PALOS VERDES ESTATES, Calif. At 93, Buddy Ebsen still moves with the smooth grace of a vaudeville hoofer, which he once was.
With his dancing and acting days over, he has found a new occupation: author.
A voracious reader, Ebsen has published a novel of his own, Kellys Quest, which made No. 3 in the Los Angeles Times paperback best-seller list in mid-May, with a little help from bookstore signings in the Los Angeles area.
Its a slender volume Buddy is parsimonious with words about a feisty young woman named Kelly Ryan who is fired from her movie job and flees Hollywood in search of a man who will make her feel like a woman. Her journey leads her to a minister, a filmmaker, a bad guy, a millionaire and a cowboy.
Ebsen and his wife, Dorothy, live in a spacious house overlooking a green sweep of golf course in Palos Verdes Estates, an upscale coastal suburb south of Los Angeles.
The house boasts a six-car garage even though the Ebsens have only one auto. The rest of the space is jammed with his books and memorabilia.
The star of TVs Davy Crockett, The Beverly Hillbillies and Barnaby Jones, Ebsen still looks every inch the Hollywood celebrity. Flowing, silvery hair, ruddy face, clear eyes. Silk scarf at the neck, black velvet jacket, gray flannel slacks, black loafers. Tall and erect and elegantly thin.
His hearing may not be the best, but his memory is plenty OK.
He can recount incidents, including names of people, that happened 75 years ago.
And Ebsen hasnt lost the dancing skill he showed in 1930s MGM musicals and duets with Shirley Temple.
He demonstrated how he learned his first tap steps (front, back, step) out of a book his father bought. And he tapped the shim-sham-shimmy he had learned in New York from Bill Bojangles Robinson.
Speaking of his new career, Ebsen explains that hes been writing since high school.
Ive written some plays, and some of them have been staged. But this is the first novel Ive attempted, he said.
I read The Bridges of Madison County, and I said, I can write that well. So I started to write this notion Id had for 20 years.
I have this faculty or weakness that when I see a face in a crowd or walking down the street or driving by, I can think about their whole life and what has happened to them. When I was playing in vaudeville, Id go to a restaurant between shows and look at people and figure out their lives.
He worked out a regimen of rising at 4 a.m. and writing five pages in longhand until sunrise or when the phone started ringing. During the day, he would correct the pages.
He discovered, as most authors do, that producing a book is not about writing, but rewriting. He admires the spare prose of Hemingway and Fitzgerald.
After his handwritten manuscript was corrected and typed, he showed it to my teacher about novels, Darlene Jack, who made suggestions for additions or deletions, Ebsen said. He followed her ideas, and Kellys Quest was ready for publication.
Then Ebsen discovered another lesson of first-time authors: Finding a publisher is harder than writing. Nine publishers rejected Kellys Quest, some with sympathetic comments, some with form letters.
Buddy was undeterred: Somebody told me Margaret Mitchell had 23 rejections before Gone With the Wind was accepted.
He decided to self-publish.
Ebsen seems exhilarated by his new career and is contemplating three other ideas for novels. His last TV series, Barnaby Jones, ended in 1980, and he last appeared in a movie in 1993 a clever cameo as Barnaby in the otherwise anemic feature The Beverly Hillbillies.
Does he miss the studios?
No, he quickly responds. I was 50 percent in show business and 50 percent in sailing. I really only worked so I could buy better sails to make my catamaran go faster.
Ebsen became a star in every entertainment medium he entered. He and his sister, Vilma, played the New York Palace, vaudevilles Valhalla. They danced in hit Broadway shows, including The Ziegfeld Follies of 1934. Ebsen went on to Hollywood and appeared not only in musicals but in dramas such as Breakfast at Tiffanys.
Yet his greatest fame came with television: Walt Disneys Davy Crockett (1954-1955), in which he played the frontiersmans sidekick; The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-1971), as clan patriarch Jed Clampett; and the title role in the detective drama Barnaby Jones (1973-1980). All are among TVs most successful shows.
Jones missed becoming a movie icon, all because of misapplied makeup.
I was scheduled to play the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, he recalls. Then one day Ray Bolger walked on the set with his agent. I said, There goes my part! I had seen Bolger do the Scarecrow dance in vaudeville, and he did it perfectly. They switched me from the Scarecrow to the Tin Man. It almost killed me.
We rehearsed for two months and shot 10 days. (For the Tin Man makeup) they powdered me with aluminum dust; you breathe some of that and its no good for your lungs.
One night he woke up screaming. His legs and arms were cramped, and he had trouble breathing. Aluminum dust had coated his lungs.
He spent weeks recovering; meanwhile MGM cast Jack Haley as the Tin Man. Sixty-three years later, Buddy Ebsen has something to remember the experience by: a persistent bronchial cough.
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