Jess Walton is an American actor, best known for portraying the role of ‘Jill Abbott’ in the popular and long-running American soap opera ‘The Young and the Restless.’ She resolved to pursue an acting career in her teens. At the age of 17, she left home to work with a Toronto theater company. A couple of years later, she relocated to Hollywood and signed with ‘Universal Studios.’ She started her on-screen career with bit roles in both films and series. Eventually, she garnered female leads in the films ‘The Peace Killers’ and ‘Monkeys in the Attic.’ Her career took a backseat when she turned to alcohol and drugs. She returned to acting after a hiatus. She then earned a regular role in the American soap opera ‘Capitol’ and rose to prominence gaining both critical acclaim and widespread recognition with her portrayal of ‘Jill Abbott,’ after replacing actor Brenda Dickson, in ‘The Young and the Restless.’ With time, her character has emerged as the longest-running and the only remaining original character of the show. It has won Jess two ‘Daytime Emmy’ awards.
Childhood & Early Life
Mary Jess Walton was born on February 18, 1949, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, US. She was raised in Toronto, Canada. There, she studied at the ‘Loretto Abbey Catholic Secondary School.’
When Jess was 17 years old, she left home and became associated with a Toronto theater company. She honed her skills at the ‘Repertory Theater of Toronto Workshop Productions.’ She relocated to Hollywood in 1969 and signed with ‘Universal Studios’ in 1970.
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Initially, Jess appeared in single episodes of various series. Some of them were ‘The Guns of Will Sonnett’ (1969), ‘The Young Lawyers’ (1970), ‘The F.B.I.’ (1971) and ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1972). She also appeared in TV films such as ‘Montserrat’ (1970) and ‘The Victim’ (1972). Meanwhile, she forayed into big-screen flicks, playing the role of a student in the Bruce Davison-starrer 1970 American drama ‘The Strawberry Statement.’ It won the ‘Jury Prize’ at that year’s ‘Cannes Film Festival’ but failed to impress the audiences or the critics.
She starred in the action crime-drama film ‘The Peace Killers,’ along with Clint Ritchie. The movie premiered in San Francisco, California, on September 29, 1971. The film released in West Germany on September 26, 1974.
She played the lead role of ‘Elaine’ in the drama film ‘Monkeys in the Attic,’ which released in Canada on October 2, 1974. During the 1970s, she continued to perform in several TV projects. These included films such as ‘You'll Never See Me Again’ (1973), ‘Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love’ (1974) and ‘The Hunted Lady’ (1977). She also guest-starred in series such as ‘Medical Center’ (1971), ‘Marcus Welby, M.D.’ (1972), ‘Ironside’ (1973), ‘Kojak’ (1974), ‘Cannon’ (1975), ‘Gunsmoke’ (1975), ‘The Rockford Files’ (1975), and ‘Barnaby Jones’ (1977).
Her acting career saw a sudden halt when she gradually became addicted to drugs and alcohol. She had to undergo treatment at a rehabilitation center.
Jess made her comeback to the industry, playing series regular ‘Kelly Harper’ in the ‘CBS’-aired American soap opera ‘Capitol’ (1984–1987). Her performance got her nominated for the ‘Soap Opera Digest Award’ for ‘Outstanding Lead Actress in a Daytime Drama’ in both 1986 and 1988.
In 1988, she earned the most notable role of her career when she was cast as ‘Jill Abbott,’ replacing Brenda Dickson, in the ‘CBS’-aired American soap opera ‘The Young and the Restless.’ Jess gained both critical acclaim and fame playing the character that eventually became the longest-running and the only remaining original character of the series.
Her remarkable performance as ‘Jill Abbott’ earned her nominations for the ‘Daytime Emmy Award’ for ‘Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series’ in 1996, 1997, 2000, and 2017. She won the award in 1997. She also received nominations for the ‘Daytime Emmy Award’ for ‘Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Drama Series’ in 1990 and 1991 and bagged the award in 1991. The role also earned her the ‘Soap Opera Digest Award’ for ‘Outstanding Lead Actress in a Daytime Drama’ in 1994. After over 3 decades, Jess still continues to play the character of ‘Jill Abbott’ with great élan.
Meanwhile, Jess essayed the role of ‘Hellen Cook’ in the 1999 drama film ‘Wasted in Babylon.’ She played the lead role of ‘Margaret Rose’ in the 2005 short ‘Paper Bags.’ She also worked as an executive producer for the film. The following year, she appeared in the short adventure–comedy film ‘The Return of the Muskrats.’
Family & Personal Life
Jess married American actor and director Bruce Davison on May 20, 1972. The marriage was, however, short-lived, as they divorced in 1973.
She married John W. James, an author and the founder of ‘The Grief Recovery Institute,’ on December 20, 1980. They have a son named Cole W. James (born in 1981). Cole has forayed into acting and also serves as the president of ‘The Grief Recovery Institute.’ He is married to Ashley James and has a son. Jess also has a stepdaughter, Allison Ali James, through John. She currently lives with her family in Oregon.
She dated one of the managers of Canadian singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell and folk rock group ‘Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’ (CSNY) for a short while. She was also associated with Mitchell, ‘CSNY,’ and musicians such as Canadian singer-songwriter Neil Young and American songwriter, singer, and pianist Laura Nyro for a while. Jess mentioned in an interview about how she and Mitchell had learned belly dance from Nyro. She also said that she owned one of the houses shown on the cover of Mitchell’s third studio album, ‘Ladies of the Canyon.’
American actor Jeanne Cooper was her acting mentor. Jeanne was also her co-star from ‘The Young and the Restless’ and a dear friend.