In 1962, a truly strange TV show hit the airwaves, The Beverly Hillbillies. The sitcom revolves around a poor mountaineer, Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), who discovers oil on his backwoods property. Now a multi-millionaire, he’s encouraged to move to Beverly Hills with his spunky mother-in-law, “Granny” (Irene Ryan), beautiful daughter Elly May (Donna Douglas), and dim-witted nephew Jethro (Max Baer). They try to understand their strange new surroundings and are aided by selfish banker Milburn Drysdale (Raymond Bailey) and his bookish secretary, Miss Jane Hathaway (Nancy Kulp).
It may be hard to imagine it now but in its day, The Beverly Hillbillies was a massive hit. Though hated by most critics, several episodes of the series are among the most-watched TV episodes in history, having drawn as much as 44% of the viewing households. A 1964 episode titled “The Giant Jackrabbit” is still the most-watched half-hour program of all time.
When the show was cancelled in 1971 after nine seasons, the sitcom was still popular. However, the networks and advertisers had started to pay attention to demographics and the Hillibillies audience wasn’t as desirable. The network also cancelled Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D., and Hee Haw. As Green Acre’s Pat Buttram said, “It was the year CBS killed everything with a tree in it.”
As a result of the abrupt cancellation, the Beverly Hillbillies cast and the crew weren’t able to film any kind of finish for the series. The sitcom ended with a rather typical installment.
In the preceding episodes, Jethro learns that a “homely” childhood sweetheart, Louella Aden (Hannah Aden), is coming to town. He believes that she wants to marry him and goes into hiding. Unknown to him, she’s now a knock-out and is arriving to just get into show business.
Miss Jane falls in love with a handsome birdwatcher named Robert Audubon. It turns out that he’s actually an out-of-work actor named Dick Bremerkamp (Petticoat Junction’s Mike Minor) who’s just using her to get to Elly May and her family’s fortune. Granny is thrilled when Robert starts wooing Elly because he tells her that he’s Robert A. Crockett, a descendant of Davy Crockett. Robert tells Mr. Drysdale that he’s a member of the wealthy Getty family and the banker immediately likes him as well.
As the last episode begins, Granny is jumping the gun and planning Elly’s marriage to Robert. Jed is doing repairs to the mansion’s foundation. They go inside the house for a jackrabbit breakfast and Jed leaves his bucket of mortar outside. Inside, Granny tells Jed that she’s figured out a way to get Jethro to come out of hiding. She’s stopped leaving the bucket of vittles out front as she had been doing. They hear the car pull up, but it quickly pulls away. They go outside and realize the bucket of mortar is gone and suspect Jethro will think it was a bucket of grits.
At the bank, Elly and Jane confront Drysdale over his treatment of Elly’s monkey. The greedy banker made him carry a sandwich board around town, advertising the bank. Elly threatens to tell her Pa so Drysdale makes the chimp the advertising manager for the bank.
Back at the mansion, Police Officer Massey (played by the show’s longtime music composer, Curt Massey) brings a bearded and very sick Jethro home. While Jethro suffers, Granny gets caught up telling the cop about the beauty of Tennessee. Eventually, she gets around to helping the boy and takes him away. Jed offers the cop some lunch but, having seen the effects of Granny’s grits, the officer makes a speedy getaway.
Jed calls Miss Jane to ask her to tell Elly that Jethro is home safe. Miss Jane tells him that Robert is out giving Elly her second driving lesson. We see the lesson and Elly’s still a terrible driver and barely pays attention.
At home, Granny pulls the mortar out of Jethro’s stomach and, within minutes, he’s hungry again. Granny scares Jethro away again by talking about wedding plans. He thinks they’re for him. But, before Jethro goes, he tells her to keep leaving food out for him. “But this time no grits! Please!”
At the bank, Miss Jane has just finished typing up a poem for her sweetheart, Robert. Elly returns from her driving lesson and asks if she could copy the poem to practice her typing. She tells Miss Jane that Robert’s at the mansion, giving Granny an old confederate flag that his great, great grandfather carried into battle.
Drysdale sees Elly typing the poem and believes that Elly loves the wealthy Robert Getty. The banker goes to the mansion to tell Robert and privately encourages him to take Elly immediately to Las Vegas to get married. Drysdale even gives him money so that he can leave immediately. Drysdale returns to the bank very happy and gloats to Miss Jane about the big financial merger he’s orchestrated.
On their way to Vegas, Robert reveals his plans, and Elly’s outraged, believing that Robert is Miss Jane’s beau. He’s confused and asks about the poem. She reveals that Miss Jane had written it and he’s sick. He offers to let Elly drive back to the bank, hoping that they might not make it.
When Jed and Jethro come to the bank for Elly, Miss Jane tells Jed that she’s gone to get married in Vegas to the Getty heir. Drysdale enters and they’re all confused. When Elly and Robert return, it becomes clear that the actor has been playing multiple parts. He comes clean and Drysdale demands his money back. The actor only has part of it, since the rest had to be put towards repairing Miss Jane’s car (from Elly’s driving).
Drysdale tells the swindler that he’s no longer an out-of-work actor. The banker puts him to work washing windows, replacing Elly’s chimp. End of series.
Some of the cast would return for a 1981 made-for-TV movie on CBS, Return of the Beverly Hillbillies. Only Ebsen, Douglas, and Kulp returned and it lacked the charm of the original series. The movie was also not a success in the ratings.
Much more fulfilling was The Legend of the Beverly Hillbillies. This May 1993 special reunited Ebsen, Douglas, Baer, and others in a “mockumentary” on CBS. It was the fourth most-watched program of the week.
A feature film version of Hillbillies was released in October 1993. It didn’t feature the original cast and wasn’t a box office success, grossing just $45 million domestically. The movie is notable however in that it features Ebsen in his final movie appearance as Detective Barnaby Jones, a character he played for eight years after Hillbillies was cancelled.
Much to the chagrin of the critics who lambasted the show many years ago, the original series remains very popular today however, and is a rerun staple of TV Land.