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Donna Douglas dead, 'Beverly Hillbillies' star was 81

"The Beverly Hillbillies." Photo Credit: Everett Collection

Donna Douglas, one of the iconic TV actresses of the '60s for a single role, played for maximum camp effect over 274 episodes of "The Beverly Hillbillies," has died at the age of 81, according to the Associated Press. 

Douglas was, of course, Elly May Clampett, beautiful daughter of Jed -- Buddy Ebsen -- who had decamped to a Beverly Hills mansion along with his mother-in-law, Daisy May (Irene Ryan), and the son of his cousin, Pearl, Jethro Bodine (Max Baer Jr.). Of the once-seen-never-forgotten variety, Douglas' Elly May emerged as a love interest for a few million boys: She was a tomboy with brains and even brawn (if memory serves, any guy who got fresh with her was in for a whoopin'). Oh, yes, it was a characterization that in 2014 would have horrified critics and possibly even some viewers for its over-the-borderline sexism and dim portrayal of women. (Or maybe it would horrify them until they considered poor Jethro, TV's dimmest bulb of an entire generation -- he came off much worse.)  

Nevertheless, Douglas was still a core member of one of TV's great comedies -- a show that turned around CBS' fortunes while turning critics inside out trying to find just the right words to castigate this presumed assault on culture and the promise of TV. 

 But the critics and detractors were mostly wrong -- "The Beverly Hillbillies" is STILL funny after all these long years, or at least the early seasons are, and a key reason was Donna Douglas, who was flawless in the role: Pat Priest's Marilyn Munster played a variation on this, as a beautiful poised human being in the midst of those not quite so poised or beautiful. Douglas' Ellie May was certainly poised in comparison to Granny and Jethro, but she could nonetheless never be mistaken for anyone's progeny other than Jed's. She was a core part of the whole, and made it work so well.

Her career never quite survived the series, which aired from 1962 to 1971. There were a few other roles and shows hither and yon afterward, none enduring, and a pair of lawsuits, one against Disney for "Sister Act" (which she claimed the studio had heisted from her) and another over a Barbie Doll likeness. 

She also had a singing career before the series, and worked alongside Elvis Presley in 1966's "Frankie and Johnny," where she indeed sang.

Her pre-"Hillbillies" career had a handful of notable starring turns, perhaps most famously in the 1960 "Twilight Zone" episode "The Eye of the Beholder," in which she played Janet Tyler, a woman who had undergone many operations in an effort to make her look like everyone else -- "everyone else" in this instance bearing a marked resemblance to hogs. (Her human appearance never changed, and she went into exile.) 

 To the clips...


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