Christian Ludolf Ebsen, Jr., known as 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 long-running CBS television series The Beverly Hillbillies and as the title character in the 1970s detective series Barnaby Jones. Ebsen also played Fess Parker's sidekick in Walt Disney's Davy Crockett miniseries (1953-54), and was cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939) until he fell ill from an allergy to the makeup. Ebsen had a cameo role in the 1993 film version of The Beverly Hillbillies, not as Jed Clampett, but as his other famous character Barnaby Jones.
Buddy Ebsen was born Christian Ludolf Ebsen, Jr. in Belleville, Illinois, in 1908. His father, Christian Ludolf Ebsen, Sr., was Danish, and his mother, Frances (née Wendt), was Latvian. Ebsen was raised in Belleville until the age of 10, when his family moved to Palm Beach County, Florida. In 1920, Ebsen and his family relocated to Orlando, Florida. Ebsen and his sisters learned to dance at a dance studio his father operated in Orlando.
Ebsen 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 Ebsen to leave college at age 20.
Ebsen left Orlando in the summer of 1928 to try his luck as a dancer in New York City, arriving with only $26.75 in his pocket, equal to $367 in 2012, and worked at a soda fountain shop. He and his sister Vilma Ebsen performed as a dance act in supper clubs and in vaudeville -- they were known as "The Baby Astaires". On Broadway, the Ebsens appeared as members of the chorus in the musicals Whoopee, Flying Colors and Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. A rave review from New York columnist Walter Winchell, who saw them perform in Atlantic City, New Jersey led to a booking at the Palace Theatre in New York City, the pinnacle of the vaudeville world.
In 1935, Ebsen and his sister were approached by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a screen test. They then signed a two-year contract, with a two-year option, for $1500.00 per week each, equal to $25802 today. After relocating to Hollywood, the siblings made their film debuts in the 1936 film Broadway Melody of 1936. This was to be Vilma's only film -- a contract problem prevented her making other films and she soon retired from show business.
Ebsen went on to appear in numerous films, both musicals and non-musicals, including the 1936 Born to Dance, the 1936 Captain January (in which he danced with Shirley Temple), the 1938 Broadway Melody of 1938 (with Judy Garland as his dance partner), and the 1938 The Girl of the Golden West. Ebsen partnered with actresses 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). His abilities might have been a reason filmmaker 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 1929 to 1939 Silly Symphonies animated short films.
The Wizard of Oz:
When Ebsen turned down studio head Louis B. Mayer's offer of an exclusive contract with MGM, Mayer warned him that he would never get a job in Hollywood again. Nonetheless, MGM did cast Ebsen as the Scarecrow in its 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Ebsen then swapped roles with actor Ray Bolger, who was originally cast as the Tin Man. Ebsen recorded all his songs as Tin Man, went through all the rehearsals, and started filming. However, he soon began experiencing cramps and shortness of breath, eventually leading to hospitalization. Doctors determined that Ebsen was suffering an allergic reaction to the aluminum dust used in the Tin Man makeup; he was forced to leave the production for health reasons.
In an interview included on the 2005 DVD release of The Wizard of Oz, Ebsen recalled that the studio heads did not believe he was sick until someone tried to order him back to the set and was intercepted by an angry nurse. Ebsen was replaced by Jack Haley, with the makeup quickly changed to a safer aluminum 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 (as opposed to Haley's Bostonian accent), with the enunciated "r" in the word "wizard", can still be heard on the soundtrack during several reprises of the song "We're Off to See the Wizard". Ebsen's recording of the Tin Man's only solo song, "If I Only Had a Heart", still exists and is included on the 2-CD Deluxe Edition of the film's soundtrack, while a still photo recreation of the sequence featuring shots of Ebsen as the Tin Man was included as an extra with all VHS and DVD releases of the film since 1989. Until his dying day, Ebsen complained of lung issues from 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, Ebsen became embroiled in a contract dispute with MGM that left him idle for long periods. He took up sailing, eventually becoming so proficient in seamanship that he taught the subject to United States Navy officer candidates. In 1941, with the start of U.S. involvement in World War II, Ebsen applied several times for an officer's commission in the Navy, but was repeatedly turned down. His application for a United States Coast Guard commission was accepted, and he was promptly given the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. This wartime rank was one step up from the rank of Ensign, the usual rank given newly appointed naval officers in peacetime. Ebsen 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, Washington. These patrols consisted of 30 days at sea, followed by 10 days in port at Seattle. Ebsen was honorably discharged from the Coast Guard 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 television 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!, Tales of Wells Fargo, The Martha Raye Show, Playhouse 90, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Johnny Ringo, two episodes of Bonanza, three episodes of Maverick (in which he portrayed assorted homicidal villains), and 77 Sunset Strip. Ebsen received wide television exposure when he played Georgie Russell, a role based on an historical person and companion to frontiersman Davy Crockett, in the Disneyland television miniseries Davy Crockett (1954-1955).
In the 1958-1959 season, Ebsen co-starred in the 26-episode half-hour NBC television adventure series Northwest Passage. This series was a fictionalized 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 played Rogers. Northwest Passage was one of the first U.S. television programs broadcast in color.
In 1960, Ebsen appeared in episodes of the television series Rawhide in 1962, in the episode "The Pitchwagon" and Tales of Wells Fargo, which he would reprise in episodes of both series during 1962 in the roles of different characters. Also in 1960, Ebsen played in Season 4 Episode 30 of Have Gun, Will Travel called 'El Paso Stage', as a corrupt Marshall.
From 1961 to 1962, Ebsen had a recurring role as Virge Blessing in the ABC drama series Bus Stop, the story of travelers passing through the bus station and diner in the fictitious town of Sunrise, Colorado. Robert Altman directed several episodes. Arthur O'Connell had played Virge Blessing in the earlier film version on which the series was loosely based. Ebsen also appeared as "Mr. Dave" Browne, a homeless hobo, on The Andy Griffith Show opposite Ron Howard, and as Jimbo Cobb in The Twilight Zone episode "The Prime Mover" (Season 2 - Episode 21) in 1961.
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961):
Throughout the 1950s, Ebsen performed in films, mainly Westerns. One notable exception was an acclaimed role as Doc Golightly, an older, rural veterinarian deserted by his young wife (played by Audrey Hepburn) in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's. This role brought Ebsen to the attention of the casting director of the CBS situation comedy The Beverly Hillbillies.
The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971):
Ebsen became famous as Jed Clampett, an easygoing backwoods mountaineer who strikes oil and moves with his family to Beverly Hills, California in the long-running, fish-out-of-water CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Aside from the top-billed Ebsen, principal cast members included Irene Ryan as Jed's mother-in-law, Daisy Moses, also known as Granny; Max Baer, Jr. as Jed's dimwitted nephew Jethro Bodine; Donna Douglas as Jed's only child, the curvaceous, critter-loving Elly May Clampett; Raymond Bailey as Milburn Drysdale, a bank president who oversees the Clampett fortune; and Nancy Kulp as Jane Hathaway, Drysdale's secretary.
Although scorned by critics, The Beverly Hillbillies attracted as many as 60 million viewers between 1962 and 1971 and was several times the highest rated series on television. The show also spawned similar Paul Henning produced rural sitcoms such as Green Acres and Petticoat Junction, which were eventually linked in crossover episode arcs. The Beverly Hillbillies was still 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.
Not all was harmonious among cast members on The Beverly Hillbillies set, especially between the politically conservative Ebsen and the more liberal Kulp. Said Douglas, "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, Ebsen supported her Republican opponent, incumbent Representative Bud Shuster, going so far as to tape an ad for Shuster that labeled 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 to investigate the death of his son. Critics and CBS executives ridiculed the age of the show's audience, but it lasted 8 1/2 seasons and 178 episodes. When Barnaby Jones was cancelled, 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 briefly as Barnaby Jones on two other productions: a 1975 episode of Cannon and the 1993 film The Beverly Hillbillies.
Other television credits:
Ebsen's 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 from 1984 to 1985. He also appeared in "The Waiting Room", a Night Gallery segment that originally aired January 26, 1972.
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 television series revival 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 television theme underscoring the scene. This was Ebsen's final motion picture role. Actor Jim Varney was cast as Jed Clampett.
In 1999, Ebsen provided a voice for an episode of the Fox Entertainment program King of the Hill (the oldest person to ever star on the series). Ebsen was set to play a cameo role on the Howard Stern-produced syndicated sitcom Son of the Beach, but was forced to cancel it due to bad health.
Ebsen has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1765 Vine Street, and 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 they had two daughters, Elizabeth and Alix. The couple divorced in 1942.
In 1944, Ebsen met and married Nancy Wolcott. They had five children: Susannah, Cathy, Bonnie, Kiersten (aka Kiki, a professional musician), and Dustin. In 1985, the 41-year marriage ended in divorce.
That same year, Ebsen met his third wife, Dorothy Knott. The couple had one child.
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 nineties, 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's love for sailing and the Naval service never waned. He donated four open ocean sailing yachts (named Polynesian Concepts I, II, III, and IV) to the United States Naval Academy's Sailing Squadron in Annapolis, Maryland.
"'As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.' Often the values of the influences imposed on us by our mothers and fathers, our teachers and certain friends, are not realized until years later, when we, as a sailor does, look back at our wakes to determine the course we have steered that got us to where we are. Today when I look back, then look around me to see with whom I am standing, I fully realize the influence on my life that must be credited to DeMolay.",
On being a best-selling author: "Writing fiction, there are no limits to what you write as long as it increases the value of the paper you are writing on.",
In 1965, about his stage performances: "I probably enjoyed show business most when I was doing plays like 'The Male Animal' and 'Good Night, Ladies,' when people would lay down their money and laugh and you'd see them walk out happy. By God, I'd feel honest. I could go home with a good taste in my mouth. You'd feel better, you'd feel more alive and like you were justifying your existence.",
Of The Beverly Hillbillies: "The one flaw in this is that you can't hear the people laughing.",
Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935),
Captain January (1936),
Born to Dance (1936),
Banjo on My Knee (1936),
Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937),
The Girl of the Golden West (1938),
Yellow Jack (1938),
My Lucky Star (1938),
Four Girls in White (1939),
The Kid from Texas (1939),
Hollywood Hobbies (1939) (short subject),
They Met in Argentina (1941),
Parachute Battalion (1941),
Sing Your Worries Away (1942),
Under Mexicali Stars (1950),
Silver City Bonanza (1951),
Thunder in God's Country (1951),
Rodeo King and the Senorita (1951),
Utah Wagon Train (1951),
Night People (1954),
Red Garters (1954),
Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier (1954),
Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (1956),
Between Heaven and Hell (1956),
Mission of Danger (1959),
Frontier Rangers (1959),
Riverboat, as Niles Cox in episode "The Water of Gorgeous Springs"; two hillbilly families feud aboard the river vessel, the Enterprise, captained by Grey Holden (Darren McGavin). (NBC, 1960),
The Twilight Zone (episode "The Prime Mover") (1961),
Fury River (1961),
The Barbara Stanwyck Show as Dr. Mark Carroll in "Little Big Mouth" (NBC, 1961),
The Andy Griffith Show as David Browne in "Opie's Hobo Friend" (1961),
Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961),
The Interns (1962),
Mail Order Bride (1964),
The Mike Bialka Story (1966),
The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band (1968), with Walter Brennan, Lesley Ann Warren, and John Davidson; a comical view of the 1888 U.S. presidential election,
Tom Sawyer (1973) (TV) - Muff Potter,
Smash-Up on Interstate 5 (1976),
Fire on the Mountain (1981),
Stone Fox (1987) as Grandpa,
Working Tra$h (1990) as Vandevere Lodge,
The Beverly Hillbillies (1993) (cameo as Barnaby Jones),
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