Christian Rudolf Ebsen (Buddy Ebsen), actor, dancer, singer and composer: born Belleville, Illinois 2 April 1908; married 1936 Ruth Cambridge (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1944 Nancy Wolcott (one son, four daughters; marriage dissolved 1985), 1985 Dorothy Knott; died Los Angeles 6 July 2003.
A veteran of more than 20 films, the likeable, gangling dancer Buddy Ebsen was MGM's original choice to play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, but nearly died after winning, and then dramatically losing, the role of the Tin Woodman in that classic film. He went on to star in such top-rated television series as Davy Crockett, The Beverly Hillbillies, Barnaby Jones and Matt Houston.
Born Christian Rudolf Ebsen Jnr in 1908, he moved with his family from his birthplace in Illinois to Florida when he was 12. Although Christian Rudolf Ebsen Snr ran a dancing school, his only son wanted to be a doctor. While Buddy was studying pre-med at the University of Florida, his parents lost all their money and he was forced to terminate his education.
Deciding he "must already have unconsciously absorbed enough dancing tips to get by," he went to New York, and landed a job in the chorus of Ziegfeld's Eddie Cantor musical Whoopee (1928). When the show closed 379 performances later, Ebsen sent for his sister Vilma, and they worked up a song-and-dance act. After headlining all across America in night-clubs, they turned to vaudeville, scoring a great success at New York's prestigious Palace Theatre in 1930.
With the harmonica virtuoso Larry Adler and the singer Monette Moore, they introduced the Arthur Schwartz/Howard Dieter song "Shine on Your Shoes" in the hit Broadway revue Flying Colors (1932). In The Ziegfeld Follies (1934) the Ebsens danced while Brice Hutchins (later known as Robert Cummings) sang E.Y. Harburg and Vernon Duke's "I Like the Likes of You".
Hollywood soon beckoned; the siblings were signed by MGM, and cast in Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935). Although "Sing Before Breakfast", which the Ebsens performed with Eleanor Powell all over the roof of a tenement, was the film's most captivating number, Buddy and Vilma made no more films together, thanks to the fine print of their contract. "It turned out that MGM had the option of keeping one of us and letting the other one go", recalled Buddy. "Which was a very unpleasant realisation when they kept me and dropped Vilma."
After his sister returned to New York, Ebsen stayed in Hollywood, where, on the first of three loan-outs to 20th Century-Fox, he sang and danced "At the Codfish Ball" with Shirley Temple in Captain January (1936). Back at MGM, he again appeared with Eleanor Powell in both Born to Dance (1936) and Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937). Variety noted:
Buddy Ebsen, who has come to be regarded as Eleanor Powell's shadow because he always plays with and up to her, handles some first-class comedy bits on his own, in addition to his eccentric dancing.
In one of those comedy bits, Ebsen arrived at a health club, announcing he had come there to lose weight. This scene drew laughter because of his lanky frame - a physique that made him the producer Mervyn LeRoy's first choice for the role of the Scarecrow when he began casting The Wizard of Oz (1939).
Unfortunately for Ebsen, his fellow dancer Ray Bolger was also under contract to MGM. Cast as the Tin Woodman, Bolger was desperate to play the Scarecrow, and persuaded Ebsen to swap roles. After he had been the Tin Man for nine days, Ebsen's skin turned a vivid blue and he found himself gasping helplessly in an oxygen tent. His lungs turned out to be coated with the aluminium-based dust the studio makeup artists had been powdering on to his face. He was unable to work for six weeks, by which time his impatient studio had replaced him with Jack Haley - for whom a less dangerous aluminium paste was developed. Ebsen told Aljean Harmetz, author of The Making of Wizard of Oz (1977), that litigation would have been a bad career move:
You didn't just lightly sue MGM, because it was a Power. There was a certain cohesion between the moguls. They all used to play poker together on Saturday nights and decide who were the "good" actors and who were the "bad".
For the same reason, Margaret Hamilton, who sustained severe burns while filming as the Wicked Witch of the West, also found it prudent not to sue. (Actually Ebsen is in The Wizard of Oz after all: before he began filming he pre-recorded his songs, and it's his voice - rather than Haley's - that can be heard singing "We're Off to See the Wizard" with Bolger, Judy Garland and Bert Lahr.)
After his MGM contract expired in 1939, Ebsen returned to the East to star in the musical Yokel Boy. Playing a minor role was Phil Silvers, a 29-year-old burlesque comic, making his musical comedy début. When the comedian Jack Pearl left the show during its stormy Boston tryout, Silvers replaced him, and began frantically tailoring the role to his talents. "Buddy Ebsen was a stabilising influence," wrote Silvers in his autobiography:
He had top billing, but he leaned back, relaxed and told me, "Go get 'em, Phil." I had an open field. A rare magnanimity in show business.
Yokel Boy had a six-month run, after which Ebsen made two films for RKO, and enlisted in the Coast Guard. "I could've gotten leading parts in many pictures, especially with so many actors away at the war," he said, "but I wanted to be in uniform." When he was discharged as a lieutenant in 1945, no leading film parts, or even supporting ones, were being offered, and he accepted the singing-dancing role of Frank Schultz in a Broadway revival of Show Boat (1946-47). Back in Hollywood, he landed a minor role in Paramount's musical spoof Red Garters, then flew to Germany to film the cold war thriller Night People (both 1954).
By now he was also writing songs, some of which were published by Walt Disney's music firm. Disney then cast him as George Russel, the hero's rowdy sidekick in the television saga Davy Crockett (1954). America suddenly went Crockett crazy, and the television episodes were stitched together to make two profitable feature films.
Soon after giving a touching performance as the gentle Doc Golightly in Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961), Ebsen returned to television to play the oil-rich widower Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71). The show's corn-fed humour enraged the critics, but Beverly swiftly became America's No 1 programme, reaching more than 60 million viewers each week. Stars such as Phil Silvers, Gloria Swanson, Sammy Davis Jnr and John Wayne were happy to make guest appearances on the long-running show, which Ebsen said brought him "the most diverting and enjoyable family I've ever known outside of my own". Two detective series followed: Barnaby Jones (1973-80) and Matt Houston (1984-85).
Ebsen was offered the leading role of Art Selwyn, the elderly rest-home resident who mysteriously regains his youthful vigour in Cocoon (1985), but had to turn the film down because of his Matt Houston shooting schedule. Don Ameche, who played the Cocoon role instead, won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar. In 1993, when Hollywood made The Beverly Hillbillies into a feature film (with Jim Varney playing Jed), Ebsen appeared in the cameo role of Barnaby Jones.
In 1998, a defective valve in Ebsen's heart was replaced with a valve from a pig's heart. After the six-hour operation he vowed, "I'll soon be back painting, sculpting, composing, writing, fishing, sailing - and dancing!" Eight years earlier, an interviewer had brought up the subject of retirement. "People kind of resent you if you're still working at my age", Ebsen replied. "They think you should quit and be bored to death - like them."