‘The Beverly Hillbillies’: Jed Clampett Actor Nearly Had Major Role in ‘The Wizard of Oz’

by Joe Rutland

Anyone who tunes into “The Beverly Hillbillies” knows about Jed Clampett and his rich luck. Actor Buddy Ebsen almost struck it rich in movies.

Ebsen, known as quite a dancer in his younger, pre-“Hillbillies” days, actually was in line to play the Tin Man role in “The Wizard of Oz.” Yes, Ebsen was all set to be in the classic movie alongside Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, and Bert Lahr.

But Bolger, who eventually played the Scarecrow, knew that producers had lined up Ebsen for that role. He went to them and suggested he play the Scarecrow while Ebsen plays the Tin Man.

The filmmakers knew about Ebsen and his dancing style. They thought it would probably bring an added touch to a character who only wanted a heart for himself.

‘Wizard of Oz’ Makeup Proved Downfall For Buddy Ebsen

While “The Wizard of Oz” was in production, different types of makeup styles were used for all of the characters. Aluminum dust was used on Ebsen’s face and hands to give him that Tin Man-type of look.

It caused a serious physical reaction in Ebsen’s body. He talks about what was going on with the makeup in a part of his autobiography, “The Other Side of Oz.”

“One night in bed I woke up screaming,” Ebsen said. “My arms were cramping from my fingers upward and curling simultaneously so that I could not use one arm to uncurl the other.

“My wife tried to pull my arm straight with some success, just as my toes began to curl; then my feet and legs bent backward at the knees,” he said. “I panicked. What was happening to me? Next came the worst. The cramps in my arms advanced into my chest to the muscles that controlled my breathing. If this continued, I wouldn’t even be able to take a breath. I was sure I was dying.”

The health scare was too much for him to handle. Metro Goldwyn Mayer and its boss, Louis B. Mayer, replaced Ebsen with actor Jack Haley. It was a dark time in Ebsen’s career because he was in line to be a part of movie lore. Now fans all over the world have seen Garland, Bolger, Lahr, and Haley in their roles for decades.

‘Oz’ Disappointment Ultimately Leads To Jed Clampett

Well, what does Ebsen do with his career? First off, he gets back his health. Second, he leaves MGM after Mayer made a comment about wanting to “own” Ebsen, his name and everything about his career. Third, Ebsen wandered around getting bit roles until 1961 when he nabbed a role opposite Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast At Tiffany’s.”

But, you ask what about “The Beverly Hillbillies” role? Well, that came along for Ebsen in the same year as “Tiffany’s” hit the movie screens. Show creator Paul Henning, who would have a series of hits on CBS during the 1960s including “Green Acres,” gave Ebsen a screen test. By this time, the show was about to hit the airwaves in 1962, a time when TV viewers were looking for silliness and wholesome shows.

Ebsen got the role of Jed Clampett, joining actors Irene Ryan, Raymond Massey, Nancy Kulp, Donna Douglas, and Max Baer Jr. on the main cast. The show ran from 1962-1971 on CBS. The “Hillbillies” series ended when the network decided to wipe out a lot of its “rural-humor” programming. It also was a time when CBS knocked off some of its well-ranking variety shows like “The Jackie Gleason Show” and “The Red Skelton Show.”

Jed Clampett Remains Well-Known Character In Reruns

“The Beverly Hillbillies” was a consistent rating winner for CBS, finding itself among the top 20 programs for eight of its nine seasons on the air. Its opening is very recognizable, thanks to “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” theme song played by the historic country music duo Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Singer Jerry Scoggins provides the vocals for that song.

What happened after “Hillbillies” ended for Ebsen? Luckily, CBS found a private-eye series called “Barnaby Jones” that Ebsen starred in for a few seasons. Again, it became a rating hit for the network during a time in the 1970s when TV was dominated by private-eye shows like “The Rockford Files,” “Police Woman,” “The Rookies” and others.

Ebsen, though, was this close to becoming a part of movie history. He found success later on in his career thanks to the small screen. Reruns are airing all over the world of “The Beverly Hillbillies,” keeping Ebsen and his Jed Clampett character alive and well in the minds of viewers.

H/T: Cheatsheet