Buddy Ebsen

Active - 1935 - 2019  |   Born - Apr 2, 1908 in Belleville, Illinois, United States  |   Died - Jul 6, 2003   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Comedy, Musical, Children's/Family

Share on

Biography by Hal Erickson

A dancer from childhood, Buddy Ebsen headlined in vaudeville in an act with his sister Velma. In 1935, Ebsen was signed by MGM as a specialty performer in The Broadway Melody of 1936, wherein he was shown to good advantage in several solos. He worked in a number of subsequent musicals, including Shirley Temple's Captain January (1936), teaming with Shirley for the delightful number "At the Codfish Ball." MGM assigned Ebsen to the role of the Scarecrow in 1939's The Wizard of Oz, but Ray Bolger, who'd been cast as the Tin Man, talked Ebsen into switching roles. The move proved to be Ebsen's undoing; he found that he was allergic to the silver makeup required for the Tin Man, fell ill, and was forced to bow out of the film, to be replaced by Jack Haley (however, Ebsen's voice can still be heard in the reprises of "We're Off to See the Wizard").Ebsen then returned to the stage, taking time out to provide the dancing model for a electronically operated wooden marionette which later was used at Disneyland.

In 1950 Ebsen returned to films as comical sidekick to Rex Allen, gradually working his way into good character parts in "A" pictures like Night People (1955). Walt Disney, who'd remembered Ebsen from the dancing marionette, offered the actor the lead in his 1954 three-part TV production of Davy Crockett, but at the last moment engaged Fess Parker as Davy and recast Buddy as Crockett's pal George Russel. Ebsen continued to pop up in films like 1961's Breakfast at Tiffany's (as Audrey Hepburn's abandoned hometown husband), and in TV westerns, where he often cast his image to the winds by playing cold-blooded murderers. Comfortably wealthy in 1962 thanks to his film work and wise business investments, Ebsen added to his riches by signing on to play Jed Clampett in the TV sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, which ran for nine years to excellent ratings. A millionaire several times over, Ebsen planned to ease off after Hillbillies, but in 1972 he was back in TV in the title role of Barnaby Jones. Few observers gave this easygoing detective series much of a chance, but they weren't counting on Ebsen's built-in popularity; Barnaby Jones lasted until 1980. The actor now confined himself to special events appearances and occasional guest-star roles, though he did play the recurring part of Lee Horsley's uncle in the final season of the TV mystery show Matt Houston (1983-85). One of Buddy Ebsen's final roles was in the 1993 theatrical film version of The Beverly Hillbillies -- not as Jed Clampett but in a cameo as Barnaby Jones!

Movie Highlights

See Full Filmography


  • Nicknamed "Buddy" by an aunt.
  • Learned ballet in father's dance studio.
  • Originally wanted to be a doctor.
  • Was originally cast as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (1939) but switched roles with Ray Bolger who was to be the Tin Man; later developed an allergic reaction to metallic dust in the makeup and was replaced in the film by Jack Haley.
  • Turned down a seven-year contract with MGM because he didn't want to be "owned" by Louis B. Mayer, who then blackballed him from working at other studios.
  • Served in the Pacific with the Coast Guard during World War II.
  • Enjoyed racing catamarans and founded a company that built them.
  • Despite long-running success in The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones, was never nominated for an Emmy.