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'The Other Side' of Buddy Ebsen : Autobiography: The actor--whose career included much more than Jed and Barnaby--will launch his chronicle at a luncheon Jan. 27 at the Balboa Bay Club.

January 20, 1994|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PALOS VERDES ESTATES — Buddy Ebsen had just finished noodling with Fats Waller's "Ain't Misbehavin' " on the white baby grand piano in his elegantly appointed living room when he was asked if he still tap-danced.

Ebsen grinned.

"I thought you'd never ask," he said, blue eyes twinkling and gray loafers gracefully slapping out a time step on the hardwood floor: "You like that?"

Two months shy of his 86th birthday, Ebsen's still got it.

More than six decades after a lanky, 6-foot-3 20-year-old from Florida showed up in the Big Apple to break into show biz with only $26.65 in his pocket, the hoofer-turned-actor is getting ready to go back on the road--this time to promote his autobiography.

"The Other Side of Oz" (Donovan; $24.95) chronicles his life and career in vaudeville, on Broadway in "Whoopee" and the "Ziegfeld Follies," in movies such as "Captain January" with Shirley Temple and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" with Audrey Hepburn, and on TV, the medium that gave him superstar status: nine years as folksy Jed Clampett in "The Beverly Hillbillies" and another eight years as the cool and methodical private detective in "Barnaby Jones."

That's not to mention his role as Fess Parker's sidekick Georgie Russell in that baby-boomer cultural phenomenon of the 1950s: "Davy Crockett."

Ebsen will launch "The Other Side of Oz," which is published by Donovan Publishing of Newport Beach, at the Round Table West author luncheon Jan. 27 at the Balboa Bay Club.

The book's title refers to Ebsen's most unusual claim to fame: He was originally cast as the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz" but, after he nearly died from inhaling the aluminum dust in his makeup, was replaced by Jack Haley.

"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 re-shoot," said Ebsen, adding that he's sure his voice remains in the "We're Off to See the Wizard" musical number.

As he says in the book: "Listen closely next time."

Dapperly dressed in a burgundy V-neck sweater, open-necked violet shirt and ascot, the actor was seated at a table in the sun room off the kitchen. The Old European-styled two-story house in Palos Verdes Estates, north of Long Beach, has been home since shortly after Ebsen--a former longtime Balboa Island resident--and his wife, Dorothy, were married in 1985.

Ebsen had moved to Balboa Island in 1960, having summered there with his family for a decade. His ex-wife Nancy, whom he divorced a decade ago after 39 years of marriage, served as president of the Newport Harbor Children's Theater Guild and founded the now-defunct Newport Harbor Actors Theater, whose productions included the staging of Ebsen's play, "Mary Queen of Hearts."

Ebsen himself cropped up periodically in local newspapers, serving as the grand marshal of the Newport Harbor annual Character Boat Parade one year and as honorary chairman for the Providence Speech and Hearing Center's fund-raising campaign another year.

But mostly he worked during his Orange County years, commuting daily to Hollywood during the making of "The Beverly Hillbillies" and later, as the county grew and freeway traffic became too heavy, staying in Hollywood during the week while making "Barnaby Jones."

Like his screen persona, Ebsen is low-key, down-to-earth, gentlemanly. It's that down-home quality, grown to avuncular familiarity over the years, that has given him such a long career run.

Most recently, he had a cameo as Barnaby Jones in the "Beverly Hillbillies" movie and he just finished filming a guest shot on the new "Burke's Law" series. A few years ago he performed a one-man show in Branson, Mo., doing, as he says, "what I have done all my life: singing, dancing, jokes."

A history buff and painter who still sails the catamaran he used to win the Trans Pacific race in 1968, Ebsen said he's been writing down stories and reminiscences for years.

"I'm a scribbler," he said. "I always wrote down things that I thought were of interest. Also, my mother used to say, 'Son, one of these days you'll write a book. So remember all those interesting things that are happening to you.' "

Born in Belleville, Ill., on April 2, 1908, Ebsen is one of five children (he had four sisters). His father worked as a physical culture instructor in a German American athletic and social club and, damming up several springs on their nine acres on the outskirts of town, he created a public swimming pond and resort called the Ebsen Natatorium.

When Ebsen was 12, the family moved to Florida, where his father, who also taught dancing, opened a dance studio in Orlando.

Ebsen originally intended to become a doctor, an ambition fueled by watching one of his sisters suffer seizures from epilepsy. But after two years of premed courses, money ran out and he abandoned medicine in favor of show business.

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