‘The Beverly Hillbillies’: Irene Ryan’s Arkansas Theater Experience That Made Her Ready for Show: ‘I Know Hillbilly’

by Keeli Parkey

Most television viewers know Irene Ryan for her role in “The Beverly Hillbillies.” She played Daisy Moses, who is better known as “Granny” on that beloved sitcom.

How she landed the iconic television role is a story in itself. One version of the story was told by Paul Henning during a 1997 interview with the Television Academy Foundation. Henning, who was a producer on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” passed away in 2005.

According to Henning, while casting for the now-famous sitcom was in the works, Irene Ryan happened to stop by the “Universal lot.” While she was there, Ryan paid a visit to Henning’s office. In fact, he was already familiar with the actress.

“We had used her on ‘The Dennis Day Show,’ Irene Ryan,” Henning said of the actress. “And, she came by and said, ‘Irene, do you think you could play the part of a hillbilly?”

Well, according to Henning, Irene Ryan was all in for playing the part of a hillbilly on “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

“She said, ‘Are you kidding?'” Paul Henning also recounted. “She said, ‘I was in stock company and we played a theater in Arkansas.'”

Irene Ryan of ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ Fame Had Interesting Experience While Working in Arkansas

Also, it turns out that her experience working as part of a theater group’s stock company prepared the future “The Beverly Hillbillies” star Irene Ryan for a lot.

“And she said, ‘We kept waiting for the curtain to go up. We’re backstage. Kept waiting. And, finally, the curtain didn’t go up and there was nobody in the theater, so we went out and talked to the manager,'” Henning said as he recounted Ryan’s Arkansas-based story.

As he continued to tell Irene Ryan’s story, Henning said: “We said, ‘Why don’t you you let the people in? And he said, ‘If I let them in before it’s time for the curtain to go up, they whittle away the seats.”

Also, this experience gave Irene Ryan an understanding of the type of person she would be playing on “The Beverly Hillbillies,” according to Henning.

“(Irene) said, ‘So, I know hillbillies,'” Henning recalled.

You can watch producer Paul Henning talk about “The Beverly Hillbillies” below. His comments about Irene Ryan’s theater experiences begin around the 1:45 mark of the video.

Interestingly, Irene Ryan wasn’t the only start of “The Beverly Hillbillies” who had experience working in the theater.

The show’s star was Buddy Ebsen. He played Jeb Clampett on the show. Ebsen began his career as a song and dance man. He was also joined by his sister, Vilma, on the vaudeville stage. The duo later moved on to Broadway. Next came Hollywood and roles in film and on television.