Los Angeles pet lovers.
By Lori Golden
Only two years ago, at the age of 93, Buddy published his first novel, Kelly’s Quest, which reached #3 on the Los Angeles Times paperback best-seller list. “There are a lot of me’s,” he was quoted as saying at the time. And he’s NOT kidding! He’s a vaudevillian; he’s a song writer. He’s a singer; he’s a playwright. He’s a dancer; he’s an author. He’s an actor; he’s a painter. He’s truly an American legend.
In the late 20’s Buddy Ebsen began his career as a chorus dancer on Broadway. In the 30’s he formed a vaudeville act with his sister Vilma, performing throughout the country and eventually landing in Hollywood. He starred in a few MGM films, danced with Judy Garland in Broadway Melody of 1938 and with Shirley Temple in Captain January. And he was offered the role of the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. What’s that, you say?
“I was scheduled to play the Scarecrow,” he recalls. “Then one day Ray Bolger walked on the set with his agent. I said, ‘there goes my part!’ I had seen Bolger do the Scarecrow dance in vaudeville, and he did it perfectly. So they switched me from the Scarecrow to the Tin Man. But it almost killed me.”
The aluminum dust used in Buddy’s makeup caused an allergic reaction in his lungs that left him scarcely able to breathe, and he ended up spending two weeks in the hospital and another month recuperating in San Diego. Meanwhile, Jack Haley was cast as the Tin Man and the rest, as they say, is history. However, Buddy’s voice can still be heard on the soundtrack, when the quartet of Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Cowardly Lion sings We’re Off To See the Wizard. And for a real treat, you can see a fantastic film montage of some of Buddy’s greatest moments at www.unclejedcountry.com that begins with a rare photo of Buddy as the Tin Man singing If I Only Had A Heart.
In the 40’s Buddy struggled a bit, landing a few movies here and there, and then in the 50’s he got the role of Georgie Russell, the sidekick of Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. Davy Crockett aired on television as part ofDisneyland, but it inspired one of the biggest fads of the decade. Within months millions of dollars worth of coonskin caps, rifles, fringed jackets and bubble gum cards were sold, and its theme song was a Top 20 hit an unprecedented 4 times in 1955, performed by 4 different singers.
Years later, Buddy was in the car with his wife Dorothy, who was driving, when they were stopped by a cop. “He went through the whole routine,” Buddy remembers, “ready to write her a ticket. Then he stuck his head in the window, looked at me and said, “Georgie Russell!” That’s the only time that a cop has let either me or my wife off by not giving us a ticket. This was many years after Davy Crockettaired on TV. I had a very fine experience playing the part of the sidekick of Fess Parker; and he’s a dear friend of mine today.”
Buddy kicked off the ‘60’s co-starring with Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast At Tiffany’s. Then, while contemplating retirement, he received a script for a TV pilot that would change his fortunes forever.
“When I first read the script of The Beverly Hillbillies,” Buddy says, “I was sitting on the beach in front of my home. I laughed so hard and so long people passing by thought I was crazy.”
In his autobiography, The Other Side of Oz, (Donavan Publishing, 1993) Buddy wrote about his decision to become Jed Clampett: “If Jed could always control the money, he’d never get lost. And that is the deal I made with Paul (Henning, the creator.) Jed was in charge of the riches. Always. He was the patriarch, the strong yet sentimental leader of the clan.”
In its first season, (1962) The Beverly Hillbillies became the most popular show on TV, a fete repeated in its second season. For 9 years Buddy Ebsen molded the character of Uncle Jed Clampett, so much so, that it became the inspiration for a whole other artistic outlet for this gigantic talent. (More about that in a moment.)
Buddy’s acting career continued to flourish in the 70’s with his new TV series Barnaby Jones, which lasted 6 years; and then there were the couple of years he spent in the 80’s playing Matt Houston’s dad on that eponymous series.
Starting from when he was just a young lad Buddy says “I’ve been knee deep in animals most of my life.” He claims “the most articulate dog I had was a wirehaired terrier named Hobo. I was in a show in which I was to play a scene with a dog. So they hired this dog. He was supposed to come out on the stage, and at the proper cue he was to put his paws up on me and lick my ear. But at that point someone whistled from the audience, and Hobo’s attention was diverted to the whistler, so they ended up writing the dog out of the show. I bought him for $300 dollars and he was my pal for many years.”
Animals were a part of many of the projects in which Buddy was involved. From the horses he had to ride to the myriad of ‘critters’ that appeared on The Beverly Hillbillies. “We had a variety of animals on the show and it really was like working at the circus, only more so, because they were very close to you. On one occasion I played a scene with an ostrich named Miriam. I had big blue eyes and they used to feed the ostrich big blue grapes. So here we were, playing a close up and the ostrich was eyeing… my eyes. I was wondering when I would lose one, because an ostrich kind of dives into what it eats. So I had this drama of playing a scene and, knowing Miriam’s appetite… having witnessed Miriam eating these big blue grapes, I was worried!”
“I played a lot of scenes with Duke, (his faithful bloodhound sidekick) as well as with the other critters, as we called them. Paul Henning, who wrote the show, had exotic ideas of using the critters and he would say to Frank Inn, the trainer- “I’d like the chimp to ride the big dog into the scene with a pigeon sitting on his shoulder.” Something like that. And he did it! Paul paid a lot of attention to what the trainer had to say about the scenes.”
Buddy had soaked up all those scenes involving good ole’ Duke and the Hillbilly critters, and in 1998 he began making pen and ink doodles of Duke and Uncle Jed. With encouragement from his wife Dorothy, an accomplished artist in her own right, Buddy started working with oils and soon began selling his landscapes, seascapes and self-portraits. Eventually he lightened up his style which resulted in his new career as a folk artist… and led to the creation of Uncle Jed Country.
Uncle Jed Country depicts various rural scenes with Buddy’s alter ego, Uncle Jed Clampett, his faithful sidekick Duke and his mascot Red, a cardinal. Of his creations Buddy says, “they make you smile, and smiling is healthy. They evoke memories of happy times, warm friendships and humor. I’ve painted a lot of other things, mostly landscapes and seascapes, and a couple of self-portraits, but “the Hillbillies” wiped everything else out. It’s a series of nine paintings at the moment. We were going to do a tenth painting in which Uncle Jed plays the saxophone, but it’s on hold right now. There’s still a possibility that it will happen.”
The series “gave me a scope of a subject to paint that I could try to make amusing,” he continues. All the animals are friends of Uncle Jed. But I consider them all my friends. Whenever I can paint something amusing that I recollect, I’ve done it. Jed Clampett survives in the minds of the people that still get their laughs from him today. And because I’m partial to red birds, I always put one in every painting I’ve done. It’s sort of a good luck piece that’s become an integral character in what I’ve created.”
Uncle Jed Country is also the name of the first of this series of paintings, and the one that is Buddy’s favorite. “It shows the shack where he lived. He called it his castle, with animals all over it, crawling on the roof. And with fish jumping into the boat. It sort of reminds people of the good things and the things they laughed about in the series.”
All of these paintings can be seen and purchased online. Presented by The Art Show Gallery at www.unclejedcountry.com, you can leisurely examine each piece in a virtual tour, and in some cases, listen to Buddy’s own description of the painting while viewing each section of it close up. Each of the lithographic reproductions are signed by Buddy Ebsen and come in two versions, reproduced on quality heavy stock paper or canvas-- mounted and framed, ready to hang in your home. Each piece also comes with a certificate of authenticity. And because Buddy and Dorothy Ebsen are such huge animal lovers, they have decided that a portion of the sales from each print sold will be donated to animal rescue organizations.
Buddy Ebsen still dances a little. He loves to play the saxophone. He paints. And he’s working on his third book. So what’s his secret? “Use it or lose it!”
In the words of Jed Clampett, “Wellll, Doggies!”
Happy 95th birthday, Buddy Ebsen. As Bob Hope used to sing, “Thanks for the Memories!”
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