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Paul Henning, 93; Created 'Beverly Hillbillies,' Other Comedies for TV

March 26, 2005|Dennis McLellan | Times Staff Writer

Paul Henning, the television writer and producer who created "The Beverly Hillbillies," which became one of the biggest hits of the 1960s and spawned the popular rural-comedy spinoffs "Petticoat Junction" and "Green Acres," died Friday. He was 93.

Henning, who had a series of minor strokes in recent years, died of natural causes at Providence St. Joseph's Medical Center in Burbank, his family said.

After writing for radio's "Fibber McGee and Molly" in the late 1930s, Henning wrote for George Burns and Gracie Allen's radio and television shows. He also created, produced and wrote "The Bob Cummings Show," a popular situation comedy about a wolfish photographer; it ran from 1955 to 1959.

Inspired in part by memories of camping trips to the Ozarks as a Boy Scout, Henning came up with a fish-out-of-water idea for a series that made television history: A "poor mountaineer" unexpectedly strikes oil and moves his newly wealthy family out of a cabin in the Ozarks into a mansion in the hills of Beverly.

"The Beverly Hillbillies," starring Buddy Ebsen, Irene Ryan, Donna Douglas and Max Baer Jr., debuted on CBS in September 1962.

The series was immediately attacked by some critics, who did not take a liking to Jed, Granny, Elly May and Jethro and wanted nothing to do with the Clampetts or their "cee-ment pond."

"If television is America's vast wasteland," sniffed one critic, "the 'Hillbillies' must be Death Valley."

"The series aimed low and hit its target," wrote UPI's Rick DuBrow.

Even Henning's wife, Ruth, later conceded to a reporter that she preferred "something a little more sophisticated."

The average American TV viewer, however, took to the new show like a starving mountain man to a mess o' possum shanks.

"The Beverly Hillbillies" shot to No. 1 within three weeks of its debut. It stayed at or near No. 1 its first two seasons, according to Nielsen's yearly rankings of the top 25 shows, and continued to reside in the top 20 throughout the rest of its nine-year run.

With "The Beverly Hillbillies," Henning, a 5-foot, 5-inch former Missouri farm boy, became the biggest thing in television.

"Not since 'I Love Lucy' hit the airwaves 14 years ago has a single show so laid the industry on its ear," wrote Times TV critic Cecil Smith in 1965.

"Everybody in the business made a pass at [Henning]," James Aubrey, then president of CBS TV, told TV Guide in 1963. "And every major advertiser, too."

In response to Aubrey's request for a spinoff, Henning created "Petticoat Junction."

Set in the mythical Midwest farming community of Hooterville, "Petticoat Junction" starred "Hillbillies'" alumna Bea Benaderet as a widowed small-town hotel owner with three pretty daughters, one of whom was played by Henning's daughter, Linda Kaye Henning. The series ran from 1963 to 1970.

Henning produced and wrote or co-wrote most of the "Beverly Hillbillies" episodes. He also wrote the lyrics and music for the show's innovative theme song, "The Ballad of Jed Clampett," with music recorded by the legendary bluegrass duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs and vocals by Jerry Scoggins.

Henning, who also produced and wrote many scripts for "Petticoat Junction," would begin his 14-hour days by rising at 4 a.m. and putting in a few hours writing before heading to General Service Studios in Hollywood. He also worked weekends at home in Toluca Lake, prompting his wife to lament to TV Guide, "To see him, I practically have to make an appointment."

"I believe in the country store concept of TV," Henning told the magazine. "It means you gotta watch the store yourself."

With the success of "Hillbillies" and "Petticoat Junction," Aubrey gave Henning carte blanche for another series -- no pilot necessary.

Comedy writer Jay Sommers created "Green Acres, with the busy Henning serving as executive producer and helping cast and launch the new show.

"Green Acres," which ran from 1965 to 1971, starred Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as a successful Manhattan lawyer and his ditzy-socialite wife who leave the city and move to a farm near Hooterville.

Cast members on all three of Henning's shows made guest appearances on one another's programs.

"He called it cross-pollination," said Stephen Cox, author of the 1988 retrospective book "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Unlike some of the era's other TV moguls, Cox said, Henning "had such an incredible down-home, approachable manner that you really knew you were meeting someone from Missouri. And he didn't necessarily dress or even act like some rich producers. He was very much an Everyman throughout his life, and I think that's why people enjoyed being around him so much."

In 1996, Henning received the Paddy Chayefsky Laurel Award for Television from the Writers Guild of America, West, the guild's highest award for television writing.

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