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Photo Source: AP & AP File
TV star Buddy Ebsen dies at 95

July 7, 2003
AP & AP File

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, a hospital official said Monday. He was 95.

Ebsen died Sunday morning at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, said Pam Hope, an administrative nursing supervisor. He had been admitted to the hospital, near his home in Palos Verdes Estates, last month for treatment of an undisclosed illness.

Ebsen and his sister Vilma danced through Broadway shows and MGM musicals of the 1930s. When she retired, Ebsen continued on his own, dancing with Shirley Temple and turning dramatic actor.

Except for an allergy to aluminum paint, he would have been one of the Yellow Brick Road quartet in the classic "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.

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."

The show was still earning good ratings when it was canceled by CBS because advertisers shunned a series that attracted primarily a rural audience.

Ebsen returned to series TV in 1973 as "Barnaby Jones," a private investigator forced out of retirement to solve the murder of his son Hal, who had taken over the business.

"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.

"With such a glut of private-eye shows, I didn't see how another one could succeed," Ebsen once said. "I really thought the network was making a mistake." But the series clicked and lasted until 1980.

"I'm the luckiest actor alive," Ebsen said in 1978. "There's not anyone I'd trade jobs with right now."

Ebsen, who was 6 feet 3, jerked sodas until he landed a chorus job in the 1928 "Whoopee," starring Eddie Cantor. The dancer sent for his sister Vilma and they formed a dancing team that played vaudeville, supper clubs and shows such as "Flying Colors" and "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 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 other films of the '30s included "Banjo on My Knee," "Four Girls in White," "Girl of the Golden West" (Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy) and "My Lucky Star" (Sonja Henie). His first dramatic role was in "Yellow Jack" with Robert Montgomery.

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 and playing Chicago for more than a year in a farce, "Good Night, Ladies." 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 heroes. Millions of children began sporting coonskin hats and singing "The Ballad of Davy Crockett." "Davy Crockett" was also released to theaters.

Ebsen's later films included "Attack," "Breakfast at Tiffany's," "The Interns," "Mail Order Bride," "The One and Only Genuine Original Family Band."

In 1993, he made a cameo appearance as Barnaby Jones in the film version of "The Beverly Hillbillies."

He was born Christian Rudolph Ebsen in Belleville, Ill., on April 2, 1908. His father owned a dancing school, where the nicknamed Buddy learned the fundamentals. The family moved to Orlando, Fla., when the boy was 10, and he began pre-medical studies at the University of Florida and Rollins College. But family financial problems forced him to leave school and, at 20, he decided to try his luck as a dancer in New York.

"I arrived in New York with $26.25 in my pocket and a letter of introduction to a friend of a friend's cousin," he recalled. "I got a job in a road company, but the producer said, 'That boy one foot taller than the rest of 'em -- out!"'

Over the years, the actor also found time to write musical shows, "Turn to the Right" and "Champagne Dada," and a play, "The Champagne General." A lifelong sailor, he piloted his "Polynesian Concept" to victory in a Los Angeles-Honolulu race in 1968 and manufactured ocean-going catamarans.

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."

Ebsen was first married to Ruth Cambridge, Walter Winchell's "Girl Friday," and they had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce, and he met and married his second wife, Nancy, while both were in the Coast Guard. They had four daughters and a son.