A Look Back at Life With Classic TV?s ?Jethro Bodine?
Max Baer, Jr. with Herbie J Pilato
? Jethro Bodine, as played by Max Baer Jr. on The Beverly Hillbillies
There must be something to being super-dim and mega-handsome. Just ask Jethro Bodine, The Beverly Hillbillies TV character portrayed with earnest by Max Baer, Jr. (who prefers to be known as just Max Baer) on CBS from 1962 to 1971. Jethro may have been born as ?mountain folk,? but because his Uncle Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen) struck gold (?Texas tea?), he was fortunate enough to have ?loaded up the truck and moved to Beverly . . . Hills, that is? ? with the entire Clampett family, including Elly May (Donna Douglas) and Granny (Irene Ryan).
Not exactly the brightest bulb in the bulb box (?If brains was lard, Jethro couldn?t grease a pan?), the young Mr. Bodine was still a hit with the ladies, especially Miss Jane Hathaway (Nancy Culp). Miss Jane, secretary to banker Millburn Drysdale (Raymond Bailey), who guarded Jed?s millions, always had a thing for Jethro ? and she wasn?t shy about expressing those feelings. Ultimately, Miss Jane became the voice of ?Everywoman? . . . meaning, every woman viewer at home who was attracted to Baer?s brawny and likable performance as Jethro.
Born Maximilian Adalbert Baer Jr. on December 4, 1937, in Oakland, California, Baer?s parents were champion boxer Max Baer and Mary Ellen Sullivan. He was married to Joanne Kathleen Hill from 1966 to 1971.
Baer?s first acting role was in a stage production of Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the Blackpool Pavilion in England in 1949. He earned a bachelor?s degree in 1959 in business administration from Santa Clara University (minored in philosophy). He began working in television in 1960, making guest appearances on shows like Maverick, Surfside 6, Bronco, The Roaring 20?s, Sugarfoot, Cheyenne, Hawaiian Eye, 77 Sunset Strip, and Follow the Sun.
In 1962 he was cast as Jethro on Hillbillies, which CBS initially aired until the network opted to cancel as one executive put it ?every show with a tree in it,? purging all country-geared programming for what was considered the more sophisticated shows that were surfacing at the time (e.g., Norman Lear?s All in the Family).
Between 1972 and 1991, Baer made guest appearances on shows like Love, American Style, Fantasy Island, Matt Houston (on which Buddy Ebsen had a recurring role) and Murder, She Wrote. He wrote, produced, and acted in the 1974 hit film Macon County Line. He also produced, directed, and acted in The Wild McCullochs (1975) and produced and directed Ode to Billy Joe (1976).
In 1991 he purchased the rights to The Beverly Hillbillies name from CBS and has used the show?s theme and its characters for casinos, theme parks, restaurants, cosmetics, and consumables. With International Game Technology he has licensed Beverly Hillbillies?themed slot machines including ?Clampett?s Cash,? ?The Bubblin? Crude,? and ?Moonshine Money.? He?s currently still attempting to launch Beverly Hillbillies?themed casinos in Nevada.
Much wiser than his most famous TV male alter ego, Baer offered his exclusive insight into the extremely likable interpretation of Jethro Bodine, and how important a role the audience plays in the scheme of things with regard to an actor?s performance; especially a television audience:
?When you play a role like Jethro,? he said, ?it?s for other people to judge because it?s pretty hard to be subjective or objective about yourself. You just do the best you can with the material that you?re given, and then you try to add to it [with your performance] as much as you possibly can. But in the end, it?s the audience who has the final say. Well, we liked what you did? or ?We don?t like what you did.? And you really don?t have any other way of evaluating it.?
?As long as you give 100 percent,? he continued, ??even if you?re sick. Don?t bullshit, and say, ?Oh, I can?t show up.? You show up! You do your job ? and you do it as if you aren?t sick ? because it?s going to be on film in perpetuity. You?re not going to be able to put a little quote at the bottom of the screen saying, ?Well, he wasn?t as good today because he was sick ? or emotionally disturbed or had a headache.? You have to give a good performance. You have to perform well. And, in my case [with Jethro], if I have made the people laugh ? and even if they can laugh at my expense ? it?s okay. I don?t care. They can laugh with me or at me. It doesn?t matter ? just as long as they laugh. Because if I can make them laugh, then I believe that my performance was a successful one. I can?t evaluate it as to what degree of success it was. But I can say it did what it was supposed to do.?
Baer clearly did just that, winning over millions of Jethro fans for decades, including his Hillbillies costars, including fellow male costar Buddy Ebsen, about whom Baer once said, ?To me, Buddy was the star of The Beverly Hillbillies.?
The majority of the main Hillbillies stars are now gone, including Ebsen and Donna Douglas, who passed away in 2015, leaving Baer as the sole surviving cast member from the series. In 2013 Douglas spoke highly of both Ebsen and Baer:
?Buddy . . . he was the best! I had most of my scenes with him, he reminded me so much of my own dad. Once at the beginning of the show?s run, my dad went to town and someone yelled, ?Hey Jed Clampett? to him. It was so precious, as my parents were so proud of my success! And then Max and I were with Buddy the night before he died at the hospital.
?Max Baer did well as Jethro because he didn?t come across as so dumb that you didn?t like him. He gave me a hard time then and still does. But we all were like a family. Max could complain about any one of us (for whatever reason), but do not let someone else say something about one of us. Boy ? would Max really let that person have it. He?d defend us just like with a real family member.?
TV historian Jeffrey D. Dalrymple, who was good friends with Douglas, and who remains so with Baer, concludes of Max?s maximum portrayal of his beloved Beverly Bodine character:
?Max Baer as Jethro was perfect casting. The goofy ear to ear grin?his laugh?his ability to make you laugh along with him [or at him, as Baer himself has assessed], you believed episode after episode, that he truly was a country bumpkin with only a sixth-grade education. When he held his fingers up to cipher 2 + 2 = 4, he made the character of Jethro Bodine his own, and we all delighted in his plans to be a brain surgeon, a movie director, or a double naught spy. You believed Uncle Jed, Granny, and cousin Elly May was his family because they played it so well. And Max had the ability to blend in with the other cast members, without overplaying or underplaying Jethro. He was a good actor and a good guy, and he still is?[as well as being a] talented writer, and a successful businessman.?
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This article is edited material from the book, DASHING, DARING AND DEBONAIR: TV?S TOP MALE ICONS FROM THE ?50s, ?60s, AND ?70s. For more information, visit www.HerbieJPilato.com.