' Hillbillies go Hollywood So they loaded up the truck, and they moved to . . . a feature film

August 08, 1993|By Joe Rhodes | Joe Rhodes,Contributing Writer

Los Angeles --There's a break on the set of "The Beverly Hillbillies," 20th Century Fox's $25 million feature film version of the 1960's CBS sitcom, and Jim Varney, the man who would be Jed Clampett, is sitting out with the extras by the cement pond, smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee and looking not the least little bit like Buddy Ebsen. He's got a dark caterpillar of a mustache, for one thing, brown hair curling over his ears and down to the collar of his bolo-tied shirt. He's wearing a western-cut Hank Williams suit, with charcoal-gray pinstripes and pointy black boots. Compared to the Uncle Jed we grew up with, this one's looking downright foppish.

"I know what you mean," Mr. Varney says with a gravel-voiced drawl. "I might not be what some people expect."

Well, no. Of course not. Mr. Varney is, after all, the guy who's spent the past 12 years playing Ernest. The rubber-faced, goofball, smirk-a-minute, nose-in-the-camera "Hey Vern" neighbor from hell. And now he's the new Uncle Jed?

"I'm playing it pretty straight," he says, trying to sound reassuring. "I'm not doing any mugging and there aren't any wide-angle close-ups or anything. People may be surprised to find out that when I don't have a wide-angle lens in my face, I'm actually pretty normal looking."

As for the suit, it turns out the only reason Mr. Varney is so slickered up is because they're filming a big party scene this morning in the ballroom of the Tower Mansion, a monumentally )) excessive Newport-style residence located high on the hills above Bel Air, that is.

"This is just my courtin' suit," Mr. Varney promises, lounging by the pool between shots. "The rest of the time I'm wearing the clodhoppers and hunting coat and old chewed-up hat."

Even so, this seems like potentially dangerous stuff, messing with people's TV memories. It's especially tricky when you're dealing with something as ingrained in American pop consciousness as "The Beverly Hillbillies." (Go ahead, admit it, you not only know the words to the theme song, you've sung them out loud in your car.) This is a show that was No. 1 practically from the moment it premiered in September 1962, dominated the ratings for nearly 10 years and still pops up on cable at least four times a day.

There are millions of rerun-addicted, hard-core Clampettologists out there who won't take kindly to much big-screen Hillbilly revisionism, people who think Donna Douglas still looks good in pigtails, who worship Max Baer Jr. as a god and haven't quite accepted the notion that Irene Ryan is deader than Elvis. These folks won't be easy to please.

Not that everyone on the film, which is scheduled to be released in the fall, isn't trying. You can hardly turn around on the "Hillbillies" set without someone telling you how much they loved the old series and how the movie -- in spite of its '90's-scale budget and brand-name cast (including Cloris Leachman as Granny, Dabney Coleman as Mr. Drysdale and Lily Tomlin as Miss Hathaway) -- is going to be as much like the TV show as it can possibly be.

"I think people would be really disappointed if it was too different," says Penelope Spheeris, back in the director's chair for the first time since hitting it big with "Wayne's World" last year. "And that would be my reaction, too. It was my favorite show when I was growing up. And if there was any big departure from any of the original characters, I think it would be like sacrilege. Someone came up to me very early in the production and said, 'You've got a national treasure in your hands. Be very careful with it.' "

It has not been an easy morning. Ms. Spheeris, it seems, is having problems with Mr. Varney's face, with the mustache in particular, which is drooping a little more than she'd like. "I've gotta keep an eye on him," she says later, "because his face is so expressive."

"Jim, come over here," she yells out from behind the video-assist monitor where she's been watching the latest take of the all-day party scene, one where Jed is supposed to be congratulating Elly May (played by Erika Eleniak, the chef's surprise from "Under Siege") on what a fine young woman she's become.

"See that?" Ms. Spheeris asks Mr. Varney, pointing out the moment where his mustache starts to sag.

"Uh huh."

"Well, don't do that."

"I make faces sometimes without knowing it," Mr. Varney will explain at the end of the day when the take is over and Ms. Spheeris is, for the moment, appeased. "Sometimes, if I'm not careful, it'll look like something's disturbing me. And the thing about Jed is he's never disturbed. Jed always stays in the same state of mind, no matter what's happening around him. That's why having all this money hasn't changed him. He's at peace with the world. It's basically Hillbilly Zen."

Idea whose time has come

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