April 24, 2015 by smumcounty
The Know Your Character Actor series on this blog, in the past, has documented the careers and lives of many actors who most people wouldn’t be familiar with unless they were ardent classic film lovers. But that was the point. I wanted to raise awareness of these too often unsung heroes of classic film. But this post sings the praises of an actor who will be familiar to many of you from his later work on two successful television series of the 60’s and 70’s. Few of you, however, are likely familiar with Buddy Ebsen’s film work from the 30’s when he was a successful dancer and character actor.
Born Christian Ludolf Ebsen, Jr. on April 2, 1908 in Belleville, Illinois, Buddy’s family moved to Orlando, Florida in 1920 where his father became the manager of a dance studio and it was in this dance studio that Buddy learned to dance. Initially after graduating high school in 1926, he attended college with the intention of entering into a career in medicine, but family financial troubles soon after put an end to those dreams and he was forced to drop out of college. In search of a career, he moved to New York City in 1928 in order to try his luck as a dancer. Initially he found work at a soda fountain but later he formed a dance act with his sister Vilma, who had also become a proficient hoofer, and they performed in supper clubs and on the vaudeville circuit taking the name The Baby Astaires after the more famous sibling duo of Fred and Adele Astaire. This eventually led to stints for him and his sister in the chorus of Broadway shows “Whoopee” and “The Ziegfeld Follies of 1934”. A rave review from influential columnist Walter Winchell, who saw them perform in Atlantic City, led to a stint at the Palace Theatre in New York City, the height of the vaudeville circuit.
At this point, Hollywood took notice of the duo and soon came calling. MGM gave them a screen test in 1935 and Buddy and Vilma were signed to a two year contract. Their film debut came in “Broadway Melody of 1936” (1936) starring Eleanor Powell and Robert Taylor, in which they danced and sang together in the charming “Sing Before Breakfast” number. That was Vilma’s last film, however. Contract problems prevented her from making any further films and she retired from show business soon after. Buddy went on to appear in a number of musicals in the following two years including another Eleanor Powell vehicle, “Born to Dance” (1936), in which he has a memorable part in the epic “Swingin’ the Jinx Away” number which concludes the film. Also in 1936, he got a chance to dance with America’s sweetheart, Shirley Temple, in “Captain January” and the following year he danced with another American sweetheart, Judy Garland, in “Broadway Melody of 1938”.
After these musicals he appeared in a number of supporting roles as strictly a character actor. In “Yellow Jack” (1938), he was cast as a member of the U.S. Army Medical Corps who volunteers as a test subject during Walter Reed’s attempt to eliminate yellow fever in Cuba. In 1938, he appeared in the Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy musical “Girl of the Golden West” in which he neither sings nor dances. Then in “Four Girls in White” (1939), a light comedy/drama about a training school for nurses, he played the love interest of nurse trainee Una Merkel
In those films in which he danced, he made full use of his long arms and legs, giving new meaning to the terms gangly and loose jointed. It was Buddy’s dancing style that Walt Disney chose to emulate when he presented a dancing Mickey Mouse in the “Silly Symphonies” shorts, filming Buddy in front of a grid as an aid to the animators. As a character actor, Buddy invariably played a down home country bumpkin with a drawl, not unlike the character he would make famous years later on television in “The Beverly Hillbillies”.
In 1939, Buddy refused to renew his contract with MGM, causing Louis B. Mayer to swear he would never work in Hollywood again. That didn’t stop Mayer, however, from hiring him to perform as the Scarecrow in MGM’s production of “The Wizard of Oz” in 1939. In what would turn out to be an unfortunate decision, Buddy switched parts with Ray Bolger who was originally hired to play the Tin Man. Unfortunate, because Buddy had an allergic reaction after inhaling the aluminum dust that was used for the Tin Man makeup, causing him to have to bow out of the production after he became sick and was hospitalized. The role was then given to Jack Haley after the makeup was changed to a safer aluminum paste. For the rest of his life, Buddy would complain of lung problems which he attributed to the illness he suffered during the filming of “The Wizard of Oz”. Though all of his scenes were re-shot with Jack Haley, this was after Buddy had completed recording all of his songs for the Tin Man and his rendition of “If I Only Had a Heart” can be found on the two CD deluxe edition of the film’s soundtrack.
After his illness, Buddy became involved in a contract dispute with MGM that left him without work for long stretches of time. He took up sailing during this period and became very proficient, developing a love of sailing that would last his entire life. With the country’s entry into World War II in 1941, Buddy applied for an officer’s commission in the Navy but was turned down. He then applied to the Coast Guard and was awarded a commission with the rank of Lieutenant, Junior Grade. During the war he served as executive officer on the Coast Guard manned Navy frigate USS Pocatello which recorded weather 1500 miles west of Seattle, Washington.
After being honorably discharged in 1946, Buddy returned to acting, making his TV debut on “The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre” in 1949. He then made appearances in a large number of television shows for the next 20 odd years most notably playing the companion to Davy Crockett in the Disneyland television series “Davy Crockett” from 1954 to 1955 and as a recurring character in “Northwest Passage” a half hour adventure on NBC from 1958 to 1959. He never fully left film work during this period, appearing in many small roles during the 50’s, particularly in westerns. He had a notable role in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” (1961) where he appeared as Doc Golightly, Audrey Hepburn’s abandoned husband.
The appearance in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” led to his being cast as Jed Clampett on “The Beverly Hillbillies” which aired from 1962 to 1971 and the rest is television history. This story of an Appalachian family made rich by the discovery of oil on their property who move to Beverly Hills was a classic fish out of water story and became wildly successful, repeatedly topping the television rating charts during its run. After the Hillbillies ended, he moved from comedy to drama when he appeared as “Barnaby Jones”, one of the many detective series that were so popular during the 70’s. This story of a milk drinking detective who comes out of retirement in order to investigate the death of his son was another hit for Buddy running for 8½ seasons from 1973 to 1980.
Buddy made some television appearances after the end of “Barnaby Jones”, but he generally retired from acting as he entered his eighth decade. His final part was in the film version of “The Beverly Hillbillies” (1993) in which he reprised his role, not as Jed Clampett, but rather as Barnaby Jones. Buddy died of pneumonia in Torrance, California in 2003 at the age of 95.
Buddy and Shirley Temple in “Captain January”:
Buddy, Eleanor Powell, Jimmy Stewart, and Una Merkel in “Born to Dance”:
Buddy and Judy Garland in “Broadway Melody of 1938”:
Buddy sings “If I Only Had a Heart”: