Wednesday, April 02, 2008

The Other Centenarian

Much will be made this spring of what would have been spy novelist Ian Fleming’s 100th birthday, on May 28. (He died in 1964.) But today marks the 100th anniversary of another memorable player in the crime-fiction sphere, Buddy Ebsen. Yes, he portrayed Jed Clampett in television’s The Beverly Hillbillies and almost became famous as the Tin Man in the 1939 classic film The Wizard of Oz (but the powdered aluminum irritated his skin, and he had to be replaced by actor Jack Haley). What really matters to us, though, is that for seven years he played elderly, milk-gulping private eye Barnaby Jones in an eponymous CBS-TV series. (The last show produced by the once-ubiquitous Quinn Martin, as it turns out.)

I was never a Barnaby Jones fan. I found the series too formulaic, not innovative enough. But it certainly had many other followers, one of them apparently being “Rick,” a Kentucky banking industry employee who gives a pretty good précis of the series at his blog, On My Mind:
Barnaby Jones was a retired private investigator who left the business to his son Hal. When Hal was murdered while working on a case--he was shot to death while calling his dad--Barnaby came out of retirement and along with Hal’s widow, played by Lee Meriwether, solved Hal’s last case and caught his murder. They worked well together and they decided to keep the Jones detective agency open. Like Columbo, many crooks mistook his home-style country ways and his age as making him seem a bit slow. They really masked a keen detective mind. Their mistake gave Barnaby the upper hand in solving the crime. Later Mark Shera, formerly on the show S.W.A.T., [joined the series] as his young cousin Jedediah Romano (“J.R.”) Jones. He did Barnaby’s legwork on investigations while also study[ing] for the bar to become a lawyer. He was a welcome addition to the cast, but it always seemed funny that J.R. would chase the crook through half the city. The only way he caught the crook was when Barnaby would show up, gun in hand, at the end of the trail. He usually said “Hold it right there!” With Barnaby in front of him with a gun and J.R. coming up from behind, the villain knew he was cornered and gave up. When the show Cannon was on the air the two shows would often cross over.
Sadly, Ebsen died in 2003, after a brief but noteworthy return to television for the 1984-1985 season of Matt Houston, during which he played actor Lee Horsley’s retired CIA operative uncle, Roy Houston. According to Wikipedia, “During the mid 1990s, Meriwether and Shera expressed interest in a Barnaby Jones reunion TV movie, but could not talk Ebsen into joining the project. However, in 1993, Ebsen reprised the role of Barnaby Jones in the big-screen remake of his most famous TV series, The Beverly Hillbillies. It would be his final theatrical appearance.”

Despite his absence from the festivities, we’ll drink a toast today--appropriately, with milk--to Buddy Ebsen for his TV crime-drama contributions. By the way, if you’re feeling as nostalgic as we are right now, pay a visit to the Absolute Barnaby Jones site, or click below to watch the pulse-quickening intro sequence to Barnaby Jones.

READ MORE:Hand Me Down My Walking Cane: Old Dicks,” by Kevin Burton Smith (The Thrilling Detective Web Site).

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