Thesp had been suffering from an unknown illness
This article was corrected on July 10, 2003.
HOLLYWOOD — Actor and musical entertainer Buddy Ebsen, who had an aborted Hollywood film career and then went on to strike oil in television with such series as “The Beverly Hillbillies” and “Barnaby Jones,” died Sunday morning at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Southern California. He was at least 95.
Ebsen, who entered intensive care last month, had been suffering from an undisclosed illness.
Unofficially blacklisted for many years by Louis B. Mayer for refusing a seven-year contract, Ebsen worked mostly onstage until the television era revived his career.
That career had started promisingly when he paired with his sister Vilma in vaudeville and nightclubs, where they were known as the poor man’s Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
That led to high-profile Broadway work and a career as a song-and-dance man in movies. But he will likely be best remembered as the star of “Beverly Hillbillies” and “Barnaby Jones,” two long-running CBS series.
“Buddy Ebsen was one of CBS’ most beloved stars,” said Leslie Moonves, CBS chairman-CEO. “He was an enormously talented actor who had the rare ability to make a difficult craft look easy, and he personified the ‘television star’ who is welcome week after week in homes all over the nation. Our community and our business are deeply saddened, and we will miss him greatly.”
Ebsen was born Christian Rudolph Ebsen Jr. in Belleville, Ill., on April 2, 1908 (the official year has always been in question and could be as early as 1904). When he was 10, his father, who owned a dance school, moved the family to Orlando, Fla.
Ebsen studied at his father’s school but intended to become a doctor; he was a pre-med student at Rollins College and the U. of Florida at Gainesville. The family fortunes went south in the late 1920s, so Ebsen left school and became a performer, moving to New York in 1928.
He was fired from the chorus of that year’s “Present Arms on Broadway” because he was too tall. He made it into the chorus of “Whoopee” with Eddie Cantor and managed to get younger sister Vilma cast as his partner. After touring in vaudeville and clubs, they landed back on Broadway in the 1932 revue “Flying Colors,” which led to “Ziegfeld Follies” in 1934. Hollywood beckoned the duo with “Broadway Melody of 1936.” But their film debut was also their last outing together. Vilma Ebsen retired from show business to marry and raise a family.
Ebsen worked steadily for MGM through the rest of the ’30s in such films as “Born to Dance,” “The Girl of the Golden West,” “Broadway Melody of 1938” and “Yellow Jack.” For Fox he appeared in “My Lucky Star” and performed the “Codfish Ball” number in Shirley Temple’s “Captain January.” Illness forced him to give up the Tin Man role in 1939’s “The Wizard of Oz”; Jack Haley took it instead.
When he turned down a $2,000-per-week, seven-year contract from Mayer, who was hoping to groom him as another Walter Huston, Ebsen found himself locked out of movie roles, except for an occasional RKO production, such as “They Met in Argentina” and “Sing Your Worries Away” in the early 1940s.
So he briefly reunited with his sister, then went east, where he was on Broadway in the musical “Yokel Boy” in 1939. He also toured in the play “The Male Animal,” to which he would return time and again, and the production “Good Night, Ladies” with comic Skeets Gallagher.
During WWII, Ebsen served in the Coast Guard on the USS Pocatello, a sub chaser in the Aleutians. He kept the crew amused with variety shows.
After the war he appeared as Frank in the 1946 Broadway revival of “Show Boat” and continued to tour in “The Male Animal.” Again he tried his hand at Hollywood, but Mayer was still ruling that roost. He auditioned for Walt Disney, one of the few executives who was not under Mayer’s sway, and his routine later was adapted to develop the art of audio-animatronic figures. During this period he wrote several songs, including “Handsome Stranger” and “Whispering Pines,” which was used in the 1951 film “Behave Yourself.”
He came close to leaving the business but worked at Republic Pictures on several Rex Allen Westerns, including “Under Mexicali Skies” and “The Rodeo King.” In 1952 he replaced Elliot Nugent on Broadway in “The Male Animal” and stayed with the show for a year. He also appeared on Leo Carrillo’s early ’50s TV variety show.
In the mid-’50s, Disney called on Ebsen to star with Fess Parker in “The Adventures of Davy Crockett,” which would make him a star. He also finally managed to get supporting roles in studio productions like “Red Garters” at Paramount and “Night People” at Fox, but it was “Davy Crockett,” on TV and in two feature films, that made him a household name. Ebsen and Parker even wrote a hit song for the series, “Be Sure You’re Right, Then Go Ahead.” Disney signed him to star in “Johnny Tremain” and to appear on “The Mickey Mouse Club” from time to time.
In addition to some war movies including “Attack” in 1956, Ebsen starred in the short-lived NBC series “Hunk Marriner” as a frontiersman. Character parts in 1961’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” and “The Interns” caught the eye of producer Paul Henning, who cast him in a new CBS series, “The Beverly Hillbillies.” The 1962 effort, in which he starred as Jed Clampett, a backwoodsman who suddenly becomes a millionaire, was panned by the critics but became the No. 1 hit on TV for the next two years, drawing as many as 60 million viewers a week. The show lasted nine years. During its run, Ebsen also starred in MGM’s 1964 pic “Mail Order Bride” and in 1967 Disney musical “The One and Only Genuine, Original Family Band.”
He wrote several plays, including “Champagne General,” in which he portrayed Abraham Lincoln, and “Honest John,” that were produced, and Ebsen worked steadily in TV and theater both during and after the run of “Hillbillies.”
Though rich enough to retire, Ebsen decided to star as the title detective in “Barnaby Jones,” which ran from 1973-80 on CBS — and he had a percentage of the show.
His last series was the short-lived “Matt Houston” in 1984.
In later life, he developed his hobby of oil painting into a thriving business, selling his self-portraits and folksy re-creations of rural life on his Web site.
And in 2001, at the age of 93, he became a novelist, publishing “Kelly’s Quest,” a romance that became a bestseller.
Ebsen invested his money wisely in several business ventures, including the Ebsen School of Dancing, run by his sister.
Ebsen is survived by his third wife, Dorothy. Ebsen was first married to Ruth Cambridge, Walter Winchell’s “Girl Friday,” and they had two daughters. The marriage ended in divorce, and he met and married his second wife, Nancy, while both were in the Coast Guard. They had four daughters and a son.
Info on services was not available.
(The Associated Press contributed to this report.)