The hillbillies and giant jackrabbit that conquered television
As a baby boomer, I grew up devouring 60's television shows, and one I will never forget was a strangely popular situation comedy called the Beverly Hillbillies. Over 9 seasons and 274 episodes, this show followed the quirky lifestyle of a simple Ozark family that was plucked from the hills and moved to the ritziest part of the country- Beverly Hills, California. The excuse for the move is that oil was found on the property of the Clampett family, and they took their newfound wealth out west. Never mind that there is zero oil to be found in the mountainous Ozarks, because it's best if you don't dig too deeply into the logic of the show. Jed Clampett moved his extended family (daughter, mother-in-law, and nephew) to a huge new home in a wealthy neighborhood, and the culture clash was milked incessantly for laughs.
The Beverly Hillbillies still holds up somewhat fifty years later, thanks to good writing and great comedic timing from the cast, especially Granny and Mr. Drysdale. The lack of racial diversity was common in shows back then, and Granny's devotion to the Confederacy doesn't age well in retrospect. But the show had heart, embodied in thoughtful actions of Jed and the kindness towards animals exhibited by his daughter, Elly Mae.
The 1960's were a violent, tumultuous, and transformational decade, and this show was an escape pure and simple, never dwelling on controversial topics. The critics hated the Beverly Hillbillies, but no one seems to know how the show came to dominate television ratings for such a long period. It obviously filled a need for a simpler time as the old institutions of the fifties started unraveling.
All in the Family replaced The Beverly Hillbillies in 1971, and ever since then, the city folks like the Bunkers have drifted further and further away from the country folks like the Clampetts. Today in the Ozarks, citizens are fighting against masks and vaccines, and racism is a given in an area that's still dominated by Caucasians. I find it ironic that hillbillies never profited from slavery, but they still feel more kinship with southern slave states than with wealthier northern states that enjoyed bigger social safety nets. Even today, the residents of the Ozarks and Appalachia are among the poorest of the poor, and it's coal, not oil that dominates their lives.
Created by Missourian Paul Henning, The Beverly Hillbillies had a stupid premise, but it worked thanks to good writing and casting, showing that there is hope for just about any story if it's told well. Jed Clampett is the heart of the show, and his decency shows up a lot of the fake movie-star types of Southern California at the time. Granny, with her devotion to country lore, and Jethro, with his naive stupidity are the comic relief of the show, and most of the episodes revolve around troubles that the Clampetts get into when their culture clashes with that of the wealthy. (The success of this fish out of water premise led to another great show- Green Acres, that plunked a rich family into a tiny farming community.)
Here are some Beverly Hillbillies tidbits I picked up from a month of binging.
- Bea Benederet, who played Jethro's mother cousin Pearl, was originally cast as Granny. Irene Ryan auditioned and blew away the producers so much that they gave her the role and kept Benederet on as a new character, who eventually only appeared in 22 of the 274 episodes.
- Max Baer, who played Jethro Bodine, is the only cast member still alive. He tried for many years to get a Beverly Hillbillies casino opened in Las Vegas, but never succeeded.
- Donna Douglas, the actress who played Jed's daughter Elly Mae, passed away in 2015, and loved animals almost as much as her character did.
- Nancy Kulp, who played the only sane character on the show, secretary Jane Hathaway, is believed to have been secretly a lesbian, even though she lusted after Jethro on the show.
- Kulp and Buddy Ebsen (Jed) apparently did not get along on the set of the show because of their strong political beliefs. Ebsen was a devoted Republican, and Kulp was a Democrat, and even after the show ended, Ebsen filmed a campaign commercial against Kulp, who was running for state legislature in Pennsylvania.
- Buddy Ebsen had a long career in movies before he became Jed Clampett, and was a good dancer. He almost played the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, but poisonous aluminum dust used as face paint almost killed him, forcing Ray Bolger to take his place.
- Raymond Bailey, (Mr. Drysdale), was diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease during the last season and died shortly after the show concluded.
- The Clampett mansion at 750 Bel Air Road in Beverly Hills was bought by Rupert Murdoch's son, Laghlan for $150 million dollars.
- The first two seasons of the show are in the public domain due to a mistake by CBS, and can be found all over the place, while the last seven seasons are harder to find.
The Beverly Hillbillies and the many country shows that interacted with it (Green Acres, Petticoat Junction) owe their existence to Andy Griffith and Mayberry. Griffith's show debuted in 1960, and it showed tv producers that there was an appetite for shows featuring rural characters. (Until then most comedies like Dick Van Dyke and Leave it to Beaver were set in the suburbs. All of these rural shows were purged from the networks in 1971 and replaced, and I struggle to think of any shows since then that have revolved around rural characters.
In 1964, with America still in shock after JFK's assassination, nearly half of the nation tuned into one episode, "The Giant Jackrabbit," about an escaped kangaroo that only Granny can see, making it the most watched 30 minute episode of any show ever watched. The odds of that happening today are infinitesimal, but I end here with a snippet to show how stupid and funny the show could be at a time when people appreciated humor like this. Enjoy.