‘Beverly Hillbillies’: Granny Actor Irene Ryan’s Impact Can Be Felt Today with her Kennedy Center Scholarship

by Suzanne Halliburton
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Irene Ryan always will be a part of our pop culture. No one can forget Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies. And students still are benefitting.

It was a classic series of the 1960s, a show about a family of hillbillies who discovered black gold on their land and moved to Beverly Hills, the city of excess, to enjoy their riches.

Ryan was the varmint-hunting mother-in-law of Jed Clampett, grandmother of Elly May and great aunt of Jethro Bodine. She was a terrific hostess. Granny would fry up some possum and serve it in the fancy-eating room at the mansion. But you couldn’t cross Granny. That’s because she could handle a shotgun as easily as she could tip some white lightning.

And if you weren’t convinced that Granny wasn’t a vital part of our culture, consider that the creators of The Beverly Hillbillies named the character to honor Grandma Moses.

Ryan Realized Broadway Dreams in 1972

She realized another career goal, post-Beverly Hillbillies. In 1972, she was on Broadway in the show Pippin. She sang “No Time at All” and was nominated for a Tony. But Ryan didn’t live long enough to enjoy an extended run on Broadway. She was diagnosed with a malignant, inoperable brain tumor and died in 1973.

Ryan was the first major cast member of the Beverly Hillbillies to die. And had no husband or children and really no one to leave the money she earned as an actress.

But her Irene Ryan Foundation, which was set up in 1972 as a non-profit 501(c)(3) before she died, funds scholarships for acting students in college. The scholarship is part of the Kennedy Center American College Theater Festival. And all these years later, students get a boost thanks to the star of the Beverly Hillbillies.

Each year, there are two national and 16 regional winners. The regional winners earn a $500 prize, while the national winners receive awards of $5,000 and $2,500. The regional winners are invited each spring to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

Long Before Beverly Hillbillies, Ryan Was Vaudeville Star

Irene Ryan was a long-time multi-layered actress when she won the role on the Beverly Hillbillies.

She started her acting career in vaudeville with her first husband, Tim Ryan. They were famous for their “Dumb Dora” act. Although the two divorced in 1942, Ryan kept her married name as her stage moniker for the rest of her acting career. The two also did four movies together after the divorce. Ryan joined Bob Hope’s USO Tour during World War II. And she stuck with Hope’s radio show for two years after the war.

In 1946, Ryan remarried, this time to Harold Knox. They were married right up until the Beverly Hillbillies, divorcing in 1961. But like her previous marriage, she had no children.

Ryan appeared in her first sitcom in January, 1955 when she guest-starred on The Danny Thomas Show. She also guest-starred in several other series, including The Real McCoys and My Three Sons.

Then, she became Granny on the Beverly Hillbillies. At age 60, she finally got her star turn in acting.

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