Tuesday, July 8, 2003

Dancer turned actor Buddy Ebsen, 95, dies

By Bob Thomas
The Associated Press

Buddy Ebsen, the loose-limbed dancer turned Hollywood actor who achieved stardom and riches in the television series The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones, has died. He was 95.

Ebsen died of respiratory failure Sunday morning at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, Calif. He had been admitted last month for pneumonia, said his daughter, Connie Ebsen-Jackson.

Ebsen and his sister Vilma danced through Broadway shows and MGM musicals of the 1930s. Except for an allergy to aluminum paint, he would have been one of the Yellow Brick Road quartet in The Wizard of Oz. After 10 days of filming, Ebsen, playing the Tin Man, fell ill because of the aluminum makeup on his skin and was replaced by Jack Haley.

Crockett's sidekick

Television brought Ebsen's amiable personality to the home screen, first as Fess Parker's sidekick in Davy Crockett.

As Jed Clampett, the easygoing head of a newly rich Ozark family plunked down in snooty Beverly Hills, Ebsen became a national favorite. While scorned by most critics, The Beverly Hillbillies attracted as many as 60 million viewers on CBS between 1962 and 1971.

"As I recall, the only good notice was in the Saturday Review," Ebsen once said. "The critic said the show 'possessed social comment combined with a high Nielsen, an almost impossible achievement in these days.' I kinda liked that."

Ebsen returned to series TV in 1973 as Barnaby Jones, a private investigator forced out of retirement to solve the murder of his son.

Barnaby Jones also drew critical blasts. But Ebsen's folksy manner and a warm relationship with his daughter-in-law, played by Lee Meriwether, made the series a success and it lasted until 1980.

Ebsen, whose father owned a dancing school, was a soda jerk until he landed a chorus job in the 1928 Whoopee, starring Eddie Cantor. The dancer sent for Vilma and they formed a dancing team that played vaudeville, supper clubs and shows such as Ziegfeld Follies.

A screen test led to an MGM contract for the dance team, and they were a hit in Broadway Melody of 1936. Buddy's style was far removed from that of the reigning dance king of films, Fred Astaire. The angular, 6-foot-3 Ebsen moved with a smooth, sliding shuffle, his arms gyrating like a wind-blown scarecrow. He made a charming partner with the tiny Shirley Temple in Captain January.

His first dramatic role was in Yellow Jack with Robert Montgomery.

Left MGM

Ebsen was earning $2,000 a week at MGM in 1938 when studio boss Louis B. Mayer summoned him and announced: "Ebsen, in order to give you the parts you deserve, we must own you."

The dancer recalled that he replied: "I'll tell you what kind of a fool I am, Mr. Mayer, I can't be owned." He quit his contract, returning to touring as a dancer. He served three years in the Coast Guard during World War II.

Ebsen toured in Show Boat, then returned to Hollywood. Producers asked his agent: "Why hasn't he been working in pictures?" His luck began to change when director Norman Foster recommended him to Walt Disney to play Davy Crockett.

Disney had already chosen a young Texan, Fess Parker, for the role but he hired Ebsen as Crockett's partner. When the Crockett episodes were shown on the Disneyland series in 1954-55, both Parker and Ebsen became children's heroes.

Ebsen's later films included Attack, Breakfast at Tiffany's, The Interns and Mail Order Bride.

In 2001, Ebsen started a new, unexpected career: fiction writing. His novel Kelly's Quest, released by an e-book publisher based in Indiana, became a best seller. He also penned an autobiography, The Other Side of Oz.

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