Once in a while, an actor ends up with a TV role that turns him or her into a cultural icon — the Fonz, Carrie Bradshaw, Lassie. But few end up taking their fictional social responsibility beyond the camera.
That's what Dot-Marie Jones chose to do when she nabbed a part on Fox's hit series Glee, which catapulted her from obscurity to being recognized wherever she goes by fans who can't resist hugging her or telling her how much she has changed their lives.
Written specifically for her by Glee creator Ryan Murphy, the role of Coach Beiste (pronounced "beast") capitalizes on Jones' imposing frame and masculine demeanor, which are continually the butt of cruel jokes. She's shunned from the "cool" faculty table; the students think of her to temper their sexual arousal; she's given dog-poop cookies.
Jones' humorous and heart-wrenching portrayal of the wounded giant — a 40- year-old who'd never been kissed — has made her a champion of the underdog.
Raised on a dairy farm in Hilmar, Jones had a sizable growth spurt that caused more physical challenges than social ones. "I went from 5 feet 6 to 6 feet 1 in the eighth grade," she says. "I was growing so quickly, I had to strengthen my muscles because I was sore all the time."
Moving bales of hay was already part of Jones' daily chores, so pumping up her participation in sports, including volleyball, power lifting, track, shot put and discus, transformed her into the ultimate jock. In 1988 and 1992, she competed — but didn't qualify — in shot put and discus in the Olympic Trials. She holds 15 world arm-wrestling titles.
During a four-year stint as a probation counselor at Fresno County Juvenile Hall — "I worked lockdown, everything from stealing cars to murder" — a friend suggested she audition for a TV show featuring medieval gladiators, Knights and Warriors. She handily won the role of evil Lady Battleaxe, which she played for 26 episodes in 1992. "I jousted on Rollerblades," she says. "I was just mean."
Hooked on acting ever since, Jones has landed more than 50 roles on shows including Prison Break, Cougar Town and Murphy's Nip/Tuck — most of which play off her size.
Rather than bemoan the fact that she can't play the diminutive cheerleader or cutesy ingénue, Jones relishes her hefty roles. "I've played the big, tough chick my whole career," she says. "It's gratifying."
She does, however, get the occasional stinging comment. "I saw a question posed on Google that said, 'Was Dot-Marie Jones born a man?' That pisses me off. No matter what you do, someone's gotta knock you down.
"When I was growing up, when anyone would say something mean, my mom would say, 'Piss on 'em.' Being a strong woman taught me that I could do anything. I know who I am."
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Jones conveys that sentiment to her fans, personally answering hundreds of emails a week. "One girl wrote that she was never welcome to sit with anyone at lunch." Jones' reply: "You'll always have a seat at my table." That's the beauty behind the Beiste.