside from the films given prominence here, what are the other performances and/or collaborators from your body of work that you are particularly fond of?

Everything in our industry comes full circle. I indeed deem it an honor to have lifted the torch up with my other legendary sisters Pam Grier, Tamara Dobson, Rosalind Cash, and the ones whose shoulders we stood on: The Great Ruby Dee, Diana Sands, Diahann Carroll, Eartha Kitt, Hattie McDaniel, Beah Richards, Lena Horne, Dorothy Dandridge, Cicely Tyson. I am blessed to have been included in a great Sisterhood of brilliant actresses who were Women Of Color!



Was stepping away from show business the result of cumulative events, or was there a specific one that steered you to do other things?

I met this incredible man on the tennis court one day, and we fell in love, and been together ever since for 43 years. We are glued together, we never do anything separate, and I always wanted to marry a man like that, who wanted to be with me all the time. He wanted to take care of me and give me everything that I wanted, and I left show business and lived a private life. I’m a loner, I love to be alone with my husband.



I’m sure in 2003, your ears were burning from everyone you know talking about Quentin Tarantino giving Vivica A. Fox’s villain Vernita Green the alias “Jeannie Bell” in his Kill Bill saga. How did it feel to get name-checked in such a major and unexpected fashion?

Someone told me about that. I’m not aware of it, but I think it’s fantastic.

You have recently achieved a different sort of worldwide fame as a three-time Guinness World Record holder for World’s Oldest Competitive Rope Skipper. What spurred you to take on this challenge?

It came to me in a dream. “If you dream or believe it you can achieve.” My dream was try to get in the Guinness World Records.



In what fashion do you plan to break your own record again this year?

Don’t get me talking about skipping rope, I can talk all day long.

First of all, I never thought at 78 years young, I’ll be jumping in front of people on a basketball court ALONE with judges and hundreds of people watching me jump rope. My husband of 43 happy years would always tell me I’m supposed to be playing with my great grandkids, not skipping rope; he said Who jumps rope at 78? I’m blessed, I believe in taking care of your health. Watch me jumping rope for my competition on Instagram and YouTube, I post all my competitions if you want to see them. If anyone’s thinking about starting to jump rope, check with your doctor first, and go on YouTube and check out [my videos].



What advice do you have for the newest generation of Annies or Jeannies out there with creative aspirations today?

Just Do IT!!!!!!

What will you remember most fondly from your cumulative years in the movies?

 I remember all the fun, and all the incredible talented people that I met on the way.

As far as the future, there will always be us, the next generation of beautiful, talented, and worthy filmmakers have already arrived, and I’m proud of them all!




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