This Week in Texas History: A column
by BARTEE HAILE
Half of the television sets in America were tuned to “The Beverly Hillbillies” on Sep. 25, 1962 for the premiere of the corn-pone comedy co-starring Texan Irene Ryan.
After a successful five-year run as writer-producer of “The Bob Cummings Show,” Paul Henning took an extended vacation in 1959. Filmways president Al Simon tried to lure the fan of down-home humor back to prime-time by offering to buy the TV rights to Ma and Pa Kettle.
Henning declined, stating a preference for something fresh rather than a small-screen rehash of the movie bumpkins. In no time at all, he came up with the concept summed up in the first two verses of “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” the series theme song:
“Come ’n listen to my story about a man named Jed, poor mountaineer barely kept his fam’ly fed. An’ then one day he was shootin’ at some food, an’ up thru the ground came a bubblin’ crude. Oil that is! Black gold, Texas tea!
“Well, the first thing you know, Jed’s a millionaire. Kin-folk said, ‘Jed, move away from there.’ Said, Californy is th’ place y’ ought-a be, so they loaded up the truck and they moved to Beverly. Hills that is! Swimmin’ pools, movie stars!”
Henning pitched his idea over lunch with Simon and his boss. The Filmways executives fell head over heels for “The Hillbillies” halfway through the main course and eagerly put up $100,000 to produce the pilot.
For the central character of widower Jed Clampett, Henning wanted Buddy Ebsen. Parts had been scare for the former song-and-dance man, the original Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, since he played Davy Crockett’s sidekick for Disney. Ebsen was concerned about being typecast and worried he would be the show’s straight man. “It sounded like everyone was going to be very funny — everybody except me.”
But the money was good, and Henning accepted Ebsen’s deadly serious condition that Jed be portrayed as a practical patriarch with complete control of the family fortune.
Although Henning imagined Granny, Jed’s mother-in-law, as “a wiry little woman,” he let Bea Benaderet try out for the part. At her audition, the buxom comedienne noticed a bantam-weight competitor waiting her turn. “There’s your Granny,” Benaderet announced, and Henning agreed the moment he saw Irene Ryan and Buddy Ebsen together in costume.
Born at El Paso in 1902, Irene Noblette was an “army brat” whose show business career spanned 48 years. A popular vaudeville performer, she broke into radio in 1932 and for awhile she and husband Tim Ryan had their own comedy program.
Hollywood was Irene’s next stop with supporting roles in pictures like Bonzo Goes to College, Diary of a Chambermaid and Desire in the Dust. She entertained the troops on overseas tours with Bob Hope before making the transition to television in the 1950’s.
A big grin landed Max Baer, Jr., son of the former boxing champ, the role of Jethro Bodine, Jed’s nephew. After his first choice for daughter Elly May jumped ship, Henning remembered a blond he had seen in a Rock Hudson film. “When they told me I got the part,” gushed Donna Douglas, “I thought my heart was going to burst right open!”
Rounding out the regular roster were Raymond Bailey as banker Milburn Drysdale and Nancy Kulp as his long suffering assistant Jane Hathaway. Bailey was a temperamental thespian, who once threw a punch at an ostrich on the set. Ebsen called him “the sourest person I’ve ever met in my life.”
“The Beverly Hillbillies” was an instant hit. The third episode attracted 36 million viewers, and the audience soon grew to a whopping 50 million. In four months, the comedy climbed to number-one in the Nielsen ratings and stayed on top for two seasons.
Jed, Granny and the gang set a remarkable ratings record which still stands half a century years later. The eight most widely watched half-hour programs in TV history are all “Hillbillies” episodes telecast in the winter of 1964.
Ryan handled her money wisely and donated a million dollars to a scholarship fund for theater arts majors. She did allow herself one indulgence, a long black Cadillac she drove to work every day perched on two pillows.
The 274th and last episode of “The Hillbillies” aired in September 1971. Henning and the cast went their separate ways, which for 69 year old Ryan meant Broadway.
The vaudeville veteran appeared with Ben Vereen in the musical Pippin. After her two numbers, which always brought down the house, she would stand in the wings to savor the applause. Choreographer Bob Fosse made the mistake of suggesting for safety’s sake that she go directly to her dressing room.
“Irene looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘Bobby, I’ve traveled 3,000 miles, given up a beautiful home in California and left all my dear friends just to hear that sound. Please don’t ask me to leave the wings until the last person has stopped applauding.”
Irene Ryan suffered a stroke during a Saturday matinee in early 1973. Hospitalized on the West Coast, she slipped into a coma and died the following April.
But as Granny the pint-sized Texan will live forever in the reruns.
San Marcos Mercury columnist BARTEE HAILE welcomes your comments, questions and suggestions at P.O. Box 152, Friendswood, Texas 77549 or by email here.