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BUDDY EBSEN

By Susan M. Kelly

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“Come and listen to a story ‘bout a man named Jed...”.  The familiar theme song1930's Ross Verlag 5x7 Tobacco Premium asked us to meet Jed Clampett and his hillbilly family each week, but under the gruff, grizzled old character there was a soft-spoken, charming man who had made his mark in Hollywood long before most of his TV audience was even born.  For most of us, the story we don’t know is the story of Buddy Ebsen.

Born on April 2, 1908 in Belleville, Illinois, young Christian Rudolph Ebsen, Jr. was thrust into entertainment at an early age.  His father, Christian, Sr., owned a dance studio and insisted that the boy take dance lessons.  The lessons would pay off as Buddy became a dancer in a Broadway chorus in the late 20’s.

Despite his budding career, Buddy dreamed of being a doctor and enrolled in premed courses at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida and the University of Florida.  But his mother wouldn’t hear of it and pushed her son down the path to show business.  In the early 30’s, Buddy formed a dance team with his sister, Vilma, and the two eventually wound up on Broadway.  In 1935, the act moved to Hollywood, where they were promptly signed by MGM and cast in the Eleanor Powell feature “Broadway Melody of 1936”.

Vilma retired from the stage shortly after the film debuted, and Buddy continued on at MGM, starring in two more movies with Eleanor Powell; “Born to Dance” (1936), where he was partnered with Frances Langford and “Broadway Melody of 1938”, which saw him teamed up with Judy Garland.  Not long after filming “Born to Dance”, the 6’3” Buddy appeared with a slightly smaller partner, little Shirley Temple, in “Captain January”.  

Upon seeing him in “Broadway Melody of 1938”, Louis B. Mayer offered the budding young dancer an exclusive contract.  It was an extremely good offer for the time – seven years at a starting salary of $2,000 a week - but Buddy wasn’t happy about giving the studio absolute control over his career and he turned it down.  Mayer warned him that he’d never work in Hollywood again and MGM promptly blackballed him.

Despite his problems with MGM, Buddy was almost immediately offered another role – as the scarecrow in “The Wizard of Oz”.  Before filming began, Buddy agreed to change roles with Ray Bolger, who had been cast as the tin woodman.  It was a fateful decision.  When filming began, Buddy took ill and was hospitalized as the result of inhaling aluminum powder that was part of his makeup.  He eventually recovered, but the role was given to Jack Haley.

Buddy returned to the stage, and over the next two decades made very few ventures into film.  He had bit parts in “Parachute Battalion” in 1941 and “Red Garters” in 1954, but had little luck.  Enter the Disney Studio, in the person of director Norman Foster, who suggested him for the role of Davy Crockett in their new film.  Buddy was excited at the prospect of playing the famous frontiersman, and he was well known to Disney, having served as dance model for none other than Mickey Mouse himself, in the “Silly Symphony” cartoons in the 1930’s, but once Disney executives got a look at strapping actor Fess Parker in the film “Them!”, they knew they had their man, and the role went to him instead.

Buddy was upset, but the producers weren’t through with him yet.  They offered him the role of Crockett’s sidekick, Georgie Russel.  Though not the role he had hoped for, it would prove to be a lucky charm for Buddy, as his career began to look up again.

In 1961, Buddy had a small role in the now classic film “Breakfast at Tiffany’s”.  Seeing his performance, producers of a new television program, “The Beverly Saturday Evening Post February 2 1963 Beverly Hillbillies CoverHillbillies”, decided he would be the perfect choice to play patriarch Jed Clampett.  Buddy was considering retirement, but decided to take the role.  It would become his best known, and best loved, part and would introduce him to a whole new generation of viewers.

He made one more film appearance during his “Beverly Hillbillies” days, in “The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band”, in 1968, but his attention would remain focused primarily on TV.   The Hillbillies ended it’s surprisingly successful run in 1971 and two years later Buddy returned to TV as private eye “Barnaby Jones”.  He retired from the screen when the show ended in 1980, making one final film appearance as Barnaby Jones in a cameo in the 1993 film version of “The Beverly Hillbillies”.

He would spend the rest of his days living happily with his third wife, Dorothy, and returning to yet another of his interests, writing.  He’d written half a dozen plays over the years, five of which were produced, including “Honest John” in 1948 and “Champagne General”, a Civil War story, in 1973, but his biggest writing success came in 2001, when at the tender age of 93, he became a best-selling author, with the publication of his romantic novel “Kelly’s Quest”.  

He was writing another novel, based on his Barnaby Jones character, at the time of his death last year.  It seems fitting that Buddy Ebsen ended his life much as he had lived it, quietly working at a job he loved.  Like his most famous character, Buddy was in many ways, a very rich man.
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Susan M. Kelly has been working as a freelance writer for the last 12 years, during which time she has written everything from press releases and brochures to newspaper articles and web text.  She currently lives and works in Dunellen, NJ and can be contacted at smkwriter@worldnet.att.net.