On his 36-acre ranch in the Santa Monica Mountains, Buddy Ebsen spent time with his seven kids, riding horses, composing songs, and hammering home the importance of persistence. “He taught us to believe in ourselves, even if we failed,” recalls Buddy’s daughter Kiki Ebsen.
Best known as Jed Clampett, the down-home millionaire on The Beverly Hillbillies, Buddy hit a few speed bumps on the road to fame. Trained as a hoofer at his father’s dance school in Orlando, Buddy left college after his family lost everything in the Florida land boom collapse. Flat broke, he headed to New York to try his luck as a song-and-dance man. “He really struggled until he got enough work to send for his sister, Vilma. That was a big accomplishment for him to reunite the family,” explains Kiki. Soon Buddy and Vilma were whirling across the stage in the Ziegfeld Follies and appearing in MGM films. “He loved any role where he could dance,” Kiki says. “Dancing was his lifeblood.”
A rising star, Buddy was originally cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz. He was replaced because the aluminum dust in the body paint made him deathly ill. “The studio spun the story that he’d had an allergic reaction. It wasn’t an allergy, it was toxic,” Kiki reveals. Buddy quit MGM and landed some TV gigs before striking oil as Jed Clampett in 1962 at age 54. Later, he had another hit with Barnaby Jones, portraying an aging PI on the hunt for his son’s killer. Money rolled in, but Buddy didn’t let it go to his head. “It wasn’t a lavish lifestyle that we grew up in,” Kiki says. “He believed if you want something badly enough, you have to work hard to get it.”
Matters of the heart were no exception. At 77, Buddy — a two-time divorcé— found love again with his third wife, Dorothy. “He was very happy toward the end of his life with Dorothy. They traveled and enjoyed the wisdom of many decades gone by,” Kiki tells Closer.
In her new cabaret-style jazz show called My Buddy, Kiki celebrates her father’s life and admits that they didn’t always see eye-to-eye. Buddy wanted her to sing jazz vocals, but she joined a rock band instead. At last, she’s honoring his wish and paying homage to the dad who helped her bottle-feed baby mice and pointed at the stars when she was anxious about a piano recital. “He said, ‘We’re just a speck on a speck in
the sky. Don’t worry. It’s OK.’ He had a great way of putting things in perspective, knowing that life’s not an easy journey,” she says. “I miss that.”