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Get to Know Buddy Ebsen and the Rest of the ‘Barnaby Jones’ Cast

Plus, learn five surprising behind the scenes facts.

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Imagine if the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz discovered oil and moved to Beverly Hills.  Or that he turned into a private eye who came out of retirement to solve crimes — as he did in Barnaby Jones. It could have happened if it wasn’t for actor Buddy Ebsen’s allergy to silver paint.

Buddy Ebsen was 64 years old when he became Barnaby Jones, title character of the detective series co-starring Lee Meriwether as his widowed daughter-in-law, who runs a private detective firm in Los Angeles. But Ebsen’s path to playing Barnaby Jones from 1973 to 1980 was a circuitous route.

At 6’3”, he captivated Vaudeville audiences with his twinkling steps, then Broadway and, armed with his charm, segued into movies and television. The key turning point in his career was when he was cast as the original Tin Man in 1939’s The Wizard of Oz, but his severe allergic reaction to the aluminum-based makeup proved to be both a personal trial and an unexpected plot twist in his career story. 

From 1962 to 1971, he portrayed Jed Clampett in the sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies, from which he would shift over to Barnaby Jones just two years after its cancelation.

Barnaby Jones, a CBS hit airing as a midseason replacement series, saw the Jones character coming out of retirement to track down the killer of his son, Hal, who had taken over the family private eye business. With tenacity and some luck, Barnaby brought Hal’s murderer to justice and recognized that retirement didn’t really suit him. So he rehung his shingle with the assistance of daughter-in-law Betty, who ran the office, and Barnaby’s personal crime lab. Later, (1976), Jedidiah Romano (Mark Shera), known as J.R., came along to do a lot of the case legwork.

Barnaby had a gentle demeanor most of the time and, contrary to stereotypical hard-drinking private eyes, he ordered milk in restaurants and bars. 

Buddy Ebsen and Lee Meriwether (1980) (Barnaby Jones)
Buddy Ebsen and Lee Meriwether (1980) moviestillsdb.com/CBS

MUST READ: Buddy Ebsen: 14 Facts About ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ and ‘Barnaby Jones’ Actor

Besides the Jones family, there was a recurring character in the form of Lt. John Biddle, played by John Carter. Biddle was the Jones detective agency’s police contact. 

Executive producer, Quinn Martin, who also had other hit series such as The F.B.I, The Fugitive, and Cannon with William Conrad, followed the characteristic QM episode format with commercial breaks dividing each episode into four acts, concluding with an epilogue. During the last two seasons, episodes were divided between Meriwether and Shera with Ebsen’s involvement limited to slightly more than episodic cameos due to his age and the fact that he was slowing down. 

Among the guest stars who appeared over the years and went on to become well-known in their own right are  Morgan Fairchild, Larry Hagman, Ed Harris, Don Johnson, Tommy Lee Jones, Sean Penn, John Ritter, James Woods, Joan Van Ark, Madeleine Stowe, Susan Dey and Jonathan Banks

Here’s a look at the three main Joneses …. and Lt. Biddle

Buddy Ebsen as Barnaby Jones

Buddy Ebsen as Barnaby Jones (Barnaby Jones)
1977/1993Silver Screen Collection / Contributor/Getty; Vinnie Zuffante / Stringer/Getty

Born Christian Ludolf Ebsen, Jr. in Belleville, Illinois, Ebsen was first known as a dancer, but his entire career would span seven decades. His dad was a choreographer and owned a dance studio. A young Ebsen moved to New York City in 1928 with only $26.75 in his pocket, wanting to try his luck as a dancer. In the meantime, he took a job at a soda fountain shop to help pay bills. 

Performing with his sister in supper clubs and vaudeville, then Broadway, Ebsen received a rave review from newspaper columnist Walter Winchell, which led to his signing with MGM. This in turn led to a number of films, both musical and non-musical.

He followed the debacle of The Wizard of Oz with a stint in the U.S. Coast Guard, after which he returned to acting, adding a string of television appearances to his resume. In 1962, Ebsen gained true fame as Jed Clampett, an easy going backwoods mountaineer who strikes oil and moves with his family to Beverly Hills. The Beverly Hillbillies led to Barnaby Jones.  Generally retired from acting in his 80s, Ebsen did a cameo in the 1993 film version of The Beverly Hillbillies as Barnaby Jones. This was his final film role. The actor passed away on July 6, 2003 at the age of 95.

MUST READ: Pull Up Your Rocking Chair and Enjoy Funny Facts About ‘The Beverly Hillbillies’ Cast

Lee Meriwether as Betty Jones

Lee Meriwether as Betty Jones
1980/2020moviestillsdb.com/CBS; Amanda Edwards / Contributor/Getty

Before Barnaby Jones, Lee Meriwether , who was born in Los Angeles but moved to San Francisco with her family, began entering beauty pageants at a young age. She essentially climbed that ladder in that she won Miss San Francisco, followed by Miss California and was ultimately crowned Miss America in 1954 at the age of 19. That success led to her becoming a “Today Girl” for NBC’s The Today Show from 1955 to 1956, and, in 1959, she made her film debut as Linda Davis in 4D Man.

At age 88, Meriwether continues to work on stage, television, game voice-overs and feature films but she will always be known as Betty Jones on Barnaby Jones, the role which earned her two Golden Globe nominations and an Emmy nomination. 

Meriwether replaced Julie Newmar in the 1966 film version of Batman as Catwoman. Then came 30 episodes of The Time Tunnel series in which she played Dr. Ann MacGregor, a scientist; followed by guest appearances on Star Trek and Land of the Giants. And who can forget Meriwether as Lily Munster in The Munsters Today (1987), a revival of the 1960s show? Additional guest appearances include Desperate Housewives, Hawaii Five-O, The Ultimate Gift and Murder She Wrote

You can still catch the actress at comic conventions, where she speaks about her career.  

MUST READ: 10 Funny and Moving Behind-the-Scenes Secrets About the Original TV ‘Star Trek’

Mark Shera as J.R. Jones

Mark Shera as J.R. Jones (Barnaby Jones)
1975Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer/Getty

It was 1976 when Jedediah Romano “J.R.” Jones entered Barnaby’s world. Initially J.R. was a somewhat angry young man, but soon became an easy going fun-loving character.He would do a lot of the later legwork as Ebsen aged.

Shera was born in Bayonne, New Jersey and got his first big break on the TV series SWAT in the role of Officer Dominic Luca from 1975 to 1976. He later appeared in Taken (1983) and Murder She Wrote (1984). 

John Carter as Police LT. John Biddle

John Carter as Police LT. John Biddle
IMDB

While Carter is best remembered for his recurring role as Lt. Biddle, prior to this character he had guest starred twice in early episodes of the series as other people. He also directed two Barnaby Jones episodes. 

After the series went off the air, Carter appeared in Scarface (1983) and The Hoax (2006). 

Born in Center Ridge, Arkansas, Carter’s first TV role was in the Combat! (1962 to 1967) series and he guest-starred on several episodes of Gunsmoke among many other appearances on TV and in films. Sadly, he passed away from pneumonia in 2015 at age 87. 

5 Fun facts about Barnaby Jones

Buddy Ebsen, Lee Meriwether and Mark Shera (1980)
Buddy Ebsen, Lee Meriwether and Mark Shera (1980) moviestillsdb.com/CBS
  1. Former President Nixon was a major fan of the show and when he met Buddy Ebsen in the 1980s, he stated that he had seen every episode of the series.
  2. In many scenes, Barnaby sounds like he’s falling asleep or is barely awake. That’s because Ebsen really did just wake up from one of the many naps he took between takes. 
  3. Throughout the entire run of the series, Ebsen is the only actor to appear in every episode.  Lee Meriwether was right behind this stat, only missing one episode. 
  4. Barnaby’s favorite drink was milk.
  5. The sum of $250,000 is used many times throughout the series as the amount of a ransom demand, value of a jewel heist or armed robbery.   

For all things 1970’s, click here!

For all things 1980’s, click here!

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