When I saw one of the Davy Crockett episodes on "The Magical World of Disney" in 1954, I had no idea that Buddy Ebsen had made his first film ("Broadway Melody of 1936") before I was born. He appeared in 14 films before he became a member of the U. S. Army in 1942, something that wound up delaying his return to Hollywood a lot longer than he expected.
And while old movies occasionally were shown on television during my teenage years, I never saw one that featured Ebsen, who became his career as a song and dance man in those days Hollywood was in love with musicals.
I didn't know until much later that Ebsen was the first choice to play the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz," but dropped out after he became ill from inhaling aluminum powder. However, his voice was used in the film. Not that I would have noticed, because unlike a lot of folks, I was never a big fan of the movie.
But after "Davy Crockett," Ebsen's career was re-charged, and soon he was popping up everywhere, including the series, "Northwest Passage" (1958-59), three episodes of "Maverick," single episodes in most of the other Westerns that dominated the tube in those days, and, finally, "The Beverly Hillbillies," which gave him the security he wanted.
While he appreciated that aspect of "Hillbillies," he made it clear in our 1964 interview that he'd rather be doing something else. I happened to visit the set of the show a few months later. It was my one and only visit to California, and I happened to meet Ebsen's co-star, Irene Ryan, who invited me and my travelling companion, Lynn Kandel, to watch the show being filmed in what was the final show of the season.
Unfortunately, Ms. Ryan was nipped by the show's chimpanzee and had to be taken to the hospital. No one was more upset than Ebsen, who, while he felt just awful about Ms. Ryan's accident, was eager to end the season so he could spend the next several weeks doing something else.
He had made his reasons clear when we talked in Feburary:
Akron Beacon Journal, February 23, 1964
“We can get you an interview with Buddy Ebsen,” said the public relations woman over the telephone, “but we wish you’d write about his guest appearance on ‘The Danny Kaye Show’ and go easy on ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ angle, okay?”
And I said, “Okay,” because, if it were up to me, I could avoid “Hillbillies” without even trying. Besides, what more can anyone say about “The Beverly Hillbillies”? Especially Ebsen. I don’t think there’s anything dumber than asking the winner of a popularity contest to explain how he won.
However, when Ebsen phoned, it was obvious we couldn’t completely avoid talking about the show that has been one of television’s biggest hits since it arrived in September, 1962. We also talked about Ebsen’s upcoming visit to “The Danny Kaye Show,” but the conversation always drifted back to Jed Clampett and his clan.
SO I ASK forgiveness from the people who arranged the interview, but we’ve all got to face facts: Try as we may to steer folks to better programs — and there is nothing better than Kaye’s weekly variety show — it’s a sure bet more people will watch Ebsen on “The Beverly Hillbillies” at 9 o’clock than will watch him an hour later as one of Danny Kaye’s guests.
Which is interesting because the reason Ebsen is performing with Kaye is to demonstrate he can do something besides portray Jed Clampett. He doesn’t want to lose his identity as Buddy Ebsen, versatile performer, an actor who can sing and dance.
If he loses that identity, Ebsen will become mere fodder for the television monster that feeds on programs and swallows its performers.
“There’s no doubt about it,” he said, “television is an actor killer. We work too hard and use too much material. If I could un-invent anything, it would be television. No foolin.’ But we’re stuck with television and have to make the best of it.
“IF I HAD my way, I’d spend all my time working in the theater. My second choice would be to spend six months in the theater, six months making movies, but there’s not enough work in the theater or movies to support all the performers.
“Oh, I could have had enough work in movies to make a good living. but television has given me the opportunity to make a better living. I have a home about 35 miles from Los Angeles and a big boat to go with it. Television didn’t get them for me, but it will sure help me keep them.”
Ebsen had other television offers, but picked “Hillbillies” because of his friendship with the show’s creator, Paul Henning.
“Paul is the star of the show,” said Ebsen. “I put myself in his hands because I have faith in him. I’ll stay with the show as long as Paul has faith in me. I wasn’t surprised the show was a success. I think out kind of humor was a pleasant switch from the medical dramas that dominated television just before we went on the air.
“However, I was surprised we were so successful. You know, our ratings this season are even better than they were last year.”
UNFORTUNATELY, that success is contagious, and by next fall television will be overrun with 30-minute situation comedies, the seedier the better, but that’s how the medium works — find a good idea and run it into the ground.
Because you can’t tell when you’re ratings will suddenly drop, many television stars forego vacations to cash-in on their success. Ebsen’s co-stars — Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr. and Donna Douglas — did just that last summer when they toured the country in their “Hillbillies” outfits, performing at state fairs. They’ll do it again this summer.
But not Ebsen.
“I’ve had enough experience meetings crowds and I’m sick of it. I went all over the country with Fess Parker during our Dave Crockett days. When I finished work on ‘Hillbillies’ last season, I wanted a vacation, and I mean a vacation from ‘Hillbillies,’ not from work. So I made a movie, and believe it or not, it seemed like a vacation — with pay. The movie shot three or four pages of script per day. On ‘Hillbillies,’ we shoot about 14 pages per day.”
THE MOVIE — “Mail Order Bride” — was released last month and is such a success that Ebsen thinks there may be a sequel filmed this summer.
The film keeps Ebsen in his accustomed role as either a contemporary backwoodsman or an old West frontiersman. He started doing those roles long before “The Beverly Hillbillies” came along. In fact, in his early movie days — in the 1930s — he was often billed as “The Hollywood Hillbilly.”
Ebsen broke into show business in 1928 after he left Florida to find work in New York City.
“My first job was as a soda jerk,” he recalled, “but I knew I could do better. I read an ad for dancers for a Broadway show. I auditioned and got the job. I had taken dance lessons from my father when I was a kid, but quit when I was 12 because I felt dancing was sissified. Later I was mighty glad I had taken those lessons.”
Vilma, became his dancing partner in the 1930s; the pair appeared in night clubs throughout the country, eventually dancing their way to Hollywood where Buddy accepted a film contract and Vilma opened a dance studio.
World War II interrupted Ebsen’s movie career.
“I was in the Army for three years. When I returned I went to New York to do a revival of ‘Showboat’. I went back to Hollywood in 1946 and tried to resume my career there, but everyone kept asking me where I had been. I tried to tell them there had been a war, but it didn’t make an impression. It was as though they resented me for having left Hollywood.”
Almost six years passed before Ebsen was really busy again. That lean period saw his first marriage — to Ruth McCambridge — end in divorce. He remarried, to Nancy Wolcott, and now they have five children. His two daughters by his first marriage are showgirls in Las Vegas.
EBSEN'S FAMINE ended when Walt Disney tapped him to play Fess Parker’s sidekick in the Davy Crockett episodes of “The Magical World of Disney” in 1954. Even then Ebsen wasn’t as lucky as he might have been. Originally, he was in line to play Crockett, but Disney changed his mind at the last minute when he spotted Parker in a small role in the now classic science fiction film, “Them!”
Ebsen has been busy ever since, appearing in two short-lived series — “Corky and White Shadow” (1956) and “Northwest Passage” (1958-59) — as well as several other prime time shows, including three guest roles on “Maverick.”
Now Ebsen is on top, and he likes to think he’s had the last laugh on those who considered him washed up a few years ago, but he’s too cautious to allow himself even a giggle.
He’s also too busy.
A sequel to "Mail Order Bride" did not materialize, but Ebsen spent his breaks from "Hillbillies" doing occasional guest shots on other programs. His pace increated after "Hillbillies" went off the air in 1971, and two years later he had another series of his own, this time playing a private detective in "Barnaby Jones," which enjoyed an eight-season run.
After that he didn't have to work, but he did, anyway, making 22 appearances on "Matt Houston" (1984-85) and some guest shots on other shows. He resurrected Jed Clampett in a TV movie, "The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies" (1981) and made a cameo appearance in the big screen version of "The Beverly Hillbillies" (1993) which had Jim Varney in the role of Clampbell. When Ebsen showed up in the film, it was as Barnaby Jones.
Ebsen died in 2003 in Torrance, California. He was 95 years old. Ebsen and his second wife, Nancy, divorced in 1985. He was survived by wife number three, Dorothy Knott, whom he married in 1985.