Born Christian Rudolph Ebsen, April 2, 1908, in Belleville, IL; died of pneumonia, July 6, 2003, in Torrance, CA. Actor and dancer. Buddy Ebsen's career spanned more than 60 years, encompassing the latter days of vaudeville, Broadway success, and a brief foray into film. He is most popularly remembered for his television role as hillbilly–turned–millionaire Jed Clampett of the long–running situation comedy The Beverly Hillbillies. People reported that Ebsen, referring to the common refrain uttered by Clampett, once said, "I can walk on any stage in the English–speaking world and say, 'Well, doggies!' and I'm home free."
Nicknamed "Buddy" early on by an aunt, Ebsen didn't intend to make a career out of performing. Early on he had decided to become a doctor despite the fact that his father operated a dance school where he took ballet lessons as a young child. When he was ten years old the family moved to Orlando, Florida, where his father opened another dance school. After graduating from high school, Ebsen went on to attend the University of Florida as well as Rollins College. He was taking pre–medical courses, inspired by a childhood illness suffered by his sister, when he was forced to withdraw because of the Depression.
Ebsen decided to take up dancing and try his luck in New York. His early training in his father's school served him well and in 1928 he had his first role in New York in the chorus of a show called Whoopee. Inspired by his success, Ebsen invited his sister, Vilma, to join him and together they created a winning dance routine. They toured the vaudeville circuit and played at supper clubs as well as performing in the legendary variety production called the Ziegfeld Follies. Eventually the two were invited to Hollywood where they appeared in the MGM film Flying Colors. Their act was one of the standout features of the film. They also earned rave reviews for their appearance in the film Broadway Melody of 1936.
Unfortunately, the contract they signed with MGM stated that one of them could be terminated at any time. Vilma was sent packing back to New York where she retired from performing and married. Ebsen stayed in Hollywood. In 1936, he married Ruth Cambridge and had two daughters with her. After that marriage ended in divorce, Ebsen married Nancy Wolcott in 1945. Wolcott and Ebsen had four daughters and one son and were divorced in 1985. Ebsen later married Dorothy Knott, to whom he remained married until his death.
Ebsen's biggest role may have been the one he lost. He was originally cast as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. Ray Bolger, who was playing the Tin Man, pleaded with him to exchange roles until Ebsen finally agreed. Unfortunately for Ebsen, the makeup that made him silver was made from aluminum and after a couple weeks of filming, his lungs became lined with the metallic dust. He found it nearly impossible to breathe and was soon hospitalized. He spent two weeks in the hospital in an oxygen tent and then several more weeks recovering. By the time he was well, Jack Haley had been cast as the Tin Man. However, Ebsen was still in the film in a way; since he had pre–recorded the songs, it is his voice that is featured on the sound-track, not Haley's. Plus, as Ebsen later told the Los Angeles Times, "I suspect I'm still in a couple of the long shots because you couldn't tell who was in there and it cost a lot of money to reshoot."
After losing his place in one of film history's most enduring films, Ebsen ended up losing again. In 1938, Louis B. Mayer told Ebsen that MGM needed to own him. It meant signing an exclusive contract that would prevent Ebsen from working for any other studio. Ebsen declined by saying, as reported in the Washington Post, "I'll tell you what kind of a fool I am, Mr. Mayer, I can't be owned." With those words, Ebsen took leave of Hollywood, where Mayer succeeded in blackballing him from film roles at any studio.
During the 1940s, Ebsen toured again as a dancer and performed in shows throughout the country. The New York Times reported Ebsen's recollection of that time, "I probably enjoyed show business the 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." Ebsen served a three–year tour of duty with the Coast Guard on the U.S.S. Pocatello in the North Pacific. In his down time while at sea, he wrote sketches for variety shows and musicals that he helped stage.
In the mid–'50s, Ebsen returned to Hollywood. A director recommended to Walt Disney that Ebsen play Davy Crockett in Disney's weekly special Davy Crockett. When Fess Parker was chosen instead, Ebsen was given the role of Crockett's friend, George Russel. Nearly forgotten for more than 20 years, Ebsen became a hero to children throughout the United States. Children everywhere played at being Crockett and Russel, wearing coonskin hats and singing the show's theme song.
Ebsen found other roles in Hollywood, including a small but poignant role in Breakfast at Tiffany's. In that film he played the husband of Audrey Hepburn's Holly Golightly. For the most part though, film was beginning its decline and television was becoming more popular. In 1962, Ebsen would step into his career–defining role as Jed Clampett, the wise and jovial head of the family in the hit television series The Beverly Hillbillies. Despised by the critics and advertisers, but loved by audiences, Beverly Hillbillies ran for nine seasons, ending in 1971. In 1973, Ebsen took on another role in a successful television series. He played the ex–private investigator pulled from retirement by the disappearance of his son in the show Barnaby Jones. The show aired for seven years, until 1980. He later appeared regularly on another detective series, Matt Houston.
Never one to sit still, Ebsen occupied himself in his later years with writing, painting, and running his business that manufactured ocean–going catamarans. He authored a popular novel in 2001 called Kelly's Quest as well as his biography, The Other Side of Oz. Ebsen died on July 6, 2003, from pneumonia; he was 95. He is survived by his seven children and third wife, Dorothy.
Independent (London, England), July 8, 2003, p. 16; Los Angeles Times, July 8, 2003, p. B12; New York Times, July 8, 2003, p. B8; People, July 21, 2003, p. 82; Washington Post, July 8, 2003, p. B7.
— Eve M. B. Hermann