Question: Help me settle a really stupid argument, please. I say Max Baer Jr. played Jethro and his sister on The Beverly Hillbillies. My boss says it was Baer's real sister. Which was it? Please tell him he's wrong. Thank you. Mike D., Peru, Ind.
Televisionary: Jeez, Mike. He seriously believes that, and you work for him? Talk about a need for corporate reform.
Of course it was Baer Jr. in drag as Jethrine, Jethro Bodine's sister on the hit show. And frankly, just saying that isn't fair to drag queens who take their art seriously. I mean, even Baer who dropped the Jr. from his name not long into the show's 1962-71 CBS run because he was no longer worried about differentiating himself from his boxing-champ dad admitted he made one unsightly gal. That was the way series creator Paul Henning wanted it, the actor told TV Guide in 1963, though Henning went back and forth on it for a while.
"Even before the show went on the air, Paul thought about a sister for Jethro," Baer explained. "He was hung up between creating a big, beautiful one, or a big, homely one. If she were beautiful, she might have distracted from Elly May [Donna Douglas], so he decided on homely. But how homely? When he called and asked me if I wanted to play my own sister, I think I choked. I told him I hardly knew enough about acting to play Jethro. But he insisted I try, so I did."
If it fooled your boss (notice I didn't call him your superior), I guess it was a stronger effort than I thought. Maybe it was Baer hitting up Douglas and Irene Ryan (Granny) for tips on playing the fairer sex, which he did. Or maybe it was the fact that Henning's daughter, 18-year-old Linda, dubbed the voice. Either way, the gag ran its course and Jethrine didn't appear after Season One.
Jethrine's wasn't the only how do I say this? false front you saw when enjoying the Hillbillies. (And admit it as inane a set-up as it was, you enjoyed it as much as I did.) Their mansion was a fake, too, though the exterior was a perfect copy of a real-life mansion in Bel-Aire, not Beverly Hills owned by Mrs. Arnold Kirkeby, widow of a hotel magnate. Her favorite charity received a donation in exchange for its use in some drive-up shots and occasional establishing views. (All the other exterior scenes you saw used the recreated set piece.)
Whatever her charity received, Mrs. Kirkeby probably should've negotiated a higher number. After the show became a hit, her privacy suffered. Tourists who passed when she happened to be outside insisted on calling her "Granny" and asking for autographs. "They honestly think the Clampetts live here," she said in amazement. "For the first time since we moved into the house we have to keep the gates shut." She wasn't angry about it, but she wasn't real jazzed, either. When she paid a visit to the set, which she called her "front door," she said wistfully to Buddy Ebsen (Jed): "Gee, I wish you'd buy another house."
I hope those revelations don't have you feeling too conned since I've got another shocker for you. Ryan, who didn't give her age she allowed only that she was "older than Shirley Temple and not as old as Sophie Tucker was only 60, tops, when she played the 70-plus Granny. She was made to look older, and her feet were made to look bigger. In a case of "your grandmother wears army boots," the 98-pound, 5-foot-2-inch actress wore standard-issues that were three sizes too big to help her get into character. And she was, as her character might've said, mighty sweet on 'em.
"The sound man told me I would have to get rid of [them] because I made so much noise when I walked he couldn't hear anybody talkin'," the El Paso native said. "I tried another pair for one day but I couldn't seem to feel the character without those boots. They let me have them back when I promised to walk quietly."
Ryan's character was an ornery stereotype, sure, but the actress herself showed gumption from the day she auditioned, too. Told by Henning she was too young for the part, the Vaudeville vet responded that if he hired anyone older, she'd never last through the series. Needless to say, Henning was convinced.
Speaking of stereotypes, TV Guide pulled an interesting move when editors hired what they considered to be "real" hillbillies to rate the show. Three Brothers, Ark. native Junior Cobb and his young wife Helen they married when she was 16 judged the Hillbillies to be right humorous. "They's got a good, funny pergr'm," Cobbe said (hey, don't blame me that's the spelling the editors used in 1963). "Ol' Granny pesterates people but they like it!" The "potentially pretty" Helen (again, their description) agreed: "I seen Red Skelton and Danny Thomas, but them Hillbillies is all the time in more funny scrapes."
Mind you, very few professional critics agreed. The New York Times
called it "rural no-think," The Chicago Daily News
said it was "a one-gag show" and The Los Angeles Times
said Henning had "absolutely no intention of apologizing for loosing The Beverly Hillbillies
on an unsuspecting public." Even Bob Hope
said it was an "outhouse in the vast wasteland of TV," but that might might have been because the show clobbered his NBC specials at the time.
Leave it to Granny Ryan to fire back hardest. "Who cares?" she said. "Sixty million viewers can't be wrong." By 1968, she was even more direct: "If you don't like this series, something's the matter with you!"
Good points, all. And who am I to argue with a shotgun-toting old lady?