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
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
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."