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Actor Buddy Ebsen dies at 95

July 7, 2003 at 2:16 PM   |   Comments

LOS ANGELES, July 7 (UPI) -- Buddy Ebsen, the lanky vaudeville and Broadway dancer who gained fame as a Hollywood actor in "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Barnaby Jones" and Disney's "Davy Crockett" movies, died Sunday at Torrance Memorial Medical Center. He was 95.

Hospital officials said Ebsen died Sunday morning. He had been admitted in June for treatment of an undisclosed illness.

Ebsen enjoyed a long and diverse career in Hollywood, breaking in as a dancer in the 1935 musical "Broadway Melody of 1936." He became a major star in the 1950s when Walt Disney cast him as George Russel opposite Fess Parker's Davy Crockett in "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier" and "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates."

The pictures proved immensely popular, launching a Davy Crockett craze that included a hit record -- "The Ballad of Davy Crockett" -- and merchandising of coonskin caps, lunch boxes and trading cards, among other items.

In 1962 -- heading a cast that also featured Irene Ryan, Max Baer Jr. and Donna Douglas -- Ebsen created an American TV icon, Jed Clampett, the patriarch in "The Beverly Hillbillies." The series ran for nine season on CBS, and was still drawing strong ratings when the network canceled it in 1971 -- as part of a move away from its reliance on rural comedies that critics contended were beneath the so-called "Tiffany network."

Ebsen rebounded in 1973 as "Barnaby Jones," the private detective who comes out of retirement to solve the murder of his private eye son. The series ran for seven seasons on CBS.

Born Christian Rudolph Ebsen April 2, 1908, in Belleville, Ill., Ebsen was reared in Orlando, Fla., where his father ran a dancing school. After spurning dancing lessons as "sissy stuff," he pursued a career in medicine at the University of Florida.

As the Great Depression approached, Ebsen's family suffered financial setbacks and he left school -- heading for New York to try his hand as a dancer on Broadway. At 6 feet 3 inches, Ebsen was frequently considered too tall for the chorus, but he found work in the chorus of Eddie Cantor's 1928 Broadway hit "Whoopee."

He summoned his sister Vilma to New York and they put together a dance team that played the vaudeville circuit and a number of Broadway shows including the "Ziegfeld Follies."

After the team appeared as featured dancers in "Broadway Melody of 1936," Vilma left the act and Ebsen became a "single," co-starring in scores of movie musicals. One of his famous and popular appearances was with Shirley Temple in "Captain January" (1936).

An allergy to aluminum paint cost Ebsen the chance to become one of the most enduring characters in the history of movie musicals in "The Wizard of Oz." He was cast as the Tin Man, but had to leave the project after less than two weeks of filming because the makeup made him sick.

Jack Haley replaced Ebsen in the cast, but Ebsen said later that he was pretty sure he is in the movie in long shots of the Tin Man -- because shooting in color was an expensive proposition, and he doubted that MGM would have re-shot scenes in which he would have been indistinguishable from Haley.

When movie musicals lost their popularity, Ebsen's career began to decline. Even the popularity of the "Davy Crockett" pictures began to wane.

Ebsen appeared in such movies as "Attack" (1956) and "Breakfast at Tiffany's" (1961). He also starred for one season in the 1958 TV series "Northwest Passage," and guest-starred in many of the top TV series of the time -- including "The Andy Griffith Show," "Bonanza," "Gunsmoke," "Hawaii Five-O," "Maverick," "Rawhide," and "The Twilight Zone."

About the time he was offered the role of the seedy old Jed Clampett in the "Hillbillies," Ebsen was rumored to be thinking of abandoning acting to go into real estate. But almost overnight he found himself a big star on television's top rated series.

He often defended the show against critics' charges it was lowbrow.

"We've got a wholesome show," he said. "Its basic concept is to entertain."

Ebsen acted infrequently after "Barnaby Jones" was canceled in 1980. He appeared as Jones in the 1993 feature film version of "The Beverly Hillbillies," and guest-starred on the Fox-TV animated comedy "King of the Hill" in 1999.

As a writer, Ebsen turned out the musicals "Turn to the Right" and "Champagne Dada," and the play "The Champagne General." In 2001, Ebsen turned to writing fiction, with "Kelly's Quest" -- an e-published detective novel. He also wrote a memoir, "The Other Side of Oz," in 1994.

Ebsen and his second wife, Nancy, lived at Newport Beach on the Pacific Ocean south of Los Angeles where his favorite pastime was sailing their 36-foot yacht "Turquoise."

Ebsen had two daughters by his first marriage to Ruth Cabridge, Walter Winchell's original "Girl Friday." He married his second wife while both were serving in the Coast Guard during World War II. They had five children.

© 2003 United Press International, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Any reproduction, republication, redistribution and/or modification of any UPI content is expressly prohibited without UPI's prior written consent.
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