Not many people give up pre-med for tap dancing or get a job in a Broadway musical the first day they arrive in New York City. But Buddy Ebsen's career became one of the most successful and colorful in the entertainment industry. "His mentors were his vaudevillian parents, his inspiration was his sister and dancing partner, Vilma, and among his fans are you and I," says his old friend Bob Hope.
Today's swimmers probably know Buddy Ebsen best as the Beverly Hillbillies' Jed Clampett or TV's detective Barnaby Jones, but few know Buddy to be a former competitive swimmer.
Born in Belleville, Illinois in 1908, Buddy, the middle child with four sisters, learned to swim almost as soon as he learned to walk. His father dammed up a group of springs in the backyard, forming a pond which was soon called the Ebsen Natatorium, and he taught the inhabitants of St. Clair County how to swim. Buddy was the locker boy and later an apprentice lifeguard. Ebsen's Natatorium grew in the tradition of his German Heritage, becoming a popular high-class, daytime pleasure resort for picnicking and swimming. At only six years old, Buddy hunted bullfrogs and sailed the pond on his discarded oak diving board.
By the age of eleven, his family decided to move to Florida to help his mother's aggravated sickness. Settling first in Palm Beach, Buddy's versatile dad decided to move the family to Orlando where his teaching of dance would be year-round, not just seasonal. Buddy was an average student at Orlando High School, swimming on the swim team for four years and becoming a Florida State champion. He also played football his senior year.
It was these swimming and athletic days which helped set the stage for his athletic acting future. After a year at the University of Florida pursuing pre-med and another at Rollins College, Buddy Ebsen set sail on a career which became a fairy tale Broadway and Hollywood story. He performed with names such as Ruby Keeler and Eddie Cantor (Whoopie, Banjo On My Knee, 1937), Sid Silvers (Born To Dance, 1937), sister Vilma, Eleanor Powell and Judy Garland (Broadway Melody, 1936 & '38), Shirley Temple (Captain January, 1937) and Audrey Hepburn (Breakfast at Tiffany's, 1961).
Then it was on to Walt Disney and television. Davy Crockett was a Disney movie hit with Fess Parker playing Davy and Buddy as sidekick Georgie Russell (1954).
Perhaps it was the Crockett adventures that cast Buddy for his most famous role as TV's Jed Clampett on the Beverly Hillbillies. At 6 feet 6 inches tall, Buddy was a perfect hillbilly transplant. Who can forget the laughs with Granny, Ellie May and Jethro, who in real life was the son of world heavy weight boxing champion Max Baer?
And then there was Barnaby Jones, the milk drinking, calm and cool private investigator who, with Lee Merriweather and Mark Shera, defied all the skeptics and ran for eight seasons on prime time television.
All toll, Buddy Ebsen starred in 31 films and stage shows, 12 made-for-television movies, 5 regular television shows, and 36 television appearances. His autobiography, The Other Side of Oz, is a very candid and colorful description of this special man and his life. It talks about his harrowing experiences as the original mechanical Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, where he spent eight weeks recuperating from the aluminum makeup dust that had covered his lungs during the initial filming, costing him the part in the movie.
The fact that Buddy never quit may be a carry over from his supportive family and his formative years as a swimmer and competitor. Every day was a new ball game to him and he best describes it this way, "Of all the elements that comprise a human being, the most important, the most essential, the one that will vanquish all obstacles is - spirit."
Recipients of the Gold Medallion Award.