‘Beverly Hillbillies’: When and How Did Jed Clampett Actor Buddy Ebsen Die?

by Joe Rutland

From movies to television, “The Beverly Hillbillies” star Buddy Ebsen had quite a life. He remained a star even up to his death.

Ebsen died on July 6, 2003, at 95 years old. He died of respiratory failure at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, Calif. Just a month earlier, according to a CBS News story, Ebsen had been admitted to the hospital for an undisclosed illness.

“The Beverly Hillbillies” does get top billing when talking about Ebsen. From 1962-71, he played Jed Clampett, an Ozarks mountain hillbilly who struck it rich. Jed was outside shooting at an animal. But what he hit was “black gold, Texas tea” as the show’s theme song said.

‘Beverly Hillbillies’ Star Also Played Private Eye ‘Barnaby Jones’

That oil money made him and his family rich, so off they moved to Beverly Hills, Calif. “The Beverly Hillbillies” was among the Top 20 TV shows for eight of its nine seasons. In fact, it even reached the epic No. 1 spot in the Nielsen ratings throughout its run on CBS.

Yet Ebsen also starred in another CBS series, this time as a private eye in “Barnaby Jones.” That show ran from 1973-80, then Ebsen didn’t appear in another regular TV series.

In the 1930s, Ebsen and his sister Vilma were dancers on Broadway and MGM musicals. She retired, but Ebsen kept working and found himself dancing with Shirley Temple. Then, he became a dramatic actor.

But the clock has to be turned back to “The Wizard of Oz.” Originally, “The Beverly Hillbillies” star was supposed to be the “Tin Man” and play opposite Judy Garland, Bert Lahr, and Ray Bolger. Ebsen and Bolger were a couple of old-time hoofers from the stage world, too. Yet the potential role of a lifetime turned nearly deadly for Ebsen.

‘The Wizard of Oz’ Disaster That Almost Killed Ebsen

Part of his makeup happened to be in aluminum. Real aluminum that would give his face that “Tin Man” look. But Ebsen became seriously allergic to it, causing him to nearly die from that makeup. It sent him to an oxygen tent and found him unable to move his body. MGM, the studio, didn’t believe Ebsen was truly ill at all. So Ebsen was out of “The Wizard of Oz” and replaced by Jack Haley.

“The Beverly Hillbilies” star recovered from his illness and, after serving in the United States Coast Guard, continued his career. He appeared in numerous live television shows like “Playhouse 90” and “Screen Directors Playhouse.” Ebsen had guest-star roles on TV shows like “Rawhide,” “The Andy Griffith Show,” and “The Twilight Zone.”

In 1961, Ebsen played Doc Golightly opposite Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.” One year later, show creator Paul Henning met Ebsen and offered him the lead role of Jed Clampett.

He played that role and remained a fixture for classic TV fans even after his death.