Actor and dancer Buddy Ebsen shared a unique history with The Walt Disney Company. Probably best known as George Russel in the Davy Crockett television series, Buddy’s tap dancing moves also served as a prototype for Walt Disney’s earliest experiments in Audio-Animatronics® technology. His impeccable dancing and acting caused legendary Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper to declare Buddy, “Tops in taps or buckskins.”
Born Christian Ebsen, Jr. on April 2, 1908, in Bellevue, Illinois, Buddy began hoofing at an early age in his father’s dance studio. By 1928 he was cast in the chorus of Florenz Ziegfeld’s Whoopee, starring Eddie Cantor, and, in the early 1930s, he and his dancing partner sister, Vilma, were headliners on Broadway.
In 1937, Buddy headed for Hollywood. Among his film credits are Broadway Melody of 1938, Lucky Star, and Banjo on My Knee. His most memorable movie moment probably came when he matched steps with Shirley Temple in Captain January. Later films included Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Attack, and The Interns.
In 1951, Walt Disney hired Buddy to demonstrate a dance routine; the dance was filmed, and Walt’s crew analyzed the action, frame by frame, to devise a way to animate a nine-inch figure with the same movements.
As Buddy later recalled, “He took me to a room where there were seven little guys with aprons and thick glasses working on a contrivance that pulled wires and a little mechanical man that moved his arms, legs, head, and mouth.”
Known as Project Little Man, this experiment launched what would become Audio-Animatronics®, the robotic technology featured in such Disney theme park attractions as Pirates of the Caribbean,” Haunted Mansion, and Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln.
A few years later, for the Disneyland television show, Walt cast Buddy in the profoundly popular episodes “Davy Crockett: Indian Fighter,” “Davy Crockett Goes to Congress,” “Davy Crockett at the Alamo,” “Davy Crockett’s Keelboat Race,” and “Davy Crockett and the River Pirates.” In 1955, the first three episodes were combined to create a theatrical release called Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier,” and the latter two became a second feature. Buddy also appeared in the Disney feature The One and Only, Genuine, Original Family Band and on television in Corky and White Shadow and the Mickey Mouse Club.
In the 1960s, he starred as Jed Clampett in the popular television series The Beverly Hillbillies, followed by his role as a detective in Barnaby Jones. In 1993, he appeared in a cameo role as Barnaby Jones in the feature film The Beverly Hillbillies and published his autobiography, The Other Side of Oz.
Buddy Ebsen passed away on July 6, 2003, in Torrance, California.