'Beverly Hillbillies' actor Buddy Ebsen dies at 95

Tuesday, July 8, 2003

LOS ANGELES -- Buddy Ebsen was known for the genial characters he played on "The Beverly Hillbillies" and "Barnaby Jones" but enjoyed a rich creative life beyond television, family and friends said.

Ebsen, who died Sunday at age 95 of respiratory failure, also wrote and painted. He started his show business career as a song-and-dance man.

"His career from beginning to end, from Broadway to the last television series, was second to none," said Fess Parker, who forged a 50-year friendship with Ebsen when they costarred in TV's "Davy Crockett."

He was an artist who "saw and appreciated beauty in all things," Ebsen's family said in a statement. In his later years, he created seascapes and landscapes, published an autobiography and was an accomplished sailor.

"We choose to not grieve Buddy's passing but to celebrate the life of this extraordinary man," the family said in the statement. He died at Torrance Memorial Medical Center, where he was hospitalized last month for pneumonia, said his daughter, Connie Ebsen-Jackson.

Ebsen, who lived in Palos Verdes Estates, near Los Angeles, began his nine-year run as mountaineer Jed Clampett in 1962, when "The Beverly Hillbillies" premiered. Ebsen later starred in the CBS detective series "Barnaby Jones," which ran from 1973 until 1980.

Ebsen costarred in the TV series "Davy Crockett" and in films including "Breakfast at Tiffany's."

Ebsen and his sister Vilma danced through Broadway shows and MGM musicals of the 1930s. When she retired, Ebsen continued on his own, dancing with Shirley Temple and turning dramatic actor.

Except for an allergy to aluminum paint, he would have been one of the Yellow Brick Road quartet in the "The Wizard of Oz." After 10 days of filming, Ebsen fell ill because of the aluminum makeup on his skin and was replaced as the Tin Man by Jack Haley.

Television brought Ebsen's amiable personality to the home screen in the 1950s, with his first national role as Parker's sidekick in "Davy Crockett."

As Jed Clampett, head of a newly rich Ozark family plunked down in snooty Beverly Hills, Ebsen became a national favorite. "The Beverly Hillbillies" attracted as many as 60 million viewers on CBS between 1962 and 1971.

Ebsen returned to series TV in 1973 as "Barnaby Jones," a private investigator forced out of retirement to solve the murder of his son Hal, who had taken over the business.

"With such a glut of private-eye shows, I didn't see how another one could succeed," he said. But the series clicked and lasted until 1980.

"I'm the luckiest actor alive," Ebsen said in 1978. "There's not anyone I'd trade jobs with right now."

He was born Christian Rudolph Ebsen in Belleville, Ill., on April 2, 1908. His father owned a dancing school, where the nicknamed Buddy learned the fundamentals.

The family later moved to Orlando, Fla., and he began pre-medical studies. But financial problems forced him to leave school and, at 20, he decided to try his luck as a dancer in New York.

"I arrived in New York with $26.25 in my pocket and a letter of introduction to a friend of a friend's cousin," he recalled. "I got a job in a road company, but the producer said, 'That boy one foot taller than the rest of 'em -- out!"'

Ebsen, who was 6 feet 3, jerked sodas until he landed a chorus job in the 1928 "Whoopee," starring Eddie Cantor. He sent for his sister Vilma and they formed a dancing team that played vaudeville, supper clubs and shows such as "Flying Colors" and "Ziegfeld Follies."

A screen test led to an MGM contract for the team, and they were a hit in "Broadway Melody of 1936." Buddy's style was far removed from that of the reigning dance king of films, Fred Astaire. The angular Ebsen moved with a smooth, sliding shuffle, his arms gyrating like a wind-blown scarecrow. He made a charming partner with the tiny Shirley Temple in "Captain January."

His other films of the '30s included "Banjo on My Knee," "Four Girls in White," "Girl of the Golden West" (Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy) and "My Lucky Star" (Sonja Henie). His first dramatic role was in "Yellow Jack" with Robert Montgomery.

Ebsen was earning $2,000 a week at MGM in 1938, when studio boss Louis B. Mayer summoned him and announced: "Ebsen, in order to give you the parts you deserve, we must own you."

The dancer recalled that he replied: "I'll tell you what kind of a fool I am, Mr. Mayer, I can't be owned." He quit his contract, returning to touring as a dancer and playing Chicago for more than a year in a farce, "Good Night, Ladies." He served three years in the Coast Guard during World War II.

Ebsen toured in "Show Boat," then returned to Hollywood, where director Norman Foster recommended him to Walt Disney to play Davy Crockett.

Disney had already chosen Parker for the role but he hired Ebsen as Crockett's partner. When the Crockett episodes were shown on the "Disneyland" series in 1954-55, both Parker and Ebsen became heroes. Millions of children began sporting coonskin hats and singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett."

"The Beverly Hillbillies" attracted huge ratings and critical scorn for its cornpone humor.

"As I recall, the only good notice was in the Saturday Review," Ebsen once said. "The critic said the show possessed 'social comment combined with a high Nielsen, an almost impossible achievement in these days.' I kinda liked that."

"Barnaby Jones" also drew critical blasts. But Ebsen's folksy manner and his character's warm relationship with his daughter-in-law, played by Lee Meriwether, made the series a success.

Ebsen's later films included "Attack," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "The Interns," "Mail Order Bride," "The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band."

Ebsen was first married to Ruth Cambridge, Walter Winchell's "Girl Friday," and they had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce, and he met and married his second wife, Nancy, while both were in the Coast Guard. They had four daughters and a son.

Ebsen was married to Dorothy Knott in 1985.

He is survived by his wife, six children and six grandchildren and sister Vilma, according to the family's statement. Funeral arrangements were incomplete.

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