Donna Douglas: Beauty queen who found fame as the buxom tomboy Elly May in the hit sitcom 'The Beverley Hillbillies'

Douglas started out in beauty pageants then moved to New York to pursue a career in entertainment

Frazier Moore
Tuesday 06 January 2015 19:48 GMT
Donna Douglas
Donna Douglas (AP)

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Donna Douglas, who has died of pancreatic cancer, played the buxom tomboy Elly May Clampett in the hit 1960s sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, in which a backwoods Ozark family move to Beverly Hills after striking oil on their land. In the series, which ran from 1962 to 1971, Elly May seemed blissfully unaware of her status as a bumpkin blonde bombshell, oblivious to the attentions of budding beaus and more interested in the small animals she loved.

Chosen from more than 500 other actresses, Douglas said she felt at ease playing the role because, like her character, she grew up a poor Southern tomboy. Her childhood in Pride, Louisiana, came in handy when she was asked during her audition to milk a goat. "I had milked cows before," she recalled in 2009. "I figured they were equipped the same, so I just went on over and did it."

The show was not only assailed by critics, but by the network boss who put it on air: "I hated it," Michael Dann said much later. "After screening the pilot, I don't think I ever watched another segment."

The public, however, felt otherwise: it ran for nine seasons, was often in the Top 10 US ratings, and became a staple of teatime viewing in Britain. It wasn't much of a stretch for Douglas to fit in, said her niece, Charlene Smith. "She was always happy, and she really loved animals – just like her character in The Beverly Hillbillies. She was a wonderful lady, a very good Christian lady." Indeed, when Douglas signed autographs she included a biblical verse, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart...".

Douglas started out in beauty pageants – she was Miss Baton Rouge and Miss New Orleans – then moved to New York to pursue a career in entertainment. "That was the first time I had ever been on an airplane," she recalled.

Modelling didn't appeal – "I didn't want to be that skinny" – but television did, and she did stints on The Perry Como Show and The Steve Allen Show. She landed a role in the 1959 film Career, alongside Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine, and a bit part in the film musical Li'l Abner. She also had a small role as Tony Randall's secretary in the 1961 romcom Lover Come Back with Rock Hudson and Doris Day.

She starred in one of the most memorable episodes of Rod Serling's The Twilight Zone – an episode entitled "Eye of the Beholder" in which her head is wrapped in bandages for most of the half-hour after plastic surgery aimed at fixing her supposed ugliness, which turns out to be beauty in a universe of monsters. She also starred with Elvis Presley in the 1966 film Frankie and Johnny.

She later worked in property, recorded country and gospel albums and wrote a children's book that drew on biblical themes. In 2010 she sued CBS and the toymaker Mattel over a Barbie doll that used Elly May's name and likeness. But she didn't mind being typecast. "So many kinds of people relate to Elly May," she said. "So many people love her, and that means a lot to me."

Doris Smith (Donna Douglas), actress: born September 1932; twice married (one son); died 1 January 2014.

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