Ebsen, Christian Rudolph, Jr. (“Buddy”)

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Ebsen, Christian Rudolph, Jr. (“Buddy”)

(b. 2 April 1908 in Belleville, Illinois; d. 6 July 2003 in Torrance, California), dancer and actor who starred in two consecutive top-rated prime-time television series: The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones.

Ebsen, who acquired the nickname “Buddy” as a child, was one of four children (and the only son) of Christian Ebsen, a dance teacher, and Franciska (Wendt) Ebsen, also a dance teacher. They lived in Belleville, near St. Louis, until Ebsen was ten years old, when they moved to Orlando, Florida, and opened a dance school. Trained by his father in ballroom dancing and tall enough to partner with adult women (he was six feet tall by age fifteen), Ebsen worked in the family business as a dance teacher. In 1926 he enrolled at Rollins College in nearby Winter Park, Florida, with the intention of preparing for medical school. His father, who had invested heavily in Florida real estate, suffered financial reversals, and Ebsen transferred to the University of Florida as a sophomore to take advantage of lower tuition charges at the state university. A catastrophic collapse in Florida land prices bankrupted the family, forcing Ebsen to withdraw from college in the spring of 1928.

With dancing his only marketable skill, Ebsen went to New York City, hoping to earn money to return to his studies. He immediately discovered that his height (now six feet, three inches), which had been an advantage at the dance school, eliminated him from consideration for most dancing roles in Broadway musicals. After months of auditions he was offered a role in a Florence Ziegfeld musical, Whoopee, on the condition that he could find a partner of acceptable height. Ebsen brought his sister Vilma to try out, and the pair was hired. The show, which starred Eddie Cantor, was a hit, and the Ebsens proved popular with Broadway audiences during an eighteen-month run. The brother and sister emerged as a sought-after act in 1930, appearing at nightclubs, touring in vaudeville shows, and performing in several more Broadway musicals, including Flying Colors (1932) and The Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. With the nation suffering an economic depression, Ebsen gave up all thoughts of returning to school to pursue a show business career.

In 1935 Metro-Goldwin-Mayer (MGM) invited Ebsen and his sister to make a screen test in Hollywood, California. They were cast in Broadway Melody of 1936 for their screen debut. Vilma Ebsen decided to leave show business to get married. Though offers of stage work were waiting for him in New York City, Ebsen decided to stay in Los Angeles and shift the focus of his work to the movies. He was particularly eager to work on his acting. “I noticed that (actors) don’t sweat the way dancers do,” he told an interviewer years later.

Louis B. Mayer admired Ebsen’s easygoing, unaffected screen presence as well as the wide range of his dancing skills. Mayer’s support put Ebsen on the fast track. Despite his lack of experience, Ebsen was cast in two more major releases during 1936: Banjo on My Knee and Born to Dance. He was loaned out to Twentieth Century–Fox to be the dancing partner of the child star Shirley Temple in Captain January (1936). Ebsen next appeared as Judy Garland’s dancing partner in Broadway Melody of 1938. If not for an allergy to the aluminum particles in his costume (which caused Ebsen to become severely ill), he would have played the Tin Woodsman opposite Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939).

In 1938 Mayer personally offered Ebsen more than $100,000 per year to become an MGM contract player. The actor shocked him by turning down the offer because of the contract’s ironclad exclusivity clause. According to Ebsen’s 1993 autobiography, The Other Side of Oz, Mayer told Ebsen that he had to “own” Ebsen in order for him to have a successful career, to which Ebsen replied, “I’ll tell you what kind of a fool I am, Mr. Mayer. I can’t be owned.” Furious, Mayer warned Ebsen not to expect to work in motion pictures again. Paul Henning, a television producer who would be instrumental in reviving Ebsen’s career years later, said that Ebsen “may not have been in Hollywood long enough then to understand that Mayer had the power or the venom to blackball him—or anyone... that way.”

Ebsen’s ascendant film career fell unceremoniously to earth. He went east on two occasions to appear in stage musicals: Yokel Boy (1939) in New York City and Good Night, Ladies (1942) in Chicago. A friend, the director Leslie Goodwins, used him in two 1941 films at RKO, Parachute Battalion and They Met in Argentina, and helped clear the way for his appearance in a third RKO picture, Sing Your Worries Away (1942). But just as Mayer had predicted, the other studios would not return calls.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, Ebsen, a lifelong and expert sailor, joined the U.S. Coast Guard. He was commissioned as a lieutenant and stationed in Alaska, where he served aboard the USS Pocatello, a submarine chaser that patrolled the Alaskan coastline.

After the war Ebsen returned to Los Angeles. Finding himself still persona non grata at the major studios, he went east to appear in several theater productions and considered relocating to New York City to return to a full-time career in the theater. In 1950, however, some eight years after his last movie, he was signed by Republic Pictures, a minor production house, to appear as one of Rex Allen’s cowboy sidekicks in a series of short (sixty-seven-minute) comic Westerns intended for Saturday afternoon audiences. Having previously appeared on-screen with such stars as Judy Garland, Jimmy Stewart, and Barbara Stanwyck, Ebsen reached a low point in his film career in 1951 when Republic declined to renew his contract.

A major break came to Ebsen when Walt Disney offered him the role of George Russell, sidekick to the title character in Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. The project was one of the first direct collaborations between a movie studio and a television network. The work was to be aired in 1954 as three one-hour episodes on Disneyland, an American Broadcasting Company television series, and then reedited for release as a conventional feature film in 1955. Davy Crockett was enormously successful in both media, and Ebsen reprised his role in the sequel, Davy Crockett and the River Pirates (television, 1955; theaters, 1956). The actor gained a level of public recognition he had not known at the peak of his film career.

By the late 1950s Ebsen had his pick of guest-starring roles on top-rated television series. He was especially sought after for Westerns, and he appeared on more than a dozen, including Bonanza, Rawhide, and Have Gun, Will Travel. He was even welcomed back to the movie community, appearing in such major studio productions as Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) and The Interns (1962).

In 1961 the producer Henning approached Ebsen to star in a new situation comedy for Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) television, The Beverly Hillbillies. Though he had little experience in the type of broadly played farce that Henning was planning, Ebsen had never had top billing in any film or on any television series and could not resist the opportunity at last to have a starring role. He was to play the role of Jed Clampett, an Ozark mountaineer who strikes it rich in oil and moves his family to a Beverly Hills, California, mansion. While much of the show’s humor was derived from the naïveté or, at times, the stupidity of the country folk, Ebsen enjoyed the frequent barbs it made at the greediness and lack of moral backbone that characterized the urban characters.

The show premiered in 1962 and remained in production on CBS for nine seasons. As measured by the Nielsen ratings, it was the most popular series on American television during the 1960s. When the show went out of production in 1971, it was generally assumed that Ebsen would retire. Instead he delighted his many fans (as well as CBS management) by returning to television in 1973 in Barnaby Jones, a different type of prime-time series. Ebsen, as the title character, played a retired private eye who comes back to investigate the death of his son. Satisfied that he can still do the job better than most despite his age, he returns to the business full-time. Ebsen’s aging fan base took delight in watching him outsmart cocky young killers, and the series was a hit in the ratings, playing in prime time until the close of the 1979–1980 season. Once again it was assumed that Ebsen had sung his swan song in series television, but during the 1984–1985 season he appeared in a recurring role on another private-eye series, Matt Houston, playing the uncle of the title character.

During the last three decades of his ninety-five years, Ebsen was one of the wealthiest actors in Hollywood. He moved to a house of his own design on an island off the coast of southern California, where he pursued an impressive range of hobbies and avocations. He captained Polynesian Concept, his world-class catamaran, in international racing competitions. A skilled guitar player, he wrote or cowrote more than eighty published songs over the years (including the Davy Crockett theme, which reached the Billboard Hot 100 in 1954). Two stage plays that he wrote, The Champagne General (in which Ebsen played Abraham Lincoln) and Honest John, were professionally produced. He enjoyed painting seascapes and landscapes, and took up fiction writing after the age of ninety, publishing his first novel, Kelly’s Quest, a love story, in 2000.

Active in Republican Party politics, Ebsen was an early and strident supporter of Ronald Reagan, first in California politics and then in Reagan’s campaigns for the White House. In 1984 Nancy Kulp, one of Ebsen’s Beverly Hillbillies costars, won the Democratic Party nomination for a congressional seat in Pennsylvania. Ebsen voluntarily appeared in television spots supporting Kulp’s Republican opponent to neutralize her celebrity advantage. Kulp lost the race.

Ebsen’s first wife was Ruth Cambridge, whom he married in 1933 and with whom he had two children. That marriage ended in divorce in 1943. He later was wed to Nancy Wolcott, a fellow coast guard officer whom he met in the service and married on 6 September 1945. The couple had five children; they divorced in 1985. Ebsen married Dorothy Knott in 1985, when he was seventy-seven years old. In the spring of 2003 Ebsen complained of breathing problems and was admitted to Torrance Memorial Medical Center, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. He died in the hospital of respiratory failure, and his remains were cremated.

Actor, dancer, musician, playwright, painter, and racing boat captain, Ebsen was a thoroughly uncommon individual who possessed the common touch, an asset that is nowhere put to more productive use than in American popular culture. Millions remember him in paper-thin disguise as hillbilly Jed Clampett or supersleuth Barnaby Jones. His talent as an entertainer was so great that despite Mayer’s opposition, he survived to tell the tale and prosper.

Buddy Ebsen, The Other Side of Oz (1993), with Stephen Cox, is the actor’s autobiography. Ebsen’s political activities are discussed in Harold C. Schonberg, “Reagan Asks Coast Critic to Plug Show, Buddy Ebsen’s Turn to the Right,” New York Times (19 Mar. 1981). Obituaries are in the New York Times (8 July 2003) and the London Times (18 July 2003).

David Marc