"I want to welcome Jim Varney into a very exclusive club," says Buddy Ebsen of his sincerest flatterer, as seen in the new film "The Beverly Hillbillies."
"That's the Uncle Jed Club. There are hundreds of actors that have played Hamlet, but only two have played Jed Clampett."
But if the 85-year-old Ebsen--the originating patriarch of television's Clampett clan for nine seasons on CBS--doesn't mind being in a moonshine-fed fraternity of two with the "Hey, Verne" guy, he does have a bit of dialect coaching to impart before the film folk get under way with any inevitable sequels.
"There's only one criticism that I had for his rendition: his enunciation of 'well -doggies,' " Ebsen says, correcting Varney. "He fell into the trap that many other imitators of that particular phrase do. They say 'eeee e-doggies.'
"That's not it. It's wellllllll -doggies!" Ebsen adds again for emphasis, his trademark Ozark falsetto echoing down the canyons.
The contested syllable aside, Ebsen has nothing but praise for Penelope Spheeris' take on "Hillbillies." As the only original series regular who's seen the new version so far (the other surviving stars are Max Baer Jr., who played Jethro, and Donna Douglas, who played Elly May), he gives the "very fine" second-generation cast high marks. And Ebsen downplays the fact that he's the one who gets the biggest laugh in the movie, just by virtue of showing up on screen, albeit in the guise of non-hillbilly Barnaby Jones."
Ebsen was first contacted about doing his showstopper cameo by the casting department at 20th Century Fox, followed by a letter of appeal from director Spheeris--queries he politely declined. "I was reluctant to do it," he recalls, "because I didn't think I had any business in this picture because it was gonna be all new people. And then Penelope got on the phone and finally persuaded me to do it. She felt that it was a good comedy notion, and I think it turned out she was right."
Ebsen goes so far as to call Spheeris "a comedic directorial genius . . . . After people get over the shock in seeing that the people they're gonna look at don't really look like the originals, after they accept them for what they are and then settle back and enjoy the story, I think it works very well."
In fact, Ebsen is much higher on this version than on the little-remembered TV movie "Return of the Beverly Hillbillies." In that, he and most of the original cast (sans Max Baer) reunited in 1981, a decade after the series' original run ended.
Fonder feelings are reserved for this past May's hour special "Legend of the Beverly Hillbillies," which reunited Ebsen, Baer and Douglas for interview spots and landed in the Nielsens' Top 5.
(That show has just been released on home video to tie in with "Hillbillies"-mania. Also just out for the nostalgic is Columbia Records' CD reissue--who woulda thunk--of a 1965 Beverly Hillbillies album, on which Ebsen has two compositions, "Back Home U.S.A." and "I've Gotta Have a Long Talk With That Boy." (And for further interest, there's Ebsen's early-'94 autobiography, "The Other Side of Oz.")
Douglas and Baer weren't invited to participate in the new movie, and both actors have been out of town and unable to see how their successors have fared.
"Hopefully it's a cute movie," said Baer, 55, from Las Vegas, where he's headquartered nowadays. "I hope it works out well for them."
Douglas, 60, travels a good deal, working with young people, she says, and has only seen a few clips from the film on TV. "And as I saw Miss Jane and my pa and Granny," she said, "it was so different . . . . I don't know what I was expecting, but having worked with (the original actors) for so many years . . , it made me sort of sad, I guess because I do have such beautiful memories of the 'Hillbillies.' But as far as the movie is concerned, I'm sure they have some very, very talented people in it."
Ebsen was almost not able to see--literally--the film himself, as he had a minor eye operation two weeks ago. The stitches were removed Monday, just in time to allow him to attend the cast premiere at the Chinese Theatre that night--in sunglasses.
This type of sweetly bourgeois-bashing comedy endures, Ebsen says, because "it's therapeutic. When I have a low period, I just put on a cassette and I look at a half-hour of the 'Hillbillies' and I'm smiling and I don't hurt anymore." Which is, perchance, to say: Hamlet, eat your heart out.