07/21/2003 at 01:00 AM EDT
I can walk on any stage in the English-speaking world and say, 'Well, doggies!' and I'm home free," Buddy Ebsen once boasted. His rebel yell defined his most memorable role—Jed Clampett, a poor mountaineer who, as the song goes, made a fortune in a bubblin' crude (oil, that is!).
But there was more to the 95-year-old actor, who died July 6 from pneumonia, in Torrance, Calif., than playing the patriarch of TV's The Beverly Hillbillies (1962-71). "Most actors' egos are so big I don't know how they find a hat to fit," says Max Baer Jr., who was Jethro on Hillbillies. "Buddy was a different animal." Adds Fess Parker, who played Davy Crockett opposite Ebsen in the mid-'50s: "From a career standpoint he was a model. Who today has gone from vaudeville to Broadway to movies to television?"
Critics saw the Hillbillies as simpletons; Ebsen disagreed. "They had poise," he once said. "They never felt out of place." After the show ended, the actor bounced back playing private eye Barnaby Jones for seven years.
More than 50 years earlier the young Ebsen performed in vaudeville with his sister Vilma. He soon landed in Hollywood, dancing with Shirley Temple in 1936's Captain January. "Buddy was a wonderful tapper," says Shirley Temple Black. "And a genuinely nice guy." Cast as the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz, he had to give up the role to Jack Haley after developing an allergy to the makeup's aluminum dust.
Married three times and a father to seven, Ebsen spent his later years painting scenes of rural life, which he sold online. In '01, he penned a novel, Kelly's Quest. "This hillbilly can write," Ebsen crowed. Well, doggies!, indeed.