There’s something about reruns that make every classic TV show seem perfect. Though some can come off as corny, they seem to take place in a past where everybody got along and nobody’s problems were as complicated as they are today. Of course, that wasn’t at all the case.
Take, for instance, The Beverly Hillbillies. While it seems like a simple production on the surface, turmoil raged behind the scenes. One of the original stars recently revealed that the show made enemies in powerful places and debuted at a very dicey time in history. And that’s only the beginning.
Since Watergate, actor Max Baer Jr. only had a handful of credits to his name. Still, he saw excited fans running up to him all the time. Everybody wanted to hear about his days on The Beverly Hillbillies.
The genesis of the show came during Paul Henning’s road trip through the South in 1959. The TV writer grew up in Missouri and camped in the Ozarks, and he realized these memories could make for a hilarious program.
That idea evolved into a culture clash. What if a bunch of bumpkins struck (liquid) gold and entered high society? Paul immediately devised hundreds of misadventures along that theme, though he’d need the right talent for the show to work.
Veteran performer Buddy Ebsen previously portrayed a kind-hearted Southerner in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, so Paul figured he’d be perfect as Jed Clampett. Buddy signed on once Paul promised that Jed wouldn’t be an ignorant hick character — though someone else would be.
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The onscreen fool was Max Baer Jr. himself, who played Jed’s nephew Jethro. Irene Ryan as Granny, Donna Douglas as Elly May, Raymond Bailey as the greedy Milburn Drysdale, and Nancy Kulp as his secretary Miss Jane rounded out the cast.
YouTube / Planet Greyhound
With all the players in place, the series still needed the proper look. Henning always envisioned the family zipping about in an overloaded, beat-up truck. He happened to find the perfect vehicle in a 1921 Oldsmobile, rotting away in a junkyard.
Paul’s script originally had the Clampett family and their cavalcade of critters moving to New York. However, CBS soon informed the producers that Big Apple production costs were too steep. They had to find a completely new setting, and fast.
Fortunately, Los Angeles offered lower costs, not to mention better weather. The show’s producers were amazed to learn that the Kirkeby mansion in Bel Air would let them film there for just $500 per day! Still, one piece was missing.
Any 1960s sitcom needed a catchy theme song, so CBS turned to bluegrass stars Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The duo composed “The Ballad of Jed Clampett,” which would soon become a hit single. With that, The Beverly Hillbillies was rearing to go.
Initial response was puzzling. Critics despised the show, calling it lowbrow and stupid. But most TV viewers fell in love with it right away. It reached #1 in the ratings after just three weeks on air, and one tragedy actually grew its fanbase.
The United States was in mourning following the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy. Americans needed a distraction amid this tragedy, and The Beverly Hillbillies was the perfect cure. The eight episodes that aired in the aftermath broke audience records.
Building in popularity, the sitcom attracted some interesting guest stars. Western icon John Wayne even agreed to make a cameo appearance! In typical cowboy fashion, the only payment he demanded was a fifth of bourbon.
Trendy ’60s actress Sharon Tate had a recurring role as a secretary named Janet Trego. Most viewers didn’t recognize the famous blonde, as she sported a brown wig! Of course, the main attraction was the Clampett clan.
Audiences’ love for these characters spilled into merchandising, and a best-selling book called Granny’s Hillbilly Cookbook swept through stores. It was a symptom of full-fledged country-mania.
In fact, a number of other rural-themed shows popped up on CBS. Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, and Mayberry R.F.D. all found enthusiastic audiences, despite the fact that most TV viewers didn’t live in the country.
However, network exec Fred Silverman didn’t like that these shows weren’t attracting a younger, hipper demographic. So he did something about it. He initiated “The Rural Purge” in 1965, in which all these shows — including The Beverly Hillbillies — got the axe.
That marked the end of the original Clampett saga, aside from a couple half-baked TV reunions. A film remake did later premiere in 1993, and it was true to the original by pulling in lots of fans while nauseating critics.
The sitcom represented a career high for most of the cast, though they didn’t stay on good terms afterward. When Nancy Kulp ran as a Democrat for a Pennsylvania congressional seat in 1984, Buddy Ebsen campaigned for her opponent.
Donna Douglas threw a fit in 2011 when Mattel released a limited-edition Barbie in her likeness. Rather than enter a lawsuit battle, the two parties settled outside of court. Donna made headlines one more time years later.
She died in 2015, leaving Max as the last remaining main cast member. Fans still treat him like a demigod, though The Beverly Hillbillies wasn’t the first TV Western. It drew from earlier successes like Bonanza, which had quite the history of its own.
Unlike other shows that put one big-name star above the rest, Bonanza treated all its main cast members as equals. It even rotated their names in the opening credits so that no single actor would consistently get top billing.
Actor Pernell Roberts got fed up with the show, as he thought they played it too safe. After the sixth season, when Adam Cartwright left for good, Pernell struggled to find work. In 1979, however, he landed the titular role in Trapper John, M.D.
Wild west gunslingers carry revolvers, not phasers, but that didn’t stop most of the Star Trek cast from appearing on Bonanza. They didn’t stop by the Western for charity, either. Surprisingly, guest stars usually received higher pay than the main cast.
Fan favorite Dan Blocker died unexpectedly toward the end of the show’s run. Few other programs ever dealt with the death of a lead actor, but Bonanza took it in stride. They rewrote their scripts to include Dan’s character Hoss also passing away offscreen.
Bonanza almost didn’t last. Early on, Perry Mason routinely trounced it in that time slot. As the first network Western filmed in color, however, it got a huge boost when viewers started buying color TVs and turning away from old shows in black and white.
Women in the Cartwright family tended not to fare too well. Most love interests met an untimely end or left town, including all three of Ben Cartwright’s wives. Writers made this choice because movie cowboys usually remained unmarried.
Believe it or not, producers conceived the catchy Bonanza theme song before they even figured out the show’s plot or cast! A non-instrumental version became a big hit in the 1960s. Various artists covered it, including the Man in Black himself: Johnny Cash.
In 1963, Dan Blocker capitalized on the show’s popularity and opened a restaurant. Bonanza Steakhouses — later renamed Ponderosa Steakhouses — began to pop up all over the country. Dozens of locations still operate around the U.S. — and the Middle East!
In the early 1970s, M*A*S*H producers were considering Dan Blocker for a lead role. It never came to pass, but he would have been perfect based on his real-life experience! Dan actually saw action in the Korean War and received a Purple Heart for his service.
Bonanza tackled quite a few social issues from a progressive standpoint, but they still leaned on stereotypes for the Cartwright’s Chinese cook Hop Sing. On top of that, NBC did not pay actor Victor Sen Yung much, so he had to release a series of Hop Sing cookbooks to make ends meet.
Ben Cartwright is one of the top TV dads of all time, and yet actor Lorne Greene wasn’t even old enough to have three grown sons! He was only 44 at the start of the show — just 13 years older than the man playing his eldest son, Pernell Roberts.
Dan Blocker was as big in real life as on the small screen as Hoss Cartwright. At 14 pounds, he broke records as the largest baby ever born in Bowie County, Texas. Dan also reached a height of six feet by the time he was 12 years old!
After a series of rejected scripts, star Michael Landon got approval to write a few episodes of Bonanza. Years later, he took those forgotten scripts and turned them into plots for Little House on the Prairie, in which he also co-starred.
While all of Bonanza’s cast members dabbled in music, Lorne Greene scored a number one hit! His spoken-word ballad “Ringo” topped the charts in 1964, though some confused record buyers thought it had something to do with Beatles drummer Ringo Starr. In reality, the song was about an outlaw.
The young Michael Landon was cast for his good looks, though he didn’t exactly have the stature of a rugged rancher. His cowboy boots had four-inch lifts built in so his larger co-stars wouldn’t dwarf him.
Aside from Hop Sing, the show’s most beloved recurring character might just be Sheriff Roy Coffee. The Virginia City lawman appeared in 98 episodes and often lent the Cartwrights a hand in sticky situations.
Historically speaking, a big inspiration for the Ponderosa Ranch was the Comstock Lode. This huge vein of silver brought about an explosion of commerce and settlement in Nevada in the 1860s. Also, the word bonanza comes from a Spanish term for a discovery of rich minerals.
King One Eye
Creator David Dortort’s idea for the show also borrowed quite a bit from the legend of King Arthur. He saw patriarch Ben Cartwright as a Western version of Arthur, and his sons as the loyal Knights of the Round Table.
The character Candy Canary was popular with fans but mysteriously vanished from the show after 1970, only to reappear years later for the show’s final season. What happened? Actor David Canary was holding out for a higher salary and wouldn’t work until producers gave in.
With the exception of Michael Landon, all of the show’s stars wore hairpieces at some point in the series. Lorne Greene’s toupee even fell off during one scene where he had to dive into a lake. He put it back on underwater before any of the crew would notice.