Hand color tinted photo of Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett from the 1960s television series The Beverly Hillbillies
Buddy Ebsen (April 2, 1908 – July 6, 2003) was an American character actor and dancer. A performer for seven decades, he had starring roles as Jed Clampett in the 1960s television series, The Beverly Hillbillies and as the title character in the 1970s detective series Barnaby Jones.
He was born Christian Rudolph Ebsen, Jr. in Belleville, Illinois. His father, Christian Rudolph Ebsen, Sr., was Danish and his mother, Frances, was Latvian. He was reared in Belleville until the age of ten, when his family moved to Palm Beach County, Florida. After a brief stay, Ebsen and his family, in 1920, relocated to Orlando, Florida. Ebsen and his sisters learned to dance at the dance studio his father operated in Orlando.
He graduated from Orlando High School in 1926. Initially interested in a medical career, Ebsen attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, from 1926 to 1927, and then Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, from 1927 to 1928. Family financial problems caused by the collapse of the Florida land boom forced him to leave college at the age of twenty.
Ebsen left Orlando in the summer of 1928 to try his luck as a dancer. When he arrived in New York, he had $26.75 in his pocket, equal to $340 today. He and his sister Vilma Ebsen formed an act and performed in supper clubs and in vaudeville — they were known as “The Baby Astaires”. On Broadway they appeared as members of the chorus in Whoopee, Flying Colors and the Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. A rave review from Walter Winchell, who saw them perform in Atlantic City, led to a booking at the Palace Theatre, the pinnacle of the vaudeville world.
In 1935, the Ebsens were approached by MGM for a screen test, and signed a two-year contract with a two-year option, with their salary to be $1,500 a week each, equal to $23781 today. They moved to Hollywood, and made their film debut in Broadway Melody of 1936. This was to be Vilma’s only film — a contract problem prevented her from making others, and she soon retired from show business — but Buddy appeared in numerous screen musicals and regular movies, including Born to Dance and Captain January (in which he danced with Shirley Temple), Broadway Melody of 1938 (with Judy Garland as his dance partner), and The Girl of the Golden West. He partnered with Eleanor Powell and Frances Langford, among others, and also danced solo.
Ebsen was noted for his unusual, surreal dancing and singing style (for example, his contribution to the “Swingin’ the Jinx Away” finale of Born to Dance), which may be a reason that Walt Disney chose Ebsen to be filmed dancing in front of a grid as an aid to animating Mickey Mouse’s dancing in Disney’s Silly Symphonies.
The Wizard of Oz
When he turned down Louis B. Mayer’s offer of an exclusive contract with MGM, he was warned by Mayer that he would never get a job in Hollywood again. However, he was cast in the role of the Scarecrow in the 1939 The Wizard of Oz. He then swapped roles with Ray Bolger, who was to play the Tin Man. Ebsen recorded all his songs, went through all the rehearsals, and started filming. Shortly thereafter, he began experiencing cramps and shortness of breath, eventually leading to hospitalization. The cause was determined to be an allergy to the aluminum dust used for his makeup; he left the film as a result.
In an interview included on the 2005 DVD release of the movie, Ebsen recalled that the studio heads did not believe he was sick until someone tried to order Ebsen back to the set and was intercepted by an angry nurse. Ebsen was replaced by Jack Haley, with the makeup quietly changed to a paste. As noted in a documentary on the 2005 DVD, MGM did not publicize the reason for Ebsen’s departure; even Haley was not told until later. Although Haley re-recorded most of Ebsen’s vocals, Ebsen’s midwestern voice, with the enunciated “r” in the word “wizard”, can still be heard on the soundtrack during a couple of the reprises of “We’re Off to See the Wizard”. Footage of Ebsen as the Tin Man was included as an extra with the U.S. 50th anniversary video release of the film. Until his dying day, Ebsen complained of lung issues from his involvement in “that damned movie.” Ironically, Ebsen outlived all of the major cast members of The Wizard of Oz by at least 16 years.
World War II
After recovering from the illness, he became embroiled in a contract dispute with MGM that left him with long periods of idle time. He took up sailing, eventually becoming so proficient in seamanship that he taught the subject to United States Navy officer candidates. In 1941, he applied several times for a commission in the Navy, but was repeatedly turned down. He applied for a Coast Guard commission, was accepted, and promptly given the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. This was one step up from the rank of Ensign, which is the usual rank given newly-appointed naval officers. He served as damage control officer and later as executive officer on the Coast Guard-manned Navy frigate USS Pocatello, which recorded weather at its “weather station” 1,500 miles west of Seattle. These patrols consisted of thirty days at sea, followed by ten days in port at Seattle. He was honorably discharged as a lieutenant in 1946.
Return to acting
Ebsen made his television debut on an episode of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1949. This led to TV appearances in: Stars over Hollywood, Gruen Guild Playhouse, four episodes of Broadway Television Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Corky and White Shadow, the H.J. Heinz Company’s Studio 57, Screen Directors Playhouse, two episodes of Climax!, Playhouse 90, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Johnny Ringo, two episodes of Bonanza, an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, three episodes of Maverick, and 77 Sunset Strip, among others. He received wide television exposure having portrayed Georgie Russel, loyal sidekick to Davy Crockett, in the Disneyland television miniseries Davy Crockett (1954–1955).
In the 1958-1959 season, Ebsen co-starred in the NBC adventure series Northwest Passage, a fictionalized 26-segment, half-hour account of Major Robert Rogers, a colonial American fighter for the British in the French and Indian War. Ebsen played the role of Sergeant Hunk Marriner. Keith Larsen (1924–2006) played the title role. Northwest Passage was an early color program.
Bus Stop and Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Throughout the 1950s, Ebsen performed in films, notably Westerns. In 1961-1962, Ebsen had a recurring role as Virge Blessing in Marilyn Maxwell’s ABC series Bus Stop, a drama about travelers passing through the bus station and diner in the fictitious town of Sunrise, Colorado. Several Bus Stop episodes were directed by Robert Altman. Ebsen’s Virge Blessing role had been played by Arthur O’Connell in the earlier film Bus Stop, on which the television series was loosely based.
Ebsen received critical acclaim for his 1961 breakthrough role as Doc Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, having portrayed the older rural veterinarian deserted by his young wife, Holly, played by Audrey Hepburn. This role brought him to the attention of the casting director of The Beverly Hillbillies.
The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)
Ebsen became famous with The Beverly Hillbillies, as Jed Clampett. Although the 1962 series was scorned by critics, the show was a hit, attracting as many as sixty million viewers on CBS between 1962 and 1971. Although Irene Ryan received the most critical notice, earning two Emmy nominations, and Donna Douglas received the most fan mail and media publicity, Ebsen was the star of the ensemble cast. The series was earning good ratings when it was canceled by CBS (because programmers began shunning shows that attracted a rural audience). One episode, “The Giant Jack Rabbit”, was the highest-rated half-hour on television to that time and remains the most-watched half-hour sitcom episode. A decade after cancellation, Ebsen reprised his role in the 1981 TV movie Return of The Beverly Hillbillies.
1940s movie actress Irene Ryan starred as Jed’s mother-in-law, Daisy Moses, also known as Granny (despite being only six years Ebsen’s senior). Max Baer Jr. as Jed’s nephew, Jethro Bodine, and Donna Douglas, as Jed’s only daughter, Elly May Clampett, rounded out the main cast. Douglas commented on behind-the-scenes political disagreements between Ebsen and Nancy Kulp, who played bank employee Jane Hathaway. “They had a different view, so they had some heated discussions about that. They would go at it for weeks.” In 1984, Kulp unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Pennsylvania. To her dismay, Hillbillies co-star Buddy Ebsen supported her Republican opponent, incumbent Bud Shuster. Ebsen went so far as to tape an ad for Shuster, labeling Kulp as “too liberal”. Ebsen claimed she was exploiting her celebrity status and did not know the issues.
Barnaby Jones (1973-1980)
Ebsen returned to television in 1973 as the title character of Barnaby Jones, which proved to be his second long-running television series. Barnaby Jones was a milk-drinking detective who came out of retirement. Critics and CBS executives ridiculed the age of the show’s audience, but it lasted eight and a half seasons, and 178 episodes. When it was pulled off the air, it was one of the last surviving 1970s detective dramas. Lee Meriwether, 1955 Miss America, played Barnaby’s widowed daughter-in-law, Betty Jones. Ebsen appeared as Barnaby Jones on two other productions as well: a 1975 episode of Cannon, and in the 1993 film, Beverly Hillbillies, a big screen version of his other hit television show.
Other television credits
His last regular television series was Matt Houston on ABC, starring Lee Horsley. Ebsen played Matt’s uncle, Roy Houston, during the show’s third season in 1984-1985.
Ebsen narrated the documentary series Disney Family Album during the 1980s on the Disney Channel and Steven Kellogg’s “Paul Bunyan” on the PBS series Reading Rainbow in 1985. He made his final guest-starring appearance in 1994 on an episode of the short-lived TV series, Burke’s Law.
Although generally retired from acting as he entered his 80s, he had a cameo in the 1993 film version of The Beverly Hillbillies as Barnaby Jones, with the TV theme underscoring the scene. This was his final motion picture role. Ebsen himself eventually outlived Jim Varney (best known for the Ernest P. Worrell character), who was cast in Ebsen’s role as Jed Clampett in the film.
In 1999, he provided a voice for an episode of King of the Hill (becoming the oldest person to ever star on the show). Illness and infirmity kept him from a cameo on the Howard Stern-produced syndicated sitcom Son of the Beach.
Buddy Ebsen has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1765 Vine Street, as well as a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Ebsen died of pneumonia at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California on July 6, 2003, at the age of 95. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.
Ebsen married Ruth Cambridge in 1936, and had two daughters, Elizabeth and Alix. The couple divorced in 1942. In 1944, he met and married Nancy Wilcott. They had five children: Susannah, Cathy, Bonnie, Kiersten, and Dustin. In 1985, the 41-year marriage ended in divorce. That same year, he met his third wife, Dorothy Knott. The couple had one child.
Ebsen had four sisters, Helga, Leslie, Norma, and Vilma Ebsen, the last a dance instructor at their father’s dance studio. Almost all of Buddy’s siblings lived long lives. Helga and Norma died of natural causes in the 1990s. Vilma died in 2007, also of natural causes.
Throughout his long life, Ebsen had many hobbies: public speaking, traveling, singing, playing guitar, golfing, spending time with his family, riding horses, swimming, gardening, fishing, sailing, painting, and building sailboats. He became a folk artist, and as an avid coin collector, co-founded the Beverly Hills Coin Club in 1987 with much younger actor Chris Aable. Ebsen’s favorite leisure time activity undoubtedly was dancing. As Ebsen entered his 90s, he continued to keep active, and there were media reports that he had begun work on his first novel about a year before his death.
Ebsen died of respiratory failure at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California, on July 6, 2003, at the age of 95. Upon his death, his body was cremated, and his ashes were scattered at sea.