Guest Commentary: The Elegant Rube

Jul 14, 2003  •  Post A Comment

Wellllllllll, doggies! Uncle Jed has left us-and with Buddy Ebsen goes one of the most underrated television character actors of all time.
Rural humor has rarely been appreciated in broadcast history. Madison Avenue hates it. Particularly since 1971, if sitcoms or dramas were not urban, topical, gritty, dysfunctional, sexual or profanity-laden, they were and still are treated as a stench infiltrating the noses of critics, network suits and anyone without an appreciation of the folklore of the South.
Buddy Ebsen was never nominated for an Emmy. Neither was Andy Griffith (until his role in the miniseries “Washington: Behind Closed Doors”). Neither was Edgar Buchanan. Neither was Lorne Greene. Neither was Eddie Albert. Walter Brennan was nominated but never won. If you were the lead performer on any rural-oriented series, never mind if you were a dynamite actor, forget receiving any recognition-except from the millions of people who loved you.
By the time Ebsen hooked on as Fess Parker’s sidekick in the Walt Disney miniseries “Davy Crockett” in the 1950s, he had already scored a home run in television. A short-lived failure in the NBC series “Northwest Passage” did not kill his chances for the biggest role of his career.
“The Beverly Hillbillies” is one of the few series that can trigger the memory of viewers as to where they were on the Wednesday night of its 1962 premiere. Within five weeks, “Hillbillies” was television’s No. 1 show and remained so for two seasons.
For nine years, the Clampetts outfoxed, outmaneuvered and outpossumed the city slickers of Beverly Hills, Calif. By the time the ’70s arrived and some of the plots stretched into women’s liberation and college protests, things were pretty lame. Those first five years, on the other hand, were and still are drop-dead funny.
Paul Henning gave Ebsen the character of a lifetime. Henning cut his teeth as a writer on “The Burns and Allen Show” and “The Bob Cummings Show.” The logic of Henning’s Clampetts was of the same collective mold as Gracie Allen. Gracie may have left everyone else confused, but her logic always made perfect sense to her. Same with the Clampetts. Gracie’s humor, by order of George Burns, was never to lampoon or embarrass her. That’s how Paul Henning learned. Consider this: The Clampetts were never embarrassed.
Every rural sitcom had to have a strong lead who could underplay to a broadly drawn set of supporting characters. Andy Griffith realized after the first half-season the need to tone down his extreme drawl in contrast to the frenetic character of Barney Fife.
As Jed Clampett, Buddy Ebsen was an unselfish actor. “The Beverly Hillbillies” became Irene Ryan’s show and occasionally Max Baer Jr.’s. Had Ebsen not played Jed as the more understated and rational of the transplanted Arkansans, we would have worn tired of them well before nine years of weekly visits. He had to subordinate his ego as the first-billed star of the show to play to the strengths of the series. This was “ensemble acting” well before a critic gave the label to “The Mary Tyler Moore Show.”
Actors such as Ebsen, Griffith, Greene and Bea Benaderet were never rewarded for much the same reason Bill Cullen was perpetually ignored in the game show genre: They were too good at making others look good to gain the appreciation of award committees.
When Ebsen returned as “Barnaby Jones” 16 months after the end of “Hillbillies,” he fooled everyone. Viewers simply felt as comfortable with him as with turkey and cranberry sauce on holidays. “Barnaby Jones” lasted 81/2 seasons and eventually became a top 20 show. Ebsen was playing Jed Clampett in a business suit.
The critics never embraced his work. Only the legions of viewers loved him. Four “Hillbillies” episodes from the 1963-64 season remain among the 50 most-watched single episodes in TV history. Between 1962 and 1982, Ebsen appeared on more episodes of prime-time CBS series than any other performer.
Uncle Jed will still be using the cue sticks as pot-passers at the fancy eatin’ table on Thanksgiving Day. He’ll be whittlin’ outside the front door while ol’ Duke takes another snooze. He’ll still be listenin’ for that music that always means somebody’s at the front door. He’ll be waitin’ at the table for Granny’s deviled hawk eggs, grits and gopher gravy. He’ll still be sayin’ about Jethro: “One of these days, I’ve gotta have a looooooong talk with that boy!” He’ll be forever with us in that priceless commodity-reruns.
The word “legend” is as much a cliche today as the standing ovation. Buddy Ebsen does not fit that cliche. He is indeed a television legend-even if the only people who recognize it are those of us who watched him week after week.
Steve Beverly is a professor of broadcasting at Union University in Jackson, Tenn.