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Keeping the Spirit Alive

Buddy Ebsen Collection

Buddy Ebsen, John Wayne, and Irene Ryan
“Remember, that of all the elements that comprise a human being, the most important, the most essential, the one that will sustain, transcend, overcome, and vanquish obstacles is spirit.” These are the words of Buddy Ebsen, the American actor whose career spanned seven decades.

One of the most widely recognized actors in classic American television, Buddy Ebsen is known for his roles as Jed Clampett in the long-running CBS comedy The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones in the detective drama of the same name. In addition to being a Hollywood icon, he was also a gifted artist, a writer, a dancer, a painter, and a musician. His career included vaudeville, Broadway, film, and television.

In the summer of 2019, Dorothy Ebsen donated a significant collection of her late husband’s life’s work to the University of Wyoming American Heritage Center. The donation is valued at over $2 million. The collection consists of approximately 300 cubic feet of artifacts, clothing, correspondence, manuscripts, memorabilia, and photographs documenting his remarkable career.

“The American Heritage Center has been excited about this collection of Buddy Ebsen’s papers and valuable objects,” says AHC Director Dr. Paul Flesher. “The collection shines light on every aspect of his professional career, as well as his hobbies of sailboat racing and painting. It will be used for decades to come.”

Much like the other entertainment collections housed at the AHC— including Jack Benny, Barbara Stanwick, and Stan Lee—Buddy Ebsen’s materials off er a personalized glimpse of what it was like to live and work in Hollywood during the twentieth century.

“The collection records not just the life we know about—the one we can trace from his acting roles—but the one Buddy lived day-to-day,” says Flesher. “It reveals the person he really was, teaching us not to settle for surface appearances and mistake his roles for the man himself.”

Buddy Ebsen as Tin ManIn 1928, Buddy Ebsen moved to New York City with his sister Vilma Ebsen. Together, they performed vaudeville until their film debut, Broadway Melody of 1936. The musical was nominated for three Academy Awards, including Best Picture, and won Best Dance Direction. In the same year, Ebsen appeared as a dancer with child star Shirley Temple in Captain January. After seeing Ebsen’s dance performance, Walt Disney was inspired to base Mickey Mouse’s animation off of Ebsen’s distinctive dance style. In 1939, he was cast as the original Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz but suffered a severe reaction to the aluminum dust used in the stage makeup. He was hospitalized and replaced by Jack Haley.

After recovering from his illness, Ebsen joined the U.S. Coast Guard in 1941. He served as first lieutenant and executive officer on the Coast Guard-crewed Navy frigate U.S.S. Pocatello. A proficient seaman, he instructed naval officer candidates in sailing. He was honorably discharged in 1946.

After the war, Ebsen returned to acting, landing roles in hit television series including Bonanza, Maverick, The Twilight Zone, The Andy Griffith Show, Davy Crockett, and many more. In 1961, he played the role of Doc Golightly, husband of Holly Golightly played by Audrey Hepburn, in the Academy Award-winning film Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

In 1962, Ebsen was chosen for the part of Jed Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies. This would become one of his most iconic roles. The sitcom had as many as 60 million viewers between 1962 and 1971 and several times was the highest-rated series on television.

In 1973, he was cast as the title character in the detective drama Barnaby Jones. The series lasted eight seasons, making it the second-longest-running private eye television series of all time.

Throughout his career and into his retirement, Ebsen pursued his artistic interests. He wrote eight plays and produced many of them. He was a painter, creating colorful lithographs and serigraphs of Hong Kong and Sedona landscapes, as well as folk art depicting Jed Clampett in a variety of scenes. The country music album Buddy’s Originals is comprised of songs both written and performed by Ebsen. He was a published author of several books including his autobiography The Other Side of Oz.

Processing a collection of this magnitude is a tremendous responsibility. The inventory and categorization of materials is managed by AHC archivists, who decide how best to arrange the materials so that researchers using the collection will easily be able to locate each item.

“I am processing this collection like I have processed other collections—the difference is the time that it takes to process such a large collection,” says AHC Archivist Roger Simon. “It arrived on twelve pallets. As of early June, I am about halfway through that process. We anticipate it will be available to the public by the end of 2021.”

Buddy Ebsen’s spirit is alive and well at the American Heritage Center. The center feels privileged to house such a significant collection containing many artifacts from Ebsen’s life and work as a prolific actor.

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