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Donna Douglas: Lookahere at These 15 Facts About Elly May from ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’

There is so much more to the actress than this one character, which you're about to discover

What Catherine Bach did for Daisy Dukes on The Dukes of Hazzard in the 1980s, Donna Douglas had done for jeans over a decade earlier as Elly May Clampett on the 1962 to 1971 series The Beverly Hillbillies. The culture clash premise of the series — hillbilly family strikes oil, are made instant millionaires and relocate to Beverly Hills, California — is well-known, but the same may not be true of Donna Douglas, who starred alongside Buddy Ebsen as Jed Clampett, Irene Ryan as Granny and Max Baer, Jr. as Jethro Bodine.

She was born Doris Ione Smith on September 26, 1932 in the Pride community in East Baton Rogue Parish, Louisiana. Her father, Emmett Ratcliff Smith, Jr., was an employee at Standard Oil and her mother, Elma, was a former telephone operator. Donna was the youngest of two children and a self-professed tomboy, driven home by her playing softball and basketball at St. Gerard Catholic High School.

Although it may seem incongruous to some, she was deeply religious and competed in beauty contests, being named Miss Baton Rouge and Miss New Orleans in 1957. In a 1961 edition of the newspaper The Mercury, they summed up what happened next:

Donna went to New York in 1958 and “became Tina Barron, high fashion model. She soon found her way into TV, learned the gentle art of being ‘elbow-grabber’ on a couple of daytime game shows and then spent eight months studying with Lee Strasberg. Not a dramatic artist in the accepted sense of the world, Donna has learned by watching others. And what she learns, she learns well. She has appeared in some 35 TV [episodes], including Checkmate four times, Thriller, Twilight Zone, Tightrope and Route 66.”

All of that would ultimately lead to The Beverly Hillbillies, but before and after there’s so much more to know about Donna Douglas.

1. Donna Douglas claimed to be interested in learning two things in life

Actress Donna Douglas, circa 1960
Actress Donna Douglas, circa 1960 Getty

According to that The Mercury profile, published the year before The Beverly Hillbillies premiered, Donna Douglas’ “whole objective in life is to learn just two things — the truth about life and the truth about herself. She studies Indian philosophy one night a week, attends at least two different churches every week, likes nothing better than to spend an entire afternoon just talking to someone. Small talk she avoids as the plague.”

2. She was a tomboy growing up

1962: Donna Douglas leans on a tree trunk in a promotional portrait for the television show 'The Beverly Hillbillies'
1962: Donna Douglas leans on a tree trunk in a promotional portrait for the television show The Beverly Hillbillies Getty

The Daily World, in 1961, reported, “Donna was the only girl around her neighborhood when she was growing up. ‘I either learned boys’ games or I didn’t play,’ she explained. ‘I can play football and really tackle, but I’m a girl tomboy. I used to play for the Paramount Studio softball team. I was going to be mascot, but they found out I could pitch. There I was, playing with the boys again.'”

3. Her experience in beauty pageants led her to New York

1960:  Full-length portrait of American actor Donna Douglas posing in a formfitting, draped, silk gown, designed by Walter Plunkett
1960: Full-length portrait of American actor Donna Douglas posing in a formfitting, draped, silk gown, designed by Walter Plunkett Getty

On April 21, 1963, The Times described the journey of the actress this way: “Miss Douglas was a cheerleader, football queen and carnival queen while in high school in Baton Rouge and won the title of Miss New Orleans in 1957 and Miss Baton Rouge in 1958. After becoming the hot-pepper-eating championship and touring television stations in the area to demonstrate her pepper-eating talents, she made the big decision to go to New York. ‘I had never been north of Shreveport at the time and didn’t know what Broadway was.’

“She did illustration modeling in New York,” the profile added, “and appeared on The Steve Allen Show and The Perry Como Show. New York newspapers awarded her the ‘Miss By-Line’ crown, which led to an introduction on The Ed Sullivan Show and a Hollywood offer from producer Hal Wallis.”

4. Career was a mixed experience for her

That Hal Wallis production was the 1959 film Career, a drama starring Dean Martin, Tony Franciosa and Shirley MacLaine with Donna having a small role. “I played the wife in the movie,” she told The Charlotte News in 1962, “but I wasn’t ready for Hollywood. I was unaware of myself. Lots of people aren’t. They aren’t aware of their facets. Am I aware of myself now? Well, I certainly am to a greater degree than I was.”

Although the details are lost to history, apparently one of the male stars of Career, deliberately upstaged her on camera. This was discussed with the reporter from The Mercury, with Donna Douglas commenting, “At first, I didn’t know what it was he was trying to do. I was pretty green in those days. But when it finally dawned on me, I thought to myself, ‘Why, the poor man. What a terrible thing it must be to feel so insecure.’ I just felt sorry for him.”

circa 1965:  Portrait of actor Donna Douglas, wearing a blue shoulderless gown and long white gloves, standing in front of a curtain and smiling
circa 1965: Portrait of actor Donna Douglas, wearing a blue shoulderless gown and long white gloves, standing in front of a curtain and smiling Getty

Which led the writer of the piece to observe, “If Donna can be summed up in a single anecdote, that’s the one that does it. She sees nothing but good in people. When something other than good crops up, she is first surprised and then concerned — not for herself, but for the other fellow.”

5. There were other small movie roles

Following Career, Donna had small roles in the comedy musical Li’l Abner (1959, based on the Broadway musical of the same name) and the Doris Day and Rock Hudson “sex comedy” Lover Came Back, the second of three films they were featured in (preceded by Pillow Talk and followed by Send Me No Flowers).

6. A Twilight Zone story

In the second season of his anthology show The Twilight Zone, series creator Rod Serling wrote a script titled “Eye of the Beholder,” which would air on November 11, 1960. The plot deals with a society of beings described on Wikipedia as having “monstrous faces with drooping features, large, thick brows, sunken-in eyes, swollen and twisted lips and wrinkled noses with pig snout-like nostrils.”

Viewers meet a team of these beings who are doctors and nurses, performing facial surgery on a female (Janet), that is ultimately deemed a failure: her bandages removed, she’s revealed — to hers and everyone else’s horror — that the surgery has failed, her face deemed a “pitiful twisted lump of fresh.”

From our point of view, she’s actually a beautiful woman (played by Donna Douglas), but considered something of a freak by her people (think of it as a more dramatic take on Marilyn being the only human-looking member of The Munsters TV show).

Twilight Zone episode 'Eye of the Beholder'
Twilight Zone episode ‘Eye of the Beholder,’ 1960©CBS/IMDb

Interestingly, there were two versions of the character Janet on the episode’s call sheets, one referred to as “Ugly Janet” and the other “Beautiful Janet.” The former was played by Maxine Stuart, the latter by Donna.

Reported The South Bend Tribune on November 15, 1960, “What they thought was classic beauty in a photographically perfect face was Donna Douglas … Donna has played several small roles gaining experience in television, but she presently lacks the strength of experience the producers felt was necessary to sustain the role throughout the teleplay. She is primarily a photographic model … The Twilight Zone producers found in Miss Stuart the extra acting talent necessary to the role, while Miss Douglas provided the beauty essential for her portion of the drama.”

Maxine Stuart and Twilight Zone creator/host/writer Rod Serling in a behind-the-scenes moment from 'The Twilight Zone' episode 'Eye of the Beholder,' 1960
Maxine Stuart and Twilight Zone creator/host/writer Rod Serling in a behind-the-scenes moment from the episode ‘Eye of the Beholder,’ 1960©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

That sort of thing, accompanied with the fact that The Beverly Hillbillies would essentially turn her into a sex symbol just a few years later, led to Donna reflecting with the New York Daily News in 1963, “I’m not belittling the power sex has in the making of a star, but I hope my career will have a wider horizon, which would include the kind of quality parts played by Ingrid Bergman and Deborah Kerr as well as those played by Bridget Bardot and the late Marilyn Monroe. Elly May reflects the simplest facet of my own personality. In the future, I hope to grow through a gamut of parts right up to ‘grand duchess’ roles.”

MUST READ: Much more about screen icon Marilyn Monroe

7. Donna Douglas handled success of The Beverly Hillbillies like a pro

Cast of 'The Beverly Hillbillies'
Cast of The Beverly Hillbillies©CBS/courtesy MovieStillsDB.com

While ratings may have started out a bit on the low side, The Beverly Hillbillies soon became one of television’s highest-rated shows and remained enormously popular throughout its run. “There were many adjustments to be made,” Donna Douglas reflected regarding success to the New York Daily News. “One day, no one recognized me on the street and the next, people were coming up to me just to say hello and have me touch their children. I had to learn to accept that kind of thing as if it were directed toward Elly May and not toward me personally.

“I believe the confusion comes from within,” she added. “If your ego and your emotions mix you up, then your relations with others, your business affairs, your whole life, will become confused and disordered. Show business doesn’t have to be the rat race some people make of it. I’m determined that it won’t turn me into a sleeping pill/pep pill addict or some other kind of kook. Success isn’t worth having if that’s the price you have to pay for it.”

8. Embracing the Elly May persona

Donna’s hopes at the time were that people would eventually see that while Elly May was very much a part of her, she only represented a small part of the actress’ life. “It used to bother me terribly when the show began,” she told The San Bernardino Sun in 1963. “I tried to prove to people that I knew how to say more than, ‘Lookahere, Granny!’ Now I don’t bother. I’ve realized that when people themselves want to see a different me, they will.

“I never had that burning ambition to be a big star. In fact, if anyone would have told me five years ago that I would have been an actress, I’d have thought them the silliest person in the world. I never had an ounce of talent.”

9. About Those Jeans …

There’s no denying the fact that TV audiences were at least partially drawn to Donna Douglas as Elly May by the jeans she wore, much as they were to Barbara Eden’s harem outfit on I Dream of Jeannie. But achieving that particular look was more of a challenge than you might suspect.

Here’s how the Star-Gazette described the situation in its December 1, 1962 edition: “When producer Paul Henning asked his wardrobe department to dress Donna in a pair of beat-up Levis for her role as Elly May, he thought it a simple enough request. It was far from it, as he found out. First of all, the role of Elly May is a tomboy and she would wear boy’s pants, not girl’s. Trouble was, boys’ Levis did not fit Donna. There’s just no getting around it — Donna is a girl and, tomboy characterization or not, she is built like one.

“Altering the jeans did not work,” they elaborated, “so Opal Vila, in charge of women’s wardrobe on the series, went searching for a kind known in the trade as ‘stretch pants.’ These, as the term indicates, have a certain elasticity with a corresponding tendency to cling without bulging.”

Overall, though, it ended up being an expensive proposition (relatively speaking). “When the series began, I had to buy some blue jeans for Elly May,” Vila told the San Angelo Standard-Times. “The jeans didn’t cost much, $4.98 a pair. But then they had to be aged — another $8.50 each — and fitted at $10 a pair. Altogether, almost $25 a pair.”

Let’s face it, insofar as the audience was concerned, it was worth the price.

10. She had to balance her personal and professional life

From left to right, Ernest Borgnine, Donna Douglas and Lorne Greene pose with an Emmy Award, with Borgnine and Greene looking at the award, in a studio portrait, at the Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, May 1964
From left to right, Ernest Borgnine, Donna Douglas and Lorne Greene pose with an Emmy Award, with Borgnine and Greene looking at the award, in a studio portrait, at the Annual Primetime Emmy Awards, May 1964 Getty

One of the questions that Donna Douglas shared with the media was why she should be overly focused on her personal life. “My personal life,” she suggested, “and my career are all mixed up in one. What happens to one affects the other.

“I’m not anxious to find out what it’s like being married again. I was 17 going on 18 when I did. It was a mistake, but I’m not regretful. I’ve a seven-year-old son who lives with my folks. I’d like to have him here with me, but right now we both know that’s an impossibility. However, his not being near me doesn’t make me love him any less. I’ve learned to make adjustments in my life. And someday I know when that meaty part comes along, I’ll be able to apply all my experiences to it.”

11. Donna Douglas & Elvis Presley

As we know from the vantage of today, Donna Douglas never really got the opportunity for that “meaty part,” though the closest she came to it was the 1966 Elvis Presley movie Frankie and Johnny — she’s the former, he’s the latter — which also stars future MASH actor Harry Morgan.

“After we finished the season for Hillbillies,” she told the Big Spring Daily Herald in 1965, “I went to Australia to publicize the show. I could have gone on a personal appearance tour in this country during our summer vacation, but something told me not to. And sure enough, when I got back, they called me about the picture.”

12. Life After Elly May, Part I

 Donna Douglas rides a hippopotamus circa 1970's in Los Angeles, California
Donna Douglas rides a hippopotamus circa 1970’s in Los Angeles, CaliforniaGetty

The Beverly Hillbillies came to an end in 1971 as part of CBS’s so-called “rural purge,” when the network got rid of many of the programs that appealed primarily to viewers in the mid-West and went for edgier sitcoms (i.e. MASH, All in the Family, etc.) that would be more appealing to urban viewers. As a result, Donna Douglas was Elly May Clampett no more, so she began making a few guest star appearances in shows like Night Gallery, Adam-12, and McMillan and Wife.

She also obtained her real estate license and worked in that field for what turned out to be a short time. “I didn’t want to be put in a place of compromise,” she told wafb.com, “so I went to night school and got my real estate license. I wasn’t good in real estate. You know why? Because I’ve learned I’m a service person. I tell ’em what’s good about the house, but I’ll tell them what’s wrong about it, too. And you don’t do that.”

13. Donna Douglas: Life After Elly May, Part II

Actress Donna Douglas attends the Salvation Army's Annual Celebrity Bell Ringing December 12, 2001 in Los Angeles, CA
Actress Donna Douglas attends the Salvation Army’s Annual Celebrity Bell Ringing December 12, 2001 in Los Angeles, CA Getty

What Donna was really drawn to was the idea of being a gospel singer. Always very religious, in 1984 she graduated from Rhema Bible Training Center with an emphasis. in children’s ministry.

She became a speaker at youth groups and church groups as well as schools and colleges all across the country. She would also record four gospel albums between 1982’s Donna Douglas Sings Gospel and 1989’s Back on the Mountain. Additionally, she wrote and published religion-based children’s books as well as cookbooks.

14. The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies

The 1970s and 1980s were filled with reunion movies that brought together the casts of classic TV shows, and in 1981 viewers were given The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies. Of the original Clampetts, only Buddy Ebsen and Donna Douglas reprised their roles, Max Baer, Jr. refusing to play Jethro and Irene Ryan having died in 1973.

Donna told The Buffalo News at the time, “Elly May wears the same jeans and blouses she did in the old show. And she still loves ‘critters.’ One scene in this movie has Elly May playing with a chimpanzee, a baby wolf, a leopard and a Kodiak bear. It’s fun and comfortable for me to get back into the character. I was raised in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, so my accent is natural — although I thicken it up as a little bit to play Elly May.”

15. Donna Douglas: Her Personal Life

Donna Douglas and Max Baer Jr. perform the theme from "The Beverly Hillbillies" at the 2004 TV Land Awards
Donna Douglas and Max Baer Jr. perform the theme from The Beverly Hillbillies at the 2004 TV Land AwardsChris Polk/FilmMagic

Donna was married twice, first to Roland John Bourgeois from 1951 to 1954, a union she called a “mistake,” though she was eternally grateful for their son. Then, from 1971 to 1980, she was married to Robert M. Leeds, who had directed approximately 50 episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies.

She developed pancreatic cancer, which would take her life on January 1, 2015 at the age of 82. Perhaps one of the best things to remember about her is that unlike so many other people who found themselves typecast after playing an enormously popular part on television, she never seemed to resent it. As she once pointed out, “So many kinds of people relate to Elly May. So many people love her, and that means a lot to me.”

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