From the Archives: Buddy Ebsen, 95; Actor-Dancer Was Jed Clampett of 'Beverly Hillbillies'
By Dennis McLellan and Times Staff Writer
Jul 08, 2003 | 12:00 AM
Buddy Ebsen, the hoofer-turned-actor who danced with Shirley Temple in the movies but achieved his greatest success on television as the folksy Clampett family patriarch on "The Beverly Hillbillies" and the analytical private detective "Barnaby Jones," has died. He was 95.
Ebsen, whose show-business career spanned more than 70 years, died Sunday at Torrance Memorial Medical Center after being admitted late last month for an undisclosed illness. The cause of death was not announced.
After teaming with his sister Vilma in a dance act in 1930, the Ebsens headlined in vaudeville theaters and supper clubs, and performed in Broadway shows.
Brought out to Hollywood by MGM in 1935, the lanky 6-foot-3 Ebsen danced in films such as "Captain January" (with Temple) and "Broadway Melody of 1938" (with Judy Garland), and became the answer to a trivia question: Who originally played the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz"? After nearly dying from inhaling the aluminum dust used in his makeup during 10 days of shooting, Ebsen was replaced by Jack Haley, whose Tin Man makeup was a more actor-friendly silver paste.
Although he lost his chance to appear in one of the most enduring movies of all time, Ebsen began making his name in television in 1954 playing Fess Parker's sidekick, George Russel, in Walt Disney's baby-boomer sensation, "Davy Crockett." The adventure series made the coonskin-capped Parker a star.
But it wasn't until Ebsen donned a tattered hat, a tan coat, bluejeans and a false mustache that he became a TV superstar in his own right as nouveau riche mountaineer Jed Clampett, who moved his family to the hills of Beverly.
Although dismissed by critics, "The Beverly Hillbillies" was an immediate hit, soaring to No. 1 in the ratings shortly after its 1962 debut and running for nine years on CBS. Its popularity inspired two other rural-themed sitcoms on CBS – "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres" – and added new words and phrases to the pop-culture lexicon, including "Cee-ment pond" and Jed's down-home catch phrase, which Ebsen signed his autographs with: "Wellll, doggies!"
In 1973, at age 65, Ebsen followed his "Beverly Hillbillies" success by starting an eight-season run as the star of "Barnaby Jones." In 1984, he returned to network television for one season on "Matt Houston," playing star Lee Horsley's detective uncle, who comes out of retirement to help his private eye nephew.
But throughout his long acting career, Ebsen remained a dancer at heart.
Well into his 90s, it took no prompting for the white-haired, gentlemanly Ebsen to break into a "shim-sham-shimmy," a simple shuffle-tap dance followed by outstretched arms and a shimmy: the traditional hoofers' hello.
Early Nickname Sticks
Born Christian Ludolf Ebsen Jr. in Belleville, Ill., on April 2, 1908, Ebsen was nicknamed Buddy early on by an aunt. His father worked as a physical culture instructor in a German athletic and social club. He dammed up several springs on their nine acres on the outskirts of town to create a public swimming pond and resort called the Ebsen Natatorium.
When he was 12, Ebsen's family moved to Florida, where his father, who also taught dancing, opened a dance studio in Orlando.
Ebsen originally planned to become a doctor, an ambition inspired after watching one of his four sisters suffer epileptic seizures. But he ran out of money after two years of premed courses at the University of Florida, and he abandoned medicine for show business.
Ebsen told The Times in 1994 that his father had taught all five of his children ballet. "Of course, at that time I resisted it because it was considered a little bit girlish to dance." He changed his mind as a teenager in the 1920s when the Charleston became the rage, and in time, he learned to tap dance.
Ebsen arrived in New York City from Florida in 1928 with only $1.65 in his pocket and another $25 tucked into a sock. Within three months, he landed a job in the chorus of Florenz Ziegfeld's "Whoopee," starring Eddie Cantor. The musical comedy ran on Broadway for a year and a half.
In the summer of 1930, Ebsen teamed with Vilma, who was performing in a small cafe in Atlantic City. Their lively dance routine, choreographed to the popular "Ain't Misbehavin'," was a smash.
Among the well-wishers in the audience who flocked to congratulate them was Walter Winchell, then the nation's most influential columnist. A one-paragraph rave in Winchell's column the next day was enough to instantly lift the dancing Ebsens from obscurity.
Now billed as Vilma and Buddy Ebsen, they were hired as featured dancers in the vaudeville revue "Broadway Stars of Tomorrow," which landed them at that mecca for vaudeville performers, the Palace Theatre.
"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."
In 1932, the Ebsens became the toast of Broadway when they danced in the Max Gordon musical "Flying Colors." That was followed by a featured spot dancing in "Ziegfeld Follies of 1934," starring Fanny Brice.
Not surprisingly, Hollywood came calling. But after the Ebsens appeared together in MGM's "Broadway Melody of 1936," the studio separated the team and Vilma, by then married, returned to New York City. Ebsen went on to appear in "Banjo on My Knee," "Born to Dance" and "Captain January." Then came "The Wizard of Oz."
In his 1994 autobiography, "The Other Side of Oz" (Donovan), Ebsen described his life-threatening ordeal with his Tin Man makeup.
At first, he began experiencing a noticeable shortness of breath. "I would breathe and exhale and then get the panicky feeling I hadn't breathed at all," he wrote. His fingers would begin to cramp, then his toes. One night in bed, he woke up screaming. "My arms were cramping from my fingers upward and curling simultaneously so that I could not use one arm to uncurl the other." The cramps in his arms advanced into his chest and to the muscles that controlled his breathing.
Ebsen spent two weeks in the hospital and six weeks recuperating. An analysis of the silver makeup showed that it was made of pure aluminum, which had coated his lungs like paint. While still in the hospital, Jack Haley took over as the Tin Man.
"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," Ebsen told The Times. And, he was certain, his voice remained in the "We're Off to See the Wizard" musical number.
When MGM brought Ebsen to Hollywood, he had a two-year contract with a two-year option, a rarity at a time when seven-year contracts were the norm. At one point in 1939, Ebsen found himself seated across from the large polished desk of MGM boss, Louis B. Mayer, who wanted to sign the popular Ebsen to a standard 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" – and the way Mayer said it – sent a chill down the actor's spine.
"Mr. Mayer," Ebsen 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."
A Break From Acting
After leaving MGM in 1939, Ebsen starred in the musical comedy "Yokel Boy" on Broadway. He was starring in the farce "Good Night, Ladies" in Chicago during World War II when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard. He served as a lieutenant junior grade on a patrol frigate in the North Pacific, where he also staged variety shows for his shipmates.
During the war, Ebsen divorced his first wife, Ruth Cambridge, Winchell's assistant, whom he had wed in 1933, and married Nancy Wolcott, a member of the Coast Guard communications staff.
After the war, Ebsen appeared in Oscar Hammerstein's 1946 revival of "Show Boat" on Broadway. But a year later, he began what he called in his autobiography "a seven-year economic plague for me."
From a previous $2,000-a-week motion picture salary to $750-a-week for "Show Boat," he slipped to an average of $135 a week in 1947. The low point came when William Morris Jr., head of the 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 the most popular show on television, Ebsen thanked Morris for his earlier advice. As Ebsen recalled, "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 appearing in five B-Westerns at Republic in the early '50s and occasional live television dramas, Ebsen's career was reinvigorated when he was hired by Walt Disney for "Davy Crockett."
Ebsen revealed in his autobiography that "Crockett" director Norman Foster recommended him to play Crockett and Disney was "half sold" on the idea. But then Disney saw a towering young actor in a small role in the horror film "Them!" and Fess Parker became "the king of the wild frontier."
"I was very heartbroken because that was going to be a big picture," Ebsen recalled in an interview with The Times in 2001. "The next day, they called me and said, 'But Davy has a friend, and his name is Georgie Russel.' "
Ebsen described "Davy Crockett" as "the biggest thing that happened to me in show business up until then. The 'Hillbillies' was the next one," he said.
But first came more television and movie roles, including co-starring in "Northwest Passage," a short-lived NBC TV series; and supporting roles in the movies "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "The Interns."
Then Ebsen sat down with TV comedy writer Paul Henning to listen to Henning's idea for a new TV series that Henning had written with the 53-year-old actor in mind for the lead.
A Good Match
Ebsen believed the secret to the enduring popularity of "The Beverly Hillbillies" was that its ensemble cast – Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr., Donna Douglas and himself – "matched well" as a family.
"It was a friendly show – friendly in a way that people could understand," he said. "There's a term, I'm not sure of the usage of it – other people use it – but it related. It related to people. They understand it, and it was funny."
As Jed, Ebsen essentially played the role of straight man to Granny (Ryan), Jethro (Baer) and Elly May (Douglas). And that, Ebsen said, "was one of the only things that [initially] bothered me about the show."
When Henning described the proposed series to him "and was 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: 'Someday, 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."
The same could be said of Ebsen.
"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, "knew I meant no harm. I was friendly."
Fittingly, one of Ebsen's last roles was a cameo in the 1993 movie version of "The Beverly Hillbillies," starring Jim Varney as Jed. Ebsen received one of the film's biggest laughs by simply showing up on screen – as Barnaby Jones.
An avid sailor much of his life, Ebsen won the 1968 Transpac Los Angeles-to-Honolulu race in his 35-foot catamaran, Polynesian Concept.
In his later years, he took up painting. In the early '90s, he launched "Uncle Jed Country," a limited edition series of lithographs done in a humorous, folk art style that portray Jed Clampett with his old hound dog, Duke.
Ebsen was also a writer. He wrote a half dozen plays, five of which were produced regionally, including a farce called "Honest John" in 1948 and "Champagne General," a 1973 play about Civil War Gen. George B. McClellan.
He also wrote the lyrics for several songs, including two for a 1965 "Beverly Hillbillies" album, "Back Home U.S.A." and "I've Gotta Have a Long Talk With That Boy." And in 2001, at 93, he published his first novel, "Kelly's Quest," a love story.
Ebsen is survived by his third wife, the former Dorothy Knott, whom he married in 1985; six children; six grandchildren; and his sister, Vilma of Malibu.
Donations in his name may be sent to the Motion Picture & Television Fund, 22212 Ventura Blvd., Woodland Hills, CA 91364.