Between are the actors, skills as performers, and lucky to appear in films and television across seven decades. From dancing up there on the big screen during the Great Depression to voicing a character on King of the hill at the end of the 20th century. Buddy Ebsen built a staggering career that few can compete with.
The man was a legend, but not every chapter of his life was full of joys and successes. Just like virtually everyone else in Hollywood, Ebsen learns the ropes by enrolling himself into the school of hard knocks.
Towards the end of his tenure in show business, Ebsen stars in two successful television series. The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones stay on the air for nine and eighth seasons, respectively. It’s wild to think that this Orlando native almost becomes a doctor instead of pursuing his dream of acting.
In this video, we’ll celebrate this artist by looking at the ups and downs of his life and career. So, without further delay, let’s get down to it.
Ebsen’s Early Life And Career
Buddy was the middle child with four sisters. He was born Christian Ludolf Ebsen Jr. on April 2, 1908, in Belleville, Illinois. His father, Christian Ludolf Ebsen Sr, was a Danish choreographer who owned a dance studio and advocated for physical fitness. Eventually, he opened up a natatorium for the local school district. Buddy’s mother, Frances, was a Baltic German painter.
Ebsen grows up in the Belleville area until the age of 10. Then his family packs up their belongings and moves to Palm Beach County, Florida. A few years later in 1920, Ebsen’s family once again moved over to Orlando, Florida. There Buddy and his sisters learned to dance in a studio that his father operated there.
While he’s attending high school, Buddy is a member of the John M, Cheney chapter of the Order of DeMolay. His involvement as a teenager leads to him recognizes by DeMolay in his adulting with the Legion of Honor Degree. Later on, he inducts into the DeMolay Alumni Hall of Fame.
Ebsen finished up high school graduating from Orlando High School in 1926. At first, he intended on pursuing a career in the medical field. He attends college at the University of Florida in Gainesville, Florida. From 1926 to 1927 before transferring to Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He continued his education there from 1927 to 1928. His family’s financial peril resulting from the collapse of the Florida land forces him to leave college at 20.
Ebsen ventures out of Orlando in the summer of 1928 trying as a dancer in New York City. He embarks on that journey with $26 in his pocket and finds work at a soda fountain shop. Buddy’s sister Vilma Ebsen performed with him as a dance act in dinner clubs and in vaudeville. They are famous as ‘The Baby Astaires’.
On Broadway, the Ebsen siblings appeared in the musicals Whoopee, Flying Colors, and Ziegfield Follies. He receives a glowing review from a New York Columnist, Walter Winchell, during one of their shows in Atlantic City. The Baby Astaires reserve at the prestigious Palace Theatre in New York City.
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And don’t go anywhere just yet. Stick around to discover how Buddy Ebsen transitioned from doing musicals and song-and-dance routines to becoming one of the most recognizable faces on the television screen.
Signed By MGM
In 1935, Ebsen and his sister approach a talent scout for Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer for a screen test. After that went well, they ended up signing a two-year contract with the studio. Complete with a two-year option for $1,500 a week – which at the time was a great deal of money.
After moving out to Hollywood, the brother and sister team made their film debut in the 1935 film Broadway Melody of 1936. Unfortunately, this would be the only film that Vilma would appear in. A contractural problem put a stop to her starring in other films and as such, she promptly dropped out of show business.
Buddy, on the other hand, went on to land roles in a handful of other films, both musicals, and non-musicals, including the 1936 hit films Born to Dance and Captain January. The latter of which allowed him to dance with Shirley Temple. He went on to star in Broadway Melody of 1938 with Judy Garland and The Girl of the Golden West. Around this time, Buddy got the opportunity to be dance partners with actresses Eleanor Powell and Frances Langford.
Ebsen became known for his unusual and markedly surreal singing and dancing style. A good example of this was his performance in the ‘Swingin’ the Jinx Away‘ finale of Born to Dance. His unique abilities are probably what prompt the then-burgeoning filmmaker Walt Disney to choose him to film dancing in front of a grid as an aid to animating Mickey Mouses’ dance moves in Disney’s 1929 to 1939 Silly Symphonies series of animated shorts.
The Wizard Of Oz
After turning down Louis B. Mayer’s offer of an exclusive MGM Contract, Mayer warned Ebsen that he would never find work in Hollywood ever again. But, that empty threat didn’t stop the studio from casting Ebsen as the scarecrow in the iconic 1939 film The Wizard of Oz. Ebsen did however swap parts with actor Ray Bolger who brings in to play the Tin Man. Bolger really wanted to play the Scarecrow and Ebsen had no objections to the change-up.
Ebsen had already recorded all of the songs featuring the Tin Man, attended all of the rehearsals, and had begun filming when he suddenly started experiencing body aches, muscle cramps, and shortness of breath. Eventually, he stays in the hospital. It determines by medical professionals that he is suffering an unexpected reaction to the aluminum dust used in the Tin Man’s make-up and thus forces him to leave the film’s production.
MGM didn’t even believe that he is actually sick when he back to the set but is stopped by an irate nurse.
Actor Jack Haley calls in to replace Ebsen. The makeup for his character swaps out to a safer aluminum paste. MGM didn’t publicly acknowledge the real reason for Ebsen’t departure until much later.
Haley re-records the majority of Ebsen’s line, although Buddy’s distinct Midwestern accent can hear on the soundtrack during several reprises of ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard’.
Ebsen’s rendition of the Tin Man’s solo ‘If I Only Had a Heart’, includes in the deluxe edition of the movie’s soundtrack. A still photo recreation of the scene featuring shots of Ebsen as the Tin Man includes as a special feature with all of the VHS and DVD releases of the film since 1989.
For the remainder of his life, Ebsen suffered from breathing problems following his involvement in that film.
World War II
After recovering from his illness, Buddy got himself caught up in the middle of a nasty contract dispute with MGM that left him without work for quite some time. To pass the time, Ebsen turned to his love of sailing and became quite skilled in seamanship. So much so, in fact, that he got the chance to teach the subject to naval officer candidates.
He applied a handful of times for a commission in the Navy but was repeatedly turned down. The Coast Guard, however, eventually accepted his application for a commission and he quickly earned the wartime rank of Lieutenant junior grade. That was one rank above ensign – the usual rank given to newly appointed offices during times of peace.
Ebsen served aboard the USS Pocatello which recorded weather conditions at its station 1,500 miles off the coast of Seattle. These patrols lasted for 30 days out at sea followed by 10 days in port in Seattle. Buddy was honorably discharged from the Coast guard in 1946 with the rank of Lieutenant.
Ebsen’s Return To Acting
After exiting the armed forces, Ebsen then returned to the stage hoping to give his acting career another go. He went on to appear in a few films before he landed a role in the Disney production of Davy Crockett: King of the Wild Frontier in 1955. After that, he dropped his song and dance routine and became a straight actor.
Ebsen was given the role as Doc Golightly, an older, country veterinarian abandoned by his young wife – played by Audrey Hepburn – in the 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.
Ebsen’s next big role as the actor of Jed Clampett , a carefree backwoods mountaineer who strikes oil and promptly relocates ragtag gang of a family to Beverly Hills, California in the enormously popular, rural comedy series The Beverly Hillbillies.
Although the sitcom was bashed by critics, The Beverly Hillbillies drew in as many as 60 million viewers during its 9 season run between 1962 and 1971. It was on multiple occasions the highest-rated series on TV. The comedy also helped get off the ground similarly themed rural sitcoms like Green Acres and Petticoat Junction. Eventually, these three series were linked together with crossover story arcs.
Ebsen’s next major role was that of the title character in CBS’ Barnaby Jones which aired from 1973 to 1980. Jones was a milk-guzzling detective who came out of retirement to investigate the mysterious death of his son. Even though the network and critics were pretty critical of the average age of the show’s audience, the series lasted for 8 seasons and 178 episodes.
Ebsen’s Later Years And Death
Even though he officially retired from acting when he entered his 80s, Ebsen made a brief cameo in the 1993 film adaptation of The Beverly Hillbillies as Barnaby Jones. Ebsen’s last notable credit was in 1999 when he voiced the character, Chet Elberson, in an episode of King Of The Hill.
At the ripe old age of 95, Ebsen died of respiratory failure at Torrance Memorial Medical Center in Torrance, California on July 6, 2003. Per his request. His body was then cremated at Pacific Crest Cemetery in Redondo Beach, California.
Ebsen was later given a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as well as a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.
Well, here we are once again at the end of another facts-packed Facts Verse video. Hopefully, you’ve enjoyed going on this little walk with us down memory lane. Ebsen might not be the most significant actor of his generation, but he certainly left his mark on the industry. His legacy will no doubt live on for many more years to come.
Anyway, now’s your turn to let your voice be heard. In the comments section below, let us know what your favorite Buddy Ebsen role was. We’re personally quite fond of his part in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, but who knows, maybe you have something else in mind.
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