Saturday, January 3, 2015

Godspeed Donna Douglas

Donna Douglas, best known for playing Jed Clampett's daughter Elly May on the wildly successful television show The Beverly Hillbillies, died on 1 January 2015 at the age of 82. The cause was pancreatic cancer.

Donna Douglas was born Doris Smith in the unincorporated community of Pride in  East Baton Rouge Parish, Louisiana on 26 September 1932. She attended Redemptorist High School in East Baton Rouge Parish where she played both softball and basketball. She was crowned "Miss Baton Rouge" and "Miss New Orleans" in beauty pageants.

Eventually Donna Douglas moved to New York City where she did some modelling, which really did not appeal to her. In 1957 she began a stint as the "Letters Girl" on The Perry Como Show. From 1959 to 1960 she was the "Billboard Girl" on The Steve Allen Show. That same year she made her debut in a television drama in an episode of Tightrope. In 1959 she also appeared in episodes of U.S. Marshall and Bachelor Father. She made her film debut that year as well, in Career. In 1959 she also appeared in an uncredited role as a chorus dancer in Li'l Abner. In 1960 she made guest appearances on Whirlybirds, Lock Up, The Detectives, and Route 66. It was also that year that she made what might be her most notable guest appearance, playing a woman who is undergoing plastic surgery to correct her "ugliness" in the Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder".

While she may be forever identified with Elly May on The Beverly Hillbillies, Donna Douglas appeared in a number of shows in the early Sixties before playing her most famous role. She had a recurring role on the short-lived series Checkmate. She also guest starred in such shows as Thriller, Michael Shayne, 77 Sunset Strip, Hennessey, The Aquanauts, Surfside 6, Petet & Gladys, Dr. Kildare, The Jack Benny Programme, and Mister Ed. She appeared in the film Lover Come Back (1961), playing Deborah, the secretary of Pete Ramsey (played by Tony Randall).

For the role of Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies Donna Douglas competed against 500 other actresses. Miss Douglas thought that it was because she was a natural product of the South that she ultimately got the part. In fact, during her audition she was asked to milk a goat. While Miss Douglas had never milked a goat before, she had milked cows. She was then able to milk the goat with no problems at all. Regardless, The Beverly Hillbillies debuted on CBS on 26 September 1962 and proved to be one of the most phenomenally successful shows of all time. In fact, several episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies still rank among the highest rated programmes in the United States. The episode "The Giant Jack Rabbit" (which aired 8 January 1964) remains the highest rated half-hour episode of a television of all time in the Untied States. The Beverly Hillbillies would not maintain such incredible ratings for long, and its ratings would drop after its second season. That having been said, ratings for the show remained good for the entirety of its run. It remained in the top twenty highest rated shows each season until its 9th season. Its ratings were still respectable when it was cancelled in its 9th season, a victim of the Rural Purge.

While The Beverly Hillbillies was still on the air Donna Douglas would make a guest appearance on The Defenders. She also played opposite Elvis Presley in the movie Frankie and Johnny (1966). Sadly, following The Beverly Hillbillies Donna Douglas found herself typecast as Elly May, so that she only played a few roles afterwards. She guest starred on the shows Night Gallery; Love, American Style; Adam-12; McMillan & Wife; Project U.F.O,  and The Nanny. In 1981 she returned to the role of Elly May in the televison reunion movie The Return of The Beverly Hillbillies. In 2008 she appeared in the short "Chronicles of Life Starfish". In 2013 she appeared in the film Chronicles of Life Trials (2013). She also appeared on numerous talk and variety shows.

After The Beverly Hillbillies Donna Douglas also performed as a gospel singer, even recording gospel albums. She wrote two children's books, Donna's Critters & Kids: Children's Stories with a Bible Touch and  Miss Donna's Mulberry Acres Farm. She also published a cook book, Southern Favorites with a Taste of Hollywood, which included recipes from Buddy Ebsen, Phyllis Diller, Valerie Harper, and Debbie Reynolds. She also worked as a real estate agent for a time.

While many actors resent being typecast, Donna Douglas never did. In fact, she was happy to have played a character that so many people love and to have starred in a show that so many people love as well. She once said in an Associated Press interview, "So many kinds of people relate to Elly May. So many people love her, and that means a lot to me.”

Certainly if one had to be typecast, Elly May Clampett was a good role in which to be typecast. Quite simply, Elly May is one of the most remarkable female characters in Sixties television. In 1962 most female characters on television were either housewives or secretaries, and the teenage girl characters on television aspired to be such. This was not the case for Elly May. While Granny (played by Irene Ryan) often fretted about her being an "old maid" (Elly May was only 16 when the show began), Elly May was not particularly eager get married. Not only did it appear that Elly May did not really want to be a housewife, but she could not even cook. Elly May cared much more about caring for her numerous critters than she did about any potential husbands, and she could shoot, run, and "wrassle" as good as any man. While many sitcoms of the era simply prepared young girls and women for lives of domestic "bliss", The Beverly Hillbillies and Elly May let them know it did not have to be that way.

Of course, Donna Douglas did play more roles than Elly May Clampett. As Frankie in Frankie and Johnny she was arguably one of Elvis Presley's best leading ladies. She was convincing as a performer on a riverboat on the Mississippi. Donna Douglas also gave a good performance in the Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder". Although she doesn't speak a line of dialogue (it was Maxine Stuart who provided the voice of Janet Taylor in the episode), her expressions in the episode required no words to get her feelings across. Donna Douglas was not necessarily among the greatest television actors of all time, but she was quite good. What she brought to her roles was sincerity, something which is seen in everything from The Beverly Hillbillies to her guest appearances on Mister Ed. If millions still love Elly May fifty years after The Beverly Hillbillies debuted, that may be why.


Stephen Reginald said...

I enjoyed this post, but how could Donna Douglas have been 16 in 1962 when she was born in 1932?

Terence Towles Canote said...

Donna Douglas playing Elly May was sort of like those actors on Beverly Hills 90120. She was a 30 year old playing a 16 year old. LOL.