A detective and a hillbilly

Buddy Ebsen, 95, took on memorable TV roles


July 08, 2003|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

Buddy Ebsen was not a seminal television performer like Milton Berle or a pioneering figure like Roone Arledge, but he came to embody a persona so attractive to viewers that for a run of 17 years, there was no actor on television who attracted a larger audience week in and week out.

The two characters he played from 1962 to 1980 - Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies and then Barnaby Jones in the detective drama of the same name - were seen in an average of 25 million homes weekly, according to Nielsen Media Research. No other actor can claim a weekly audience of that size for that long - not even James Arness in Gunsmoke or Lucille Ball in I Love Lucy.

Ebsen died Sunday of an undisclosed illness at Torrance Medical Center near his California home, a hospital official said yesterday. He was 95.

Even while it was panned by most critics at the time as silliness and fluff, The Beverly Hillbillies instantly became the No. 1 show on television after its debut in September 1962. By the 1963 season, it was watched by as many as 50 million viewers a week. And the key to that success was the persona of Clampett, the father of a poor family in the Ozarks who one day accidentally discovers oil on his land and moves to Beverly Hills with the newfound riches.

"Jed Clampett was to be a tall man of simple homespun honesty and dignity - the kind of Ozark mountaineer I knew as a boy," Paul Henning, the creator of the series, told critics in 1962.

"I had Buddy Ebsen in mind from the beginning. I knew he'd been a dancer with all kinds of grace and presence, who really knew how to carry himself," Henning added, explaining the physical relationship between the Clampett persona and the 6-foot-3 Ebsen, who had worked in vaudeville and feature films as a dancer before his arrival in television.

But the synergy between character and actor extended beyond the physical.

"Jed Clampett was a Jeffersonian yeoman imbued with a dose of instinctual moral wisdom," David Marc and Robert J. Thompson write in their book, Prime Time Prime Movers.

Ebsen's straightforward, unadorned and easygoing style of performance suggested such virtues of fundamental decency - virtues we like to think of as being particularly American. Perhaps, the most apt way to remember Ebsen on-screen: as a down-sized TV version of Gary Cooper without the larger-than-life sense of dignity, or a small-screen Jimmy Stewart without the moral intensity or radiant boyish innocence. As an actor, Ebsen was not in their league, of course, but he embodied some of the same core characteristics of the American Character in his best television work at a time when many Americans were wondering if we had lost touch with them in a commercial, money-driven, post-war, modern world.

"I think you could do a lot worse than Jed Clampett to find the definite American TV character," Thompson said yesterday. "He combined the silliness of 1960s TV with the nobility of his homespun honesty. One got the sense watching The Beverly Hillbillies that Ebsen climbed into the clothes of Jed Clampett, and there was absolutely no space between actor and character."

Ebsen brought the same kind of folksiness to Barnaby Jones starting in 1973. Despite high ratings, CBS canceled The Beverly Hillbillies in 1971, explaining that the audience was rural and older, while the network needed to attract the young, urban audience of baby boomers who favored series like All in the Family and the Mary Tyler Moore Show. But, after sitting out just one season, Ebsen was back in prime time on CBS as an aging detective reluctantly coming out of retirement after his son is killed. The series was never as big a hit as The Beverly Hillbillies, but it never finished out of Nielsen's Top 25 either before going off the air in 1980.

Ebsen, who was born Christian Rudolph Ebsen in 1908 in Belleville, Ill., did have a considerable show-business history before arriving on television in 1954 as sidekick to American folk hero Davy Crockett on ABC's Disney series. His father owned a dance school, and he was dancing almost as soon as he could walk, according to show-business lore.

Ebsen tried school at the University of Florida and Rollins College, but dropped out at age 20 and headed to New York to try and make it on the stage. After working in talent shows and the lower end of the vaudeville circuit as a dancer, he landed his first Broadway role in 1928 in the chorus line of Whoopee, which starred comedian Eddie Cantor.

Ebsen spent the first half of the 1930s teamed with his sister, Vilma, in a vaudeville dance act that brought them to Hollywood as contract players for the 1936 MGM movie Broadway Melody. It was a hit, and Ebsen was earning $2,000 a week in movies at the height of the Depression.

His most memorable film roles include Attack, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Interns, Mail Order Bride, The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band and Captain January (in which he danced with Shirley Temple).

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