It's been purt' near twenty years since Jed an' all his kin last stood outside the Clampett mansion and said goodbye to fans of The Beverly Hillbillies.
But last week, Donna Douglas, who immortalized the role of backwoods lollapalooza Elly May Clampett on the phenomenally popular Sixties sitcom, offered a heapin' helpin' of hospitality as she prepared to tape a guest appearance on The Tom Tabback Show, Channel 15's local Tuesday-morning variety program.
"Do people still recognize me?!" Sitting in a conference room in the Mesa Holiday Inn, where the show is taped, Douglas pulls on the ends of her trademark pigtails. "You're joshin', right?" she asks in her best peaches-and-cornpone tone. "Listen, I had to run up to the store one day, so I threw on a raincoat and put a babushka on my head. You couldn't even see but a little bitty part of my face. Well, sure enough, someone says, `You're Donna Douglas!' Well, I like to die, looking that way!" Pay no nevermind to her modesty, however. "My feeling is that other folks' time is just as valuable as my own," says the former Miss New Orleans 1958, who today spends a lot of her time crisscrossing the country giving Christian pep talks to teens. "I was comin' down the stairs at a TraveLodge one time and this girl runs up and says, `Got ya! As long as you're in that room with the drapes pulled and the door closed, I won't bother you. But the minute you open that door, you're fair game.' And after I thought about it, I realized she was right." A model turned bit player, Douglas' most memorable pre-Hillbillies role was in a 1960 episode of The Twilight Zone, playing a hospital patient whose bandaged face has been tragically disfigured in an accident. Douglas' face provided the punch line to a nightmarish fable about standards of beauty. In the shocking climax, the bandages are removed and her beautiful face is exposed--to the horror of an army of pig-faced doctors.
Douglas was rubbing snouts with a variety of other "critters" a couple of years later when she landed the role of tomboy Elly May. "We had absolutely no idea how big the show would be," says Douglas, who was as surprised as anyone else when the critically lambasted show became the sensation of the 1962 TV season. "New York and Hollywood didn't think too much of us. The ones that loved us was everybody in between."
Wheee doggies! Did they ever! During its first two seasons, the Hillbillies topped the Nielsen ratings, and in the next six years it always finished in the top twenty. Several years ago, when A.C. Nielsen released a list of the top-watched programs in TV history, Hillbillies episodes filled eight out of the twenty top slots. (Most of the others were heavily hyped "events" like the last episodes of The Fugitive and M*A*S*H, the "Who Shot J.R.?" segment of Dallas, and the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan.) Although the Clampetts continued to draw respectable ratings during their ninth year, Douglas suddenly found herself unemployed at the end of the 1970-71 season. Eager to shed its farm-fresh image, CBS unceremoniously put The Beverly Hillbillies out to pasture, along with other rustic ratings grabbers Green Acres, Mayberry R.F.D., and Hee Haw. Tarnation!
Undaunted, Douglas did just what Elly May Clampett might have done: She hitched up her dungarees and decided to get her some book-larnin'.
"See, I didn't know anything other than acting and I wanted to learn something else," she confesses. "So, after we were canceled, I went to night school and got my real estate license." Swiveling her baby-blues, Douglas continues. "Donna Douglas sellin' real estate?! At first, everyone said `Uh-huh, right.' But I worked hard and they saw I was serious. So that's what I did for the next few years. 'Course, I kept doin' personal appearances and all that--kept my figure in shape--but I rarely acted. See, I didn't want to do just any old thing. I wanted to do a certain caliber of work."
And the challenging role of a lifetime that finally brought Douglas out of retirement ten years later? None other than Elly May Clampett in the pow'rful bad 1981 TV movie The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies.
Grimacing, Douglas recalls that Clampett family reunion turkey: "Well, for starters, Maxie [Max Baer Jr.] wouldn't have anything to do with it. That should have been a sign. And of course, Irene [Ryan] had passed on by then, so we didn't have a Granny." Ticking off the screw-ups on her fingers, Douglas continues. "We didn't go back to the mansion. We didn't have the old truck--it's in a museum in the Ozarks. And they had another actor play Jethro." She adds sadly, "He wasn't our Jethro."
Then, putting the past behind her, or at least temporarily shoving it to one side, Douglas giggles. "What am I doin' now?" she asks. "Well, where do you want to start?"
She's enshrined her footprints in a slab of concrete at the Movieland Wax Museum near Disneyland. She's working with a Glendale couple to market limited-edition Elly May Clampett dolls (selling for $1,000 apiece). Early next year, she'll be back in Phoenix to help character actor Ben Johnson stage a charity rodeo for Special Olympics. ("If you take, you must put back," she says solemnly.)
Next spring, you can bet your buttons she'll be at the grand opening of something called the Donna Douglas Arts and Crafts Village in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. ("Eureka Springs is very big on crafts," she explains.)
She's even talking about a couple of movie projects--her first feature-film work since co-starring in Frankie and Johnny, a 1966 Elvis Presley flick. Nowadays, though, she prefers to chat about a different King.
"I like to talk to young people and tell them how really wonderful life is," says Douglas, who spends a lot of time speaking to schools and youth groups. "I try to help them to reach for the best, do their best and know God will always be there for them. That's sort of the story of my life. I started off as a very poor little girl and then all these things have happened to me."
And who can argue with her? She is, after all, the only gospel singer in history whose album includes a poster featuring pictures from a Twilight Zone episode.
"New York and Hollywood didn't think too much of us. The ones that loved us was everybody in between.