Buddy Ebsen was a real-life Jed Clampett

Sure, Buddy Ebsen wasn't a poor mountaineer. Unlike his most famous character, he kept his family fed. He wasn't, in truth, a widowed hillbilly that lived in an oil-rich swamp. He was an actor. But, if you zoom out on all the details, his life's arc isn't too dissimilar to Jed Clampett's.

"I never compare myself to Jed Clampett," Ebsen told Florida Today in 1970. "I'm not a hillbilly, although I've known a lot of them and studied a lot of hillbilly. Jed is more of a countryman, he's universal. You can look around and find lots of Jed Clampetts. They are very simple people of dignity, with respect for their environment and their fellow people. And they're friendly." 

Of course, Ebsen wasn't Jed. He played Jed on The Beverly Hillbillies. But, by all accounts, Ebsen was universal, simple, dignified, and friendly.

The similarities grow more conspicuous when you track Ebsen's life. Ebsen may not have grown up in the swamp, but he shared a lot of the same hopes and desires as his onscreen counterpart. In 1928 and 1929, Buddy Ebsen attended both the University of Florida and Rollins College, where he was enrolled in a medical program. However, much like the character he'd become famous for playing, Ebsen wanted more.

Discontent with his lot in life, Ebsen gambled on himself, dropping out of medical school to pursue a career in show business. Luck, laughter, and a fierce desire to succeed in show biz pushed Ebsen out of the safety of medical education. With that decision, Ebsen submitted himself to the insecurity of the actor's life, never sure exactly when the next job will come around and how much it will pay. Compared to the safety and soundness of being a lifelong doctor, acting for a living opens one up to tumult and instability. For Ebsen, there were late hours, missed meals, hard work, applause, and boos; he hit all the highs and lows relatable to anyone with a dream.

"Tomorrow had to take care of itself in those days," Ebsen reminisced.

But then, the gamble paid off. Ebsen found the role that would be his oil well. A well-worn jacket, an old hat, and a mustache became his bubblin' crude. From each teleplay came homespun idioms that would define Ebsen's life. Each scripted snippet of Tenessee Hills wisdom was like his black gold or Texas tea. 

Buddy Ebsen, just like Jed Clampett, was a symbol of hope, a rags-to-riches story that could only happen in America.

"I have a very simple philosophy," said Ebsen. "I feel that any American citizen with eyesight and a reasonable amount of health is a billionaire."

Despite their philosophical similarities, though, Ebsen seemed to never quite grasp how much of himself there was in Jed Clampett, opting instead to highlight their aesthetic differences.

"Jed Clampett has a mustache," said Ebsen, "and I don't."