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Buddy Ebsen
Buddy Ebsen - USCG.jpg
Born April 2, 1908(1908-04-02)
Where Belleville, Illinois
Died July 6, 2003(2003-07-06) (aged 95)
Where Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California
Gender {{{gender}}}
Years Active 1928-2001
Roles {{{roles}}}
Parents {{{parents}}}
Spouse Ruth Cambridge
(m.1936-1942; divorced)
Nancy Wolcott
Dorothy Knott
(m.1985-2003; his death)
Birth Name Christian Rudolph Ebsen, Jr.
Occupation Actor/Dancer
First Appearance: {{{first}}}

Last Appearance: {{{last}}}

Buddy Ebsen (April 2, 1908 - July 6, 2003) was an American character actor and dancer. A performer for seven decades, he had starring roles as Jed Clampett in the long-running television series The Beverly Hillbillies and as the title character in the 1970s detective series Barnaby Jones,[1] and played Barnaby Jones in the movie version of The Beverly Hillbillies. Ebsen also played Fess Parker's sidekick in Walt Disney's Davy Crockett (TV miniseries) miniseries (1953–54) and was cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz (1939) until he fell ill due to an allergy to the makeup.


Early years[]

Ebsen was born Christian Rudolph Ebsen, Jr. in Belleville, Illinois. His father, Christian Rudolph Ebsen, Sr., was Danish and his mother, Frances, was Latvian. Ebsen was raised in Belleville until the age of 10, when his family moved to Palm Beach County, Florida. In 1920, Ebsen and his family relocated to Orlando, Florida, in 1920. Ebsen and his sisters learned to dance at a dance studio his father operated in Orlando.

Ebsen graduated from Orlando High School in 1926. Initially interested in a medical career, Ebsen attended the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida, from 1926 to 1927, and then Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, from 1927 to 1928. Family financial problems caused by the collapse of the Florida land boom forced Ebsen to leave college at age 20.

Professional career[]

Ebsen left Orlando in the summer of 1928 to try his luck as a dancer in New York, arriving with only $26.75 in his pocket, equal to $362 today, and worked at a soda fountain shop. He and his sister Vilma Ebsen performed as a dance act in supper clubs and in vaudeville — they were known as "The Baby Astaires". On Broadway, the Ebsens appeared as members of the chorus in the musicals Whoopee, Flying Colors (musical) and Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. A rave review from New York columnist Walter Winchell, who saw them perform in Atlantic City, New Jersey led to a booking at the Palace Theatre in New York City, the pinnacle of the vaudeville world.

MGM signing[]

Buddy Ebsen about 1936

In 1935, Ebsen and his sister were approached by the MGM movie studio for a screen test. They then signed a two-year contract, with a two-year option, for $1,500 a week each, equal to $25427 today. After relocating to Hollywood, the siblings made their film debuts in the 1936 film Broadway Melody of 1936. This was to be Vilma's only film — a contract problem prevented her from making other films and she soon retired from show business.

Ebsen went on to appear in numerous films, both musicals and non-musicals, including the 1936 Born to Dance, the 1936 Captain January (in which he danced with Shirley Temple), the 1938 Broadway Melody of 1938 (with Judy Garland as his dance partner), and the 1938 The Girl of the Golden West. Ebsen partnered with actresses Eleanor Powell and Frances Langford, among others, and also danced solo.

Ebsen was noted for his unusual, surreal dancing and singing style (for example, his contribution to the "Swingin' the Jinx Away" finale of Born to Dance). His abilities might have been a reason why filmmaker Walt Disney chose Ebsen to be filmed dancing in front of a grid as an aid to animating Mickey Mouse's dancing in Disney's 1929 to 1939 Silly Symphonies animated short films.

The Wizard of Oz[]

Buddy Ebsen as the Tin Man.

When Ebsen turned down studio head Louis B. Mayer's offer of an exclusive contract with MGM, Mayer warned him that he would never get a job in Hollywood again. However, despite this dispute, MGM did cast Ebsen as the Scarecrow in its 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Ebsen then swapped roles with actor Ray Bolger, who was originally cast as the Tin Man. Ebsen recorded all his songs as Tin Man, went through all the rehearsals, and started filming. However, Ebsen soon began experiencing cramps and shortness of breath, eventually leading to hospitalization. Doctors determined that Ebsen was suffering an allergic reaction to the aluminum dust used in the Tin Man makeup; Ebsen was forced to leave for health reasons.[2]

In an interview included on the 2005 DVD release of the Wizard of Oz, Ebsen recalled that the studio heads did not believe he was sick until someone tried to order him back to the set and was intercepted by an angry nurse. Ebsen was replaced by Jack Haley, with the makeup quickly changed to a paste. As noted in a documentary on the 2005 DVD, MGM did not publicize the reason for Ebsen's departure; even Haley was not told until later. Although Haley re-recorded most of Ebsen's vocals, Ebsen's Midwestern voice (as opposed to Haley's Bostonian accent), with the enunciated "r" in the word "wizard", can still be heard on the soundtrack during several reprises of the song "We're Off to See the Wizard". Ebsen's recording of the Tin Man's only solo song, If I Only Had a Heart, still exists and is included on the 2-CD Deluxe Edition of the film's soundtrack, while a still photo recreation of the sequence featuring shots of Ebsen as the Tin Man was included as an extra with all VHS and DVD releases of the film since 1989. Until his dying day, Ebsen complained of lung issues from involvement in "that damned movie."[3] Ironically, Ebsen outlived all of the major cast members of The Wizard of Oz by at least 16 years, and lived at least 10 years longer than any of them.

World War II[]

After recovering from the illness, Ebsen became embroiled in a contract dispute with MGM that left him idle for long periods. He took up sailing, eventually becoming so proficient in seamanship that he taught the subject to United States Navy officer candidates. In 1941, with the start of U.S. involvement in World War II, Ebsen applied several times for a officer's commission in the Navy, but was repeatedly turned down. Ebsen applied for a United States Coast Guard commission, was accepted, and promptly given the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. This war-time rank was one step up from the rank of Ensign, the usual rank given newly appointed naval officers in peacetime. Ebsen served as damage control officer and later as executive officer on the Coast Guard-manned Navy frigate Pocatello, which recorded weather at its “weather station” 1,500 miles west of Seattle, Washington. These patrols consisted of 30 days at sea, followed by 10 days in port at Seattle. Ebsen was honorably discharged from the Coast Guard as a lieutenant in 1946.[4]

Return to acting[]

Ebsen made his television debut on an episode of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre in 1949. This led to TV appearances in: Stars over Hollywood, Gruen Guild Playhouse, four episodes of Broadway Television Theatre, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Corky and White Shadow, the H.J. Heinz Company's Studio 57, Screen Directors Playhouse, two episodes of Climax!, The Martha Raye Show, Playhouse 90, Westinghouse Desilu Playhouse, Johnny Ringo, two episodes of Bonanza, an episode of The Andy Griffith Show, three episodes of Maverick (TV series) playing assorted homicidal villains, and 77 Sunset Strip. Ebsen received wide television exposure when he played Georgie Russell, a fictional companion to frontiersman Davy Crockett, in the wildly popular Disneyland (TV series) television miniseries Davy Crockett (TV miniseries) (1954–1955).

In the 1958-1959 season, Ebsen co-starred in the 26-episode half-hour NBC television adventure series Northwest Passage (TV series). This series was a fictionalized account of Major Robert Rogers, a colonial American fighter for the British in the French and Indian War. Ebsen played the role of Sergeant Hunk Marriner. Keith Larsen (1924–2006) played Rogers. Northwest Passage was one of the first U.S. television programs that was broadcast in color.

In 1960, Ebsen appeared in episodes of the Rawhide (TV series) and Tales of Wells Fargo tv shows, which he would reprise in episodes of both shows during 1962 in the roles of different characters. While Ebsen shared screen time with Sheb Wooley and Paul Brinegar in the earlier Rawhide (TV series) episode, he would act alongside Clint Eastwood in the second..

In 1961 to 1962, Ebsen had a recurring role as Virge Blessing in the ABC series Bus Stop (TV series). This series was a drama about travelers passing through the bus station and diner in the fictitious town of Sunrise, Colorado. Several episodes were directed by Robert Altman. Ebsen's role had been played by Arthur O'Connell in the earlier film version on which the series was loosely based. Ebsen also appeared twice as "Mr. Dave", a homeless hobo, on The Andy Griffith Show, playing opposite [ Ron Howard. Ebsen also played Jimbo in The Twilight Zone episode The Prime Mover (Season 2 - Episode 21) in 1961.

Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961)[]

Throughout the 1950s, Ebsen performed in films, mainly Westerns. One notable exception was an acclaimed role as Doc Golightly, an older, rural veterinarian deserted by his young wife, played by Audrey Hepburn, in 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's (film). This role brought Ebsen to the attention of the casting director of the CBS television sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies.

The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971)[]

From right: Ebsen and Irene Ryan, 1970

Ebsen became famous as Jed Clampett, an easygoing backwoods mountaineer who strikes oil and moves with his family to Beverly Hills, California in the long-running, fish-out-of-water CBS sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies. Aside from the top-billed Ebsen, other principal cast members included Irene Ryan as Jed's mother-in-law, Daisy Moses, also known as Granny; Max Baer, Jr. as Jed's dim-witted nephew Jethro Bodine; Donna Douglas as Jed's only child, the curvaceous, critter-loving Elly May Clampett; Raymond Bailey as Milburn Drysdale, a bank president who oversees the Clampett fortune; and Nancy Kulp as Jane Hathaway, Drysdale's secretary.

Although scorned by critics, The Beverly Hillbillies attracted as many as 60 million viewers between 1962 and 1971 and was several times the highest rated show on TV. The show also spawned similar Paul Henning produced rural sit-coms such as Green Acres and Petticoat Junction which were eventually linked together in cross-over episode arcs. The Beverly Hillbillies was still earning good ratings when it was canceled by CBS (because programmers began shunning shows that attracted a rural audience). One episode, "The Giant Jack Rabbit", was the highest rated half-hour on television to that time and remains the most watched half-hour sitcom episode.

Not all was harmony among cast members on The Beverly Hillbillies set,, especially between the politically conservative Ebsen and the more liberal Kulp. Said Douglas, "They had a different view, so they had some heated discussions about that. They would go at it for weeks." In 1984, Kulp unsuccessfully ran for the U.S. House of Representatives as a Democrat from Pennsylvania. To her dismay, Ebsen supported her Republican opponent, incumbent Representative Bud Shuster, going so far as to tape an ad for Shuster that labeled Kulp as "too liberal." Ebsen claimed she was exploiting her celebrity status and did not know the issues.

Barnaby Jones (1973-1980)[]

Ebsen returned to television in 1973 as the title character of Barnaby Jones, which proved to be his second long-running television series. Barnaby Jones was a milk-drinking detective who came out of retirement to investigate the death of his son. Critics and CBS executives ridiculed the age of the show's audience, but it lasted eight and a half seasons, and 178 episodes. When Barnaby Jones was cancelled, it was one of the last surviving 1970s detective dramas. Lee Meriwether, 1955 Miss America, played Barnaby's widowed daughter-in-law, Betty Jones. Ebsen appeared as Barnaby Jones on two other television productions as well: a 1975 episode of Cannon (TV series), and in the 1993 film, Beverly Hillbillies.

Other television credits[]

Ebsen's last regular television series was Matt Houston on ABC, starring Lee Horsley. Ebsen played Matt's uncle, Roy Houston, during the show's third season in 1984-1985.

Ebsen narrated the documentary series Disney Family Album during the 1980s on the Disney Channel and Steven Kellogg's "Paul Bunyan" on the PBS series Reading Rainbow in 1985. He made his final guest-starring appearance in 1994 on an episode of the short-lived TV series revival, Burke's Law.

Later years[]

Although generally retired from acting as he entered his 80s, he had a cameo in the 1993 film version of The Beverly Hillbillies as Barnaby Jones, with the TV theme underscoring the scene. This was Ebsent's final motion picture role. Actor Jim Varney was cast in Ebsen's role as Jed Clampett.

In 1999, Ebsen provided a voice for an episode of the Fox Entertainment program King of the Hill (the oldest person to ever star on the show). Ebsen was set to play a cameo role on the Howard Stern-produced syndicated sitcom Son of the Beach, but was forced to cancel it due to bad health.

Ebsen has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame at 1765 Vine Street, as well as a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.


Ebsen died of pneumonia at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California, on July 6, 2003, at the age of 95. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered at sea.

Personal life[]

Ebsen married Ruth Cambridge in 1936 and had two daughters, Elizabeth and Alix. The couple divorced in 1942. In 1944, Ebsen met and married Nancy Wolcott. They had five children: Susannah, Cathy, Bonnie, Kiersten, and Dustin. In 1985, the 41-year marriage ended in divorce. That same year, Ebsen met his third wife, Dorothy Knott. The couple had one child.

Ebsen had four sisters, Helga, Leslie, Norma, and Vilma Ebsen, the last a dance instructor at their father's dance studio. Almost all of Buddy's siblings lived long lives, like Buddy himself. Both of his sisters, Helga (born 1902) died in 1994 (of natural causes) and Norma (born 1904) died in 1996 (also of natural causes). Vilma died in 2007, also of natural causes.

Throughout his long life, Ebsen had many hobbies: public speaking, traveling, singing, playing guitar, golfing, spending time with his family, riding horses, swimming, gardening, fishing, sailing, painting, and building sailboats. He became a folk artist and, as an avid coin collector, co-founded the Beverly Hills Coin Club in 1987 with much younger actor Chris Aable. Ebsen's favorite leisure time activity undoubtedly was dancing. As Ebsen entered his 90s, he continued to keep active, and there were media reports that he had begun work on his first novel about a year before his death.


  • "You take a blank piece of paper and, whatever you're thinking, you write it down. I'm very satisfied if, in my mind, it increased the value of the paper. That's what writing should do. It should increase the value of the paper."
  • "You get more negative reactions than positive reactions as you go through life, and the big lesson is nobody counts you out but yourself ... I never have, I never will."
  • "'As the twig is bent, so grows the tree.' Often the values of the influences imposed on us by our mothers and fathers, our teachers and certain friends, are not realized until years later, when we, as a sailor does, look back at our wakes to determine the course we have steered that got us to where we are. Today when I look back, then look around me to see with whom I am standing, I fully realize the influence on my life that must be credited to DeMolay."[5]
  • On having written a romance novel at age 93: "There are a lot of me's."
  • When asked why he had returned to the rigors of weekly show Matt Houston at the age of 76: "I'm used to getting up at dawn and going to the studio to be with my pals on the set. It's my lifestyle and I wouldn't trade it for any other."
  • On being a best-selling author: "Writing fiction, there are no limits to what you write as long as it increases the value of the paper you are writing on."[6]
  • In 1965, about his stage performances: "I probably enjoyed show business most when I was doing plays like The Male Animal and Good Night, Ladies, when people would lay down their money and laugh and you'd see them walk out happy. By God, I'd feel honest. I could go home with a good taste in my mouth. You'd feel better, you'd feel more alive and like you were justifying your existence."[7]
  • Of The Beverly Hillbillies: "The one flaw in this is that you can't hear the people laughing."[7]
  • "In the future, it won't matter what you have but what you can do. And that future is coming up awfully fast."


  1. McLellan, Dennis (July 8, 2003). "Buddy Ebsen, 95; Actor-Dancer Was Jed Clampett of 'Beverly Hillbillies'". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 2010-10-06. 
  3. Cox, Stephen (1988, rev. 2003). The Beverly Hillbillies: A Fortieth Anniversary Wing Ding. Cumberland House Publishing; Rev Exp edition. ISBN 1-58182-302-9.
  4. Stars in Blue, James E. Wise, Jr and Anne Collier Rehill, Naval Institute Press, 1997, p. 159, ISBN 1-55750-937-9
  5. "DeMolay International website". Retrieved 2010-06-10. 
  6. "Buddy Ebsen Quotes". Retrieved 2008-06-10. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 "Buddy Ebsen, of 'The Beverly Hillbillies,' Is Dead at 95". New York Times. July 8, 2003. Retrieved 2008-06-10. 

External links[]

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