Irene Ryan, Woman Behind ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ Granny, Died On This Day in 1973

by Suzanne Halliburton

Irene Ryan, who played feisty, varmint-hunting Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies, died on this day 48 years ago.

We feel like somebody should set the table in the fancy eating room to honor the life of Daisy May Moses. Let’s eat some tasty vittles and take a swig of some of Granny’s white lightning and look back on the fabulous life of Irene Ryan. She’ll always be known as Jed Clampett’s mother-in-law on the Beverly Hillbillies.

Speaking of vittles, remember when Granny asked a Beverly Hillbillies guest:

“How do you like yer possum, Lowell, fallin’ off the bones tender or with a little fight left in it?”

We’ll pass on the fried possum, thanks. But if you like the dish, Irene Ryan wrote a cookbook called Granny’s Hillbilly Cookbook. There’s a recipe for possum. Get this. It doesn’t taste like chicken. Ryan said it was most like pork.

Long Before Beverly Hillbillies, Irene Ryan Was a Vaudeville Star

Long before TV and the Beverly Hillbillies even were possible, Irene Ryan started her acting career in vaudeville with her first husband, Tim Ryan. They did the “Dumb Dora” act. The two divorced in 1942, but Ryan kept her married name for her acting career. The two also did four movies together, post-divorce. She became part of Bob Hope’s USO Tour during World War II and she did the star’s radio show for two years.

Irene Ryan earned the role of in the Beverly Hillbillies in 1962. Here’s a fun fact. She portrayed the mother-in-law of Jed Clampett. But in real life, Ryan was only six years older than Buddy Ebsen, who played Jed. The character’s name was a nod to artist Grandma Moses, who died the year before at 101.

Originally, Beverly Hillbillies creator Paul Henning wanted to cast Bea Benaderet as Granny. But that was before Ryan auditioned and wowed everyone with her interpretation of a salty mountain woman from Missouri. Meanwhile, Benaderet was cast as Pearl Bodine, Jethro’s mamma and Granny’s nemesis.

Granny Character Appeared In Several Shows and a Movie

The character Granny appeared in several TV shows, including Mr. Ed and Petticoat Junction. Plus, she was a character in the movie Don’t Worry, We’ll Think of a Title.

On the Beverly Hillbillies, Irene Ryan was an immediate success. But, when not wearing her makeup and Granny costume, no one recognized her. She earned two Emmy nominations for best actress. And she soaked up being part of the show that almost immediately landed as the country’s top-rated series.

When the Beverly Hillbillies ended, Irene Ryan still had one dream, to be on Broadway. She was cast in the show, Pippin. Ben Vereen was the star. Ryan played Bertha. She sang No Time at All. Her performance garnered her a Tony nomination.

But sadly, Irene Ryan was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor. It was inoperable. She was 70 when she died on this date in 1973. She was the first major cast member from the Beverly Hillbillies to die. Ryan had no children and she wasn’t married when she died. So she was buried next to her sister.

All her money went to the Irene Ryan Foundation to help fund scholarships for acting students.