Mocking Pretension: Buddy Ebsen

[4 August 2003]

By Sam A. Hieb

Dancer, actor, artist, author, yachtsman: Buddy Ebsen’s many interests and skills demonstrate that life should be savored every day, no matter your age. He was an extremely intelligent man and independent thinker, yet he was reluctant to show off. He was quietly ahead of his time.

Buddy Ebsen started his career as a dancer, and one of his early film roles had him hoofing with Shirley Temple in Captain January (1936), his long legs appearing to bend as he skipped around the stage. Such flexibility would have made him an excellent choice to be the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939). The part went to Ray Bolger instead, and Ebsen was recast as the Tin Woodsman, until the aluminum makeup put him in the hospital, and the part went to Jack Haley. But this loss did not cause MGM to lose confidence in him. To the contrary, the studio offered him a seven-year contract at $2,000 a week in 1938.

But when Louis B. Mayer told Ebsen that, with that kind of contract, the studio would own him, Ebsen balked. Saying what many of us wish we could say to those who write our paychecks, he told Mayer he couldn’t be owned, and walked away from a considerable amount of money in the middle of the Depression. He also walked into a load of trouble. In those days, MGM had very long arms, and Ebsen endured many lean years.

He went on the road, performing in plays. “People would lay down their money and laugh and you’d see them walk out happy,” Ebsen told the New York Post in 1965 (quoted in the New York Times obituary, 7 July 2003). In the mid-1950s, Walt Disney hired him to play Davy Crockett’s sidekick, Georgie Russell, on television and films. In 1961, Ebsen played Audrey Hepburn’s abandoned husband in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. He also guest-starred on The Andy Griffith Show, as David Browne, a hobo who leads Opie astray, telling him all his problems could be solved by uttering the magic word, “Tuscarora!”

Ebsen didn’t know it, but in 1962, he was on his way to becoming a pop icon. At the time, “country” characters were already visible on television, but The Real McCoys and Andy Griffith featured rural folks on their own turf, surrounded by those people with whom they were familiar. Producer Paul Henning came up with a scheme to place such types in a “strange” setting, Beverly Hills.

He pitched the show to CBS executives over lunch at the Brown Derby, and it was a go—after R.J. Reynolds agreed to put up the bulk of the sponsorship dollars. But the studio suits had one more concern. In their minds, the show didn’t have a clear “moral message.” That was the point, Henning told them. The series was a spoof of the frivolous, self-absorbed Beverly Hills lifestyle, not a judgment of it.

And so, the Clampetts took off, driving in their 1921 flatbed, to Beverly Hills and beyond. The show rose to number one only three weeks after its premiere on 26 September 1962, and was soon attracting 33 million viewers a week. That was more than double the viewers tuning into the competition, Perry Como’s Kraft Music Hall and Gene Kelly’s Going My Way, a comedy-drama based on the popular movie.

The Beverly Hillbillies was a surprise hit, but it cost money to produce. In fact, Hillbillies boasted one of the costliest sets in television, with the 27-inch-deep “ce-ment pond” alone costing $15,000. Henning and the network developed a clever PR campaign, bombarding the media with ads for the show while carefully guarding its stars’ private lives. After all, it would destroy the public’s pristine image of “Uncle Jed” to see a photo of Ebsen lounging on his 60-foot yacht (although Uncle Jed certainly could afford such a yacht).

The critics weren’t impressed, however. Newsweek (3 December 1962) called it the “most shamelessly corny show in years,” while Time (30 November 1962) wrote, “The pone is the lowest form of humor… [It’s] a program that is dedicated to finding out how many times the same joke can be repeated.” The New York Times was no kinder, writing that The Beverly Hillbillies was “steeped in enough twanging guitar and rural no-think to make each half hour seem like 60 minutes.” Social critic David Susskind was particularly alarmed, admonishing “the few intelligent people left” to write their Congressmen to complain about the show.

But those who believed the series rehashed the same joke weren’t listening to it. The writers frequently inserted clever puns to illustrate to differences between the Clampetts and their elite neighbors, with Jed acting as a go-between of sorts. In perfect deadpan, Ebsen delivered some terrific lines. In one episode, someone asked Jed if Jethro went to Eaton when he was a boy. Jed replied, “If I know Jethro, he went to eatin’ when he was a baby.”

In another episode, Jed was trying to enroll Jethro in a private school so he could continue his sixth-grade education. “Are you aware there is a tuition?” the headmaster asked. “If that means it costs money, I can pay,” Jed said, “as long as it don’t cost over $25 million.”

After a year, the critics relented, somewhat. “Folks who look down their noses at TV’s number one show have it all wrong,” Arnold Hano wrote in the New York Times Magazine (17 November 1963). “In truth, it mocks pretension—a spectacle the great American public has always enjoyed.”

The following Friday, President Kennedy was assassinated. That tragic, real-world event would help solidify the escapism offered by the Hillbillies as a cultural phenomenon. Steven D. Stark, in his book, Glued to the Set, goes so far as to say that The Beverly Hillbillies soothed the “national psyche” in the wake of the Kennedy assassination. “Seven regular episodes of the Hillbillies immediately following the Kennedy assassination grace the list of the most widely-watched half-hour shows in TV history,” Stark writes. Such numbers, for Stark, indicate that the nation used The Beverly Hillbillies to “bury its grief.”

The series was tremendously popular. It never left the top 10 during its run, and has remained available in reruns since it fell victim to CBS’ threshing of all its “rural-themed” programming in 1971, in the wake of another popular icon, Archie Bunker. But Ebsen was not disappearing: just two years later, he reemerged as the private investigator Barnaby Jones. Originally appearing on an episode of Cannon (starring William Conrad), Barnaby came out of retirement to solve the murder of his son Hal, who had taken over his P.I. firm. One of the last of the campy Quinn Martin productions, Barnaby Jones ran for 174 episodes, making it, at the time, the second longest running detective show in TV history, trailing only Mannix.

Considering the fact that Ebsen was 65 when he started the show, he certainly brought attention to the fact that life is not over when Social Security begins. And he proved that over and over again, for the rest of his life. When he finally semi-retired (he would appear regularly in Matt Houston throughout the 1980s), he took up painting, gladly bringing Uncle Jed back to life on the canvas. He also published his autobiography, The Other Side of Oz, in addition to several other books.

For all this, Ebsen’s most surprising accomplishment may be sailing his catamaran, Polynesian Concept, to victory in the Honolulu Trans Pacific Yacht race in 1968—when he was 60 years old. Ebsen’s long and healthy life is a reminder for all of us. No matter our age, we should never stop creating, learning, doing.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/030804-buddyebsen/