he Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71, CBS) was the brainchild of Paul Henning, the cracker-barrel surrealist also responsible for Petticoat Junction, The Real McCoys, and, notably, Green Acres. Certainly the most popular sitcom in television history, and quite possibly the most successful network series ever, it ran for over 200 episodes, clocking in as the top-rated show of its premier season, and remaining in the top ten throughout its nine-year tenure. Individual episodes almost always placed in the Nielsen Top 20, and on occasion rivaled the ratings of Super Bowls.
As explained in the opening montage and cadenced theme song, Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen) is an Ozarks mountaineer who, through epic fortuity and sheer ineptitude rather than the Protestant work ethic, falls into unfathomable wealth with the discovery of oil beneath his worthless Arcadian scrub oak. When a roving petrochemical concern gets wind, they buy him out for $25 million, whereupon town sophisticate Cousin Pearl (Bea Benaderet) convinces him fabled Beverly Hills might provide: (a) a suitable beau for his daughter Elly May (Donna Douglas) and (b) career opportunities for his wayward nephew Jethro Bodine (Max Baer, Jr.). Taking their cue from The Grapes of Wrath (Steinbeck via John Ford), they load up the truck and move to Beverly--replete with a rocking chair up top to house Granny (Irene Ryan), the family's reluctant matriarch.
Despite his mystification at the newfangled trappings of luxury, and the craven depths to which almost everyone around him sinks, Jed remains a bastion of homespun wisdom--very much the Lincolnesque backroads scholar. Virtually recycling his George Russel character, the sidekick in Disney's Davy Crockett series from the mid-1950s, Ebsen eventually carried the Lincoln conceit over into his private life, authoring a stage play in 1966 titled The Champagne Generation, in which he starred as the late president. (When Nancy Kulp, the birdwatching Vassar grad Miss Jane Hathaway, ran for a Congressional seat from Pennsylvania in the early 1980s, she only lost when Buddy Ebsen, a lifelong Republican, stepped in to actively campaign against her.)
Despite the silliness of much of its humor, The Beverly Hillbillies managed to bolster its credibility among its core audience with a kind of hillbilly authenticism. Bluegrass avatars Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were enlisted for the theme song, which quickly became a number-one hit on country-western charts, and they frequently appeared on the show as themselves (long before their music was spot-appropriated for its native exoticism by Bonnie and Clyde). Cousin Pearl was a textbook recreation of Grand Ol' Opry mainstay Minnie Pearl, and Roy Clarke was an occasional guest before inheriting the show's constituency with his 20-year stint as host of Hee Haw. Even the series name was taken from a bluegrass band of the 1930s. And of course, the characters of Jethro, Elly Mae, and Granny seemed to borrow more than casually from Li'l Abner, Daisy May, and Mammy Yokum, respectively.
Yet turning up in the fall of 1962 as they did, the paradigmatic arrivistes, the Clampetts seemed to mirror almost perfectly another eccentric clan of uninvited backwoods arrivals, one which was thrust into the national spotlight--decisively and distastefully--with the Kennedy assassination. Suddenly, instead of glamorous Brahmins dictating the national agenda, we had Texas crackers straight off the farm (whose political fortunes could be traced back to Texas Tea of their own). And long before Lyndon Johnson was known for his consummate political savvy and rattlesnake ruthlessness, he entered the popular culture as a national embarrassment, remembered and endlessly ridiculed for turning off the lights in the White House to save electricity, or showing an incredulous nation his gall bladder scar.
By extension, the show became in certain quarters something of a public embarrassment as well, emblematic of the nation's having slipped another notch into pandering anti-intellectualism--a pervasive "bubbling crude" which stained all in its wake. By the time television had caught up with the changing times--the fall of 1971--youth culture and its built-in consumer demographic looked far more appealing to advertisers on the professional rut, and The Beverly Hillbillies, while still vastly successful, was caught in the same network purge which claimed Jackie Gleason, Red Skelton, and rural mainstays such as Mayberry RFD and Henning's own Green Acres. This is the same changing of the guard which ushered in The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, and, ostensibly, social realism and the death of the 1960s. A Made-for-Television movie appeared on CBS in 1981, without Baer, and the series was later remade as a feature film in 1993 by the makers of Wayne's World, but neither did justice to the original.