Donna Douglas, a Louisiana beauty queen turned actress who tapped into her poor Southern roots for the role of Elly May Clampett in the long-running TV sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” has died. Her age was variously reported as 81 or 82.
Douglas died of pancreatic cancer Thursday in Baton Rouge, La., her niece Charlene Smith told the Associated Press.
The show — about the down-home Clampetts who strike it rich with an Ozarks oil well and move to California — became an immediate hit when it began airing on CBS in 1962. It starred Buddy Ebsen as patriarch Jed, Irene Ryan as Granny, Max Baer Jr. as Jethro and Douglas as Elly May, a buxom tomboy character who had curly blond pigtails, wore gingham and blue jeans and loved her “critters.”
It was far from a stretch for Douglas, who was born “way out in the country, outside Baton Rouge, Louisiana,” she told the Toronto Star in 1988. “I really am a country girl.... My folks were real poor.”
After winning beauty contests in her home state, Douglas headed to New York City in the mid-1950s in search of modeling jobs and wound up on television as a billboard girl on “The Steve Allen Show.” She took acting lessons and landed a few parts in other TV series before writer and producer Paul Henning asked her if she thought she’d be right for his new show, “The Beverly Hillbillies.”
“I just looked at him and grinned,” Douglas told AP Hollywood reporter Bob Thomas in 1965. “Could I handle Elly May? Why, it was just like my own life.”
She had to retrieve the Southern accent she had tried to lose, and she had no trouble with the dogs, skunks, mountain lion, chimpanzee and other animals Elly May adored on the series.
“I loved doing Elly May,” the actress would recall. “And, of course, ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ was a story about the American dream. No matter who tried to slicker us or take advantage of us, we always came out on top. We were never the losers. We set a good example.”
Douglas’ other TV appearances included a memorable 1960 “Twilight Zone” episode, “Eye of the Beholder,” with a “before and after” storyline about a woman who undergoes multiple operations to change her appearance. Actress Maxine Stuart played the patient under wraps and Douglas had the “revealed” part.
She also landed a few movie parts, highlighted by a starring role opposite Elvis Presley in the 1966 riverboat musical “Frankie and Johnny.”
After “The Beverly Hillbillies” ended in 1971, Douglas had a few other acting jobs and worked in real estate. Eventually she moved back to Louisiana and in her later years sang gospel music and gave inspirational speeches to church congregations and Christian organizations.
In 2011 she settled a lawsuit with Mattel Inc. and CBS Consumer Products after she argued they hadn’t sought her permission to create an Elly May Barbie doll using her image.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” remained popular with TV viewers in reruns years after original episodes aired, and Douglas traveled widely to meet fans of the show.
“The two questions I get all the time are, can I really whistle, and do I really love animals,” Douglas told USA Today in 1993. “The answer is yes to both.”
Douglas, who was married and divorced twice, is survived by a son, Danny P. Bourgeois, according to the Associated Press.
Times staff writer James Queally contributed to this report.