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Buddy Ebsen, 95; Actor-Dancer Was Jed Clampett of 'Beverly Hillbillies'

July 08, 2003|Dennis McLellan Times Staff Writer | Times Staff Writer

Buddy Ebsen, the hoofer-turned-actor who danced with Shirley Temple in the movies but achieved his greatest success on television as the folksy Clampett family patriarch on "The Beverly Hillbillies" and the analytical private detective "Barnaby Jones," has died. He was 95.

Ebsen, whose show-business career spanned more than 70 years, died Sunday at Torrance Memorial Medical Center after being admitted late last month for an undisclosed illness. The cause of death was not announced.

After teaming with his sister Vilma in a dance act in 1930, the Ebsens headlined in vaudeville theaters and supper clubs, and performed in Broadway shows.

Brought out to Hollywood by MGM in 1935, the lanky 6-foot-3 Ebsen danced in films such as "Captain January" (with Temple) and "Broadway Melody of 1938" (with Judy Garland), and became the answer to a trivia question: Who originally played the Tin Man in "The Wizard of Oz"? After nearly dying from inhaling the aluminum dust used in his makeup during 10 days of shooting, Ebsen was replaced by Jack Haley, whose Tin Man makeup was a more actor-friendly silver paste.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 10, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 89 words Type of Material: Correction
Ebsen obituary -- The obituary of actor Buddy Ebsen in Tuesday's California section stated that he was a first lieutenant in the Coast Guard during World War II. In fact, Ebsen held the rank of lieutenant junior grade. The obituary also stated that he and his sister, Vilma, appeared in the film "Broadway Melody of 1938." Actually, they appeared in the film "Broadway Melody of 1936." The first name of actress Fanny Brice was misspelled as Fannie. The name of the Broadway show "Whoopee" was also misspelled as "Whoopie."

Although he lost his chance to appear in one of the most enduring movies of all time, Ebsen began making his name in television in 1954 playing Fess Parker's sidekick, George Russel, in Walt Disney's baby-boomer sensation, "Davy Crockett." The adventure series made the coonskin-capped Parker a star.

But it wasn't until Ebsen donned a tattered hat, a tan coat, bluejeans and a false mustache that he became a TV superstar in his own right as nouveau riche mountaineer Jed Clampett, who moved his family to the hills of Beverly.

Although dismissed by critics, "The Beverly Hillbillies" was an immediate hit, soaring to No. 1 in the ratings shortly after its 1962 debut and running for nine years on CBS. Its popularity inspired two other rural-themed sitcoms on CBS -- "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres" -- and added new words and phrases to the pop-culture lexicon, including "Cee-ment pond" and Jed's down-home catch phrase, which Ebsen signed his autographs with: "Wellll, doggies!"

In 1973, at age 65, Ebsen followed his "Beverly Hillbillies" success by starting an eight-season run as the star of "Barnaby Jones." In 1984, he returned to network television for one season on "Matt Houston," playing star Lee Horsley's detective uncle, who comes out of retirement to help his private eye nephew.

But throughout his long acting career, Ebsen remained a dancer at heart.

Well into his 90s, it took no prompting for the white-haired, gentlemanly Ebsen to break into a "shim-sham-shimmy," a simple shuffle-tap dance followed by outstretched arms and a shimmy: the traditional hoofers' hello.


Early Nickname Sticks

Born Christian Ludolf Ebsen Jr. in Belleville, Ill., on April 2, 1908, Ebsen was nicknamed Buddy early on by an aunt. His father worked as a physical culture instructor in a German athletic and social club. He dammed up several springs on their nine acres on the outskirts of town to create a public swimming pond and resort called the Ebsen Natatorium.

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

Ebsen originally planned to become a doctor, an ambition inspired after watching one of his four sisters suffer epileptic seizures. But he ran out of money after two years of premed courses at the University of Florida, and he abandoned medicine for show business.

Ebsen told The Times in 1994 that his father had taught all five of his children ballet. "Of course, at that time I resisted it because it was considered a little bit girlish to dance." He changed his mind as a teenager in the 1920s when the Charleston became the rage, and in time, he learned to tap dance.

Ebsen arrived in New York City from Florida in 1928 with only $1.65 in his pocket and another $25 tucked into a sock. Within three months, he landed a job in the chorus of Florenz Ziegfeld's "Whoopie," starring Eddie Cantor. The musical comedy ran on Broadway for a year and a half.

In the summer of 1930, Ebsen teamed with Vilma, who was performing in a small cafe in Atlantic City. Their lively dance routine, choreographed to the popular "Ain't Misbehavin'," was a smash.

Among the well-wishers in the audience who flocked to congratulate them was Walter Winchell, then the nation's most influential columnist. A one-paragraph rave in Winchell's column the next day was enough to instantly lift the dancing Ebsens from obscurity.

Now billed as Vilma and Buddy Ebsen, they were hired as featured dancers in the vaudeville revue "Broadway Stars of Tomorrow," which landed them at that mecca for vaudeville performers, the Palace Theatre.

"I was kind of gawky and tall, and it was easy to create eccentric [dance] moves," Ebsen recalled. "My sister was the pretty one and I was the funny one, and together we made a good team."

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