The preceding is the mathematical equation for the accomplishment that Buddy Ebsen solved and re-solved for 70+ years in his career in the entertainment industry.
After achieving success sufficient to call for his sister, Vilma, to join him, the world was just about to become their oyster. Billing themselves as the Baby Astaires, one rave paragraph from the New York Daily Mirror’s powerful syndicated columnist Walter Winchell in 1930 found them swamped with over 90 offers for the couple to perform in clubs nationwide. Success was achieved for the devoted duo, ultimately leading to being signed by MGM studios for musicals.
The excitement over “Broadway Melody of 1936” found the duo teamed with Eleanor Powell and the movie led them to hope for even more success in films. Despite having caught the eye of famed director Charles Walter for being a beauty and a dancer, MGM no longer wanted Vilma, just Buddy. Crossroad number one. A decision was made for Buddy to go it alone. Vilma’s life would turn out “just fine” and she was deemed happy to have found two loves of her life, with two children to adore, and a modicum of delightful memories that co-owning and operating a California dance studio would bring. Buddy’s solo parts were great, but secondary, roles.
Buddy married his first wife, Ruth Cambridge in 1933, and they had two daughters, Elizabeth (Libby, d. 2002) and Alexandra (Alix). At 6’3” and limber, he developed a reputation for “eccentric dancing,” a unique genre. The thrill of a lifetime came in 1938 when Buddy was told by Arthur Freed that he was a “sure thing” for the part of the Scarecrow in an upcoming film, “The Wizard of Oz,” that MGM meant to give Disney’s 1937 “Snow White” a little competition in the fantasy genre. For once, Buddy allowed himself a moment to soak in the euphoria of success. It didn’t last.
The U.S. entry into World War II meant the enlistment of a patriotic Ebsen into the U.S. Coast Guard, having failed to get into the U.S. Navy (his first choice). His Coast Guard service would lead him to meet the second woman of his dreams, Nancy Wolcott, whom he would make his wife six days after the end of World War II. Fourteen months later, their first son, Christian Ebsen, III, would be born, but live only 22 days. The tragic loss presented the young couple with a new crossroad: would they continue to build a family? Three daughters later, Susannah (d. 2019), Cathy, Bonnie, Buddy was finding work acting in “B” westerns mostly, until 1954, when Walt Disney director Norman Foster recommended to Walt Disney that Buddy portray “Davy Crockett” in a series Walt was planning.
Until Walt Disney happened to see a Warner Brothers sci-fi film, “Them!” featuring James Arness, and in one scene was a young unknown named Fess Parker, whose plane goes down as UFOs that look like giant ants takes him out, and Fess comes unraveled.
Forget James Arness, forget Buddy Ebsen, Walt chooses Fess Parker as Davy Crockett. Buddy’s hopes of starring are again dashed. The phone rings the next day, though; seems Davy has a best friend, George Russel, and Buddy gets second billing (again). [Right: Fess Parker and Jim Arness in "Them."]
Not long after Buddy becomes a Walt Disney go-to for many things, last daughter Kiersten (Kiki), and son Dustin are born, and the Ebsen family had three age groupings with Kiki and Dusty as young children only knowing Dad as a TV star. Wasn’t everyone’s Dad on TV?
In 1968, mid-Hillbillies, Buddy sailed and crewed his catamaran, "The Polynesian Concept," past James Arness’s “Seasmoke,” as he won the 2,400-miles Transpacific Multi-Hull Ocean race in 1968. Buddy came in first…again.
After CBS Programming Chief Fred Silverman pulled “rural shows” (“The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Green Acres,” “Petticoat Junction,” and “Mayberry RFD”) from its weekly lineup to seek a so-called highbrow audience, Buddy thought about retiring. But he was still young, at age 63. Meanwhile across town, producer Quinn Martin had scored weekly hits with “The FBI,” (1965–1974) and “The Fugitive” (1963–1967) and in 1972 Buddy’s agent got a call that Quinn was looking to stage a new detective show and was interested in him for the title role. [Photo: Quinn Martin gets his star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, on the North side of the 6600 block of Hollywood Boulevard.]
Producers looking at Buddy in starring roles was now the new trend, for a pleasant change. Given that Quinn Martin had a plethora of detective procedurals running, Ebsen hesitated…until he heard that the character actually brought something new to the screen—a “foxy grandpa solving crimes”…that did the trick.
As “Barnaby Jones” from 1973–1980, Buddy Ebsen achieved acclaim and fame far surpassing his roles in Vaudeville, MGM films, Hollywood “B” westerns, and even the successful “Moon River” part as “Doc Golightly.”
As fate would have it though, producer/creative Ron Howard wanted to cast Buddy in a new film he was making and because of contractual obligations to “Matt Houston,” Buddy couldn’t participate. During his 1986 acceptance speech for the Oscar, actor Don Ameche thanked Buddy Ebsen “for not being available to play the role” that Ameche would inherit. Another substantial potential honor lost, because of fate and the luck of the draw.
Every day, if you do what you love, if you work with people you love, if you have the freedom to make your own plans or schedule, find a group of people who think in sync with the way you believe you want to approach a project, then you have arrived at success in life. The secret to Buddy Ebsen’s success was relentless perseverance of his goals, his ambitions, his dreams, and his ability to tune out the naysayers, to weed through the false or temporary friends, to find the highest caliber of agents and representatives who believed in him and fought for him, and in his own skill to bring his best to any project he was involved in.
“To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen” is a love song, written by his youngest daughter Kiki, to honor her dad’s spirit, his dreams, and his accomplishments during his lifetime. There was a costly price Buddy had to pay to be led by his artistic muse but it was not a permanent cost.
His relationship with Ruth created two daughters and brought him joy during the first phase of his career in New York; his relationship with Nancy created two sons and four daughters and brought him more family during the second phase of his career in Los Angeles. His marriage to his third wife and widow Dorothy provided joy during the third phase of his career, as a painter, writer, and bon vivant in a world whose bright lights he’d mostly had abandoned while raising his family. Fame, acclaim, and contentment were ultimately his, and after a lifetime of sacrifices, losses, near hits, near misses, and total obscurity for a time, the one thing that remained about Buddy Ebsen was his indefatigable spirit.
It is that same spirit which flows through the pen of his daughter Kiki, that resonates through her voice when she sings, through her limbs as she dances, and through his son Dustin when he assembled the photographic storyboard of seven decades of his father’s life. If he had only one thing to offer all of his children besides his love it was his soulful spirit of joy in working in the entertainment industry.
Kiki learned from him that no one hands you anything. You work to make your own opportunities. You persevere even when people shake their heads or don’t share your dreams. And you create new art because you must. It’s there to be created. All you have to do is allow the messages to come through and to present your very best self, surrounded by people who love, honor, trust, and regard you as a working professional artist.
StKi Productions, LLC Presents: "To Dad with Love: A Tribute to Buddy Ebsen" runs at Theatre West, 3333 Cahuenga Blvd., Los Angeles, CA. For tickets, visit BuddyEbsenTribute.com or theatrewest.org
“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!” ~~Buddy Ebsen