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Jane Withers (1926–2021), child star and “Josephine the Plumber” in commercials

by Linnea Crowther

Jane Withers was an actress who was a child star in the 1930s and later became known for Comet cleanser commercials, where she played Josephine the Plumber.

Child star

Withers was one of the biggest child stars of the 1930s, sometimes acting as a foil to the superstar child actress Shirley Temple (1928–2014). Withers tended to play mischievous little girls and tomboys, a formula that followed her into her teens. Her notable films as a child star included “Bright Eyes” (1934), “Ginger” (1935), and “The Holy Terror” (1937). She became a popular actress, with licensing deals for dresses, paper dolls, jewelry, and more under her name, as well as starring in a series of mystery novels. In her teens, Withers occasionally played romantic roles, but her fame began to wane as she aged, and she retired at age 21.

Later roles

Withers returned to the big screen for a supporting role in “Giant” (1956) and thereafter continued to work intermittently. She appeared on TV shows including “Bachelor Father,” “The Munsters,” and “Murder, She Wrote.” Her greatest later-career fame came when she accepted a role as Josephine the Plumber in a series of Comet cleanser ads in the mid-1960s. She continued playing the role for a decade, becoming highly recognizable to TV viewers. Later, Withers took over for the voice of Laverne the gargoyle in “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1996) when the original voice actress, Mary Wickes (1910–1995), died before the film was completed. She played Laverne in the movie’s 2002 sequel.

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Withers on comparisons to Shirley Temple

“I was just the opposite of her. There was nothing about me in any way, shape, or form that I could ever be like Shirley Temple.  I was just plain Jane – no curls, no dimples, no anything – just me.” —from a 2013 interview for Journeys in Classic Film

Tributes to Jane Withers

Full obituary: The New York Times

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