Buddy Ebsen had just finished noodling with Fats Waller’s “Ain’t Misbehavin’ ” on the white baby grand piano in his elegantly appointed living room when he was asked if he still tap-danced.
“I thought you’d never ask,” he said, blue eyes twinkling and gray loafers gracefully slapping out a time step on the hardwood floor: “You like that?”
Two months shy of his 86th birthday, Ebsen’s still got it.
More than six decades after a lanky, 6-foot-3 20-year-old from Florida showed up in the Big Apple to break into show biz with only $26.65 in his pocket, the hoofer-turned-actor is getting ready to go back on the road--this time to promote his autobiography.
“The Other Side of Oz” (Donovan; $24.95) chronicles his life and career in vaudeville, on Broadway in “Whoopee” and the “Ziegfeld Follies,” in movies such as “Captain January” with Shirley Temple and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” with Audrey Hepburn, and on TV, the medium that gave him superstar status: nine years as folksy Jed Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies” and another eight years as the cool and methodical private detective in “Barnaby Jones.”
That’s not to mention his role as Fess Parker’s sidekick Georgie Russell in that baby-boomer cultural phenomenon of the 1950s: “Davy Crockett.”
Ebsen will launch “The Other Side of Oz,” which is published by Donovan Publishing of Newport Beach, at the Round Table West author luncheon Jan. 27 at the Balboa Bay Club.
The book’s title refers to Ebsen’s most unusual claim to fame: He was originally cast as the Tin Man in “The Wizard of Oz” but, after he nearly died from inhaling the aluminum dust in his makeup, was replaced by Jack Haley.
“I suspect I’m still in a couple of the long shots because you couldn’t tell who was in there and it cost a lot of money to re-shoot,” said Ebsen, adding that he’s sure his voice remains in the “We’re Off to See the Wizard” musical number.
As he says in the book: “Listen closely next time.”
Dapperly dressed in a burgundy V-neck sweater, open-necked violet shirt and ascot, the actor was seated at a table in the sun room off the kitchen. The Old European-styled two-story house in Palos Verdes Estates, north of Long Beach, has been home since shortly after Ebsen--a former longtime Balboa Island resident--and his wife, Dorothy, were married in 1985.
Ebsen had moved to Balboa Island in 1960, having summered there with his family for a decade. His ex-wife Nancy, whom he divorced a decade ago after 39 years of marriage, served as president of the Newport Harbor Children’s Theater Guild and founded the now-defunct Newport Harbor Actors Theater, whose productions included the staging of Ebsen’s play, “Mary Queen of Hearts.”
Ebsen himself cropped up periodically in local newspapers, serving as the grand marshal of the Newport Harbor annual Character Boat Parade one year and as honorary chairman for the Providence Speech and Hearing Center’s fund-raising campaign another year.
But mostly he worked during his Orange County years, commuting daily to Hollywood during the making of “The Beverly Hillbillies” and later, as the county grew and freeway traffic became too heavy, staying in Hollywood during the week while making “Barnaby Jones.”
Like his screen persona, Ebsen is low-key, down-to-earth, gentlemanly. It’s that down-home quality, grown to avuncular familiarity over the years, that has given him such a long career run.
Most recently, he had a cameo as Barnaby Jones in the “Beverly Hillbillies” movie and he just finished filming a guest shot on the new “Burke’s Law” series. A few years ago he performed a one-man show in Branson, Mo., doing, as he says, “what I have done all my life: singing, dancing, jokes.”
A history buff and painter who still sails the catamaran he used to win the Trans Pacific race in 1968, Ebsen said he’s been writing down stories and reminiscences for years.
“I’m a scribbler,” he said. “I always wrote down things that I thought were of interest. Also, my mother used to say, ‘Son, one of these days you’ll write a book. So remember all those interesting things that are happening to you.’ ”
Born in Belleville, Ill., on April 2, 1908, Ebsen is one of five children (he had four sisters). His father worked as a physical culture instructor in a German American athletic and social club and, damming up several springs on their nine acres on the outskirts of town, he created a public swimming pond and resort called the Ebsen Natatorium.
When Ebsen was 12, the family moved to Florida, where his father, who also taught dancing, opened a dance studio in Orlando.
Ebsen originally intended to become a doctor, an ambition fueled by watching one of his sisters suffer seizures from epilepsy. But after two years of premed courses, money ran out and he abandoned medicine in favor of show business.
His father, Ebsen said, had taught all of his children to dance--ballet. “Of course, at that time I resisted it because it was considered a little bit girlish to dance.” Ebsen’s interest in dancing grew in the ‘20s, however, with the advent of the Charleston, and from that he learned to tap-dance.
Ebsen arrived in New York City in 1928, initially working as a soda jerk to make ends meet. About a year later, he was joined by his sister, Vilma. Billed as Vilma and Buddy Ebsen, they were a hit playing in vaudeville houses and nightclubs.
“I was kind of gawky and tall and it was easy to create eccentric (dance) moves,” Ebsen recalled. “My sister was the pretty one and I was the funny one, and together we made a good team.”
They were given several screen tests in New York in the mid-'30s, dancing and telling jokes for the camera. Then, as Ebsen says, one screen test “took” and they were called out to Hollywood.
A key moment in the book has Ebsen seated across MGM boss Louis B. Mayer’s large polished desk and Mayer, the most powerful man in Hollywood, saying he wanted to sign Ebsen to a seven-year contract.
“Money is no object,” Mayer said. “But in order to give you the kind of parts you deserve, Ebsen, we have to own you.”
The word own sent a chill down Ebsen’s spine.
“Mr. Mayer,” he replied, “here’s the kind of fool I am. You can’t own me. I can’t be a piece of goods on your counter.”
Financial incentives aside, Ebsen recalls, “I just couldn’t stand to be owned. It was the way he said it; it came out like capital letters: We have to OWN you.”’
Looking back, he concedes that “I was young and, by many standards, had a lot to learn.”
And while he occasionally had second thoughts--"on days I was a little low"--he never totally regretted turning down the offer. “It cost something in dollars to me for a while, but in the long run it didn’t,” he said.
When World War II broke out, Ebsen recalled, “I was of an age that didn’t require I be in the armed services, but I was stubborn and went in anyway.” He served in the U.S. Coast Guard, in anti-submarine duty in the North Pacific.
After the war, he appeared in Oscar Hammerstein’s 1946 revival of “Showboat” on Broadway. But a year later, he began what he calls in the book “a seven-year economic plague for me.”
From a previous $2,000-a-week motion picture salary to $750-a-week for “Showboat,” he slipped to an average of $135 a week in 1947. A low point for morale came when William Morris Jr.--head of the famous talent agency--suggested that Ebsen, the no-longer-youthful half of a “cute brother and sister team,” retire from show business.
Years later--when “The Beverly Hillbillies” was riding high as the most popular show on television, Ebsen thanked Morris for his earlier “advice.”
Sums up Ebsen today: “The big lesson is you get more negative reactions than positive reactions as you go through life, and the big lesson is nobody counts you out but yourself. . . . I never have, I never will.”
After five B Westerns at Republic in the early ‘50s and occasional TV work, Ebsen’s career logjam was broken when he was hired by Walt Disney to play in “Davy Crockett.”
“Northwest Passage,” a short-lived TV series, and “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” followed.
But the big break came in 1961. He was 53, a time when many actors are looking more at their credits than ahead at their calendars: Ebsen met with TV writer Paul Henning to listen to Henning’s idea for a new TV series.
“The Beverly Hillbillies,” starring Ebsen as the family patriarch, ran for nine years. Three decades later, it’s still syndicated in more than 30 countries.
“It’s got long legs,” acknowledged Ebsen, uttering Jed Clampett’s most famous catch phrase: “Weeell doggies. That’s a piece of Americana. Of course, the whole thing is a piece of Americana.”
As Ebsen sees it, the show’s instant and enduring popularity boils down to one thing:
“It was a friendly show--friendly and funny in a way that people could understand. There’s a term, I’m not sure the usage of it--other people use it: It related. It related to people. They understood it, and it was funny.”
Ebsen views the story about mountain folks moving to the hills of Beverly as more than just a fish-out-of-water story.
“What they did was convert the water to their temperature,” he said with a laugh. “They didn’t ever feel out of water. They thought the others were out of water. They had poise, the Hillbillies. They never felt out of place.”
As Jed, Ebsen essentially played the role of straight man to Granny, Elly May and Jethro, which “was one of the only things that (initially) bothered me about the show,” he said, recalling that when Henning was describing the proposed series to him “and falling down laughing at all the fun that was going to be in it, I was waiting for him to say when Jed was going to be funny. He wasn’t funny.
“That disturbed me for a bit and so I made a deal: (I’d do it), provided that Jed always had control of the money. In that way, he could never get lost in the story. So he came out with some good lines, some of them that lived: ‘Some day, I got to have a long talk with that boy.’ ”
Ebsen said his character served as the show’s anchor, giving it a “hunk of legitimacy.” Jed, he added, was a “human character,” who had “kindness, and a sense of humor and great dignity.”
Not unlike the image Buddy Ebsen has portrayed on television, a personality that seems best-suited to a medium that comes into our living rooms.
“It could be that I have an intimate personality,” he said. “I did some broad things for the stage, but generally I think I communicated with the close-ups on television. There was some kind of a human kinship, I suppose.”
Viewers, he added with a grin, “knew I meant no harm. I was friendly.”