Mr. Ebsen's seven-decade career began in New York, when the gangly, six-foot-three actor with the laid-back delivery was cast in the chorus of the 1928 Eddie Cantor vehicle Whoopee. He danced with his sister Vilma in that and several other Broadway shows, as well as in clubs and on the vaudeville circuit.
Mr. Ebsen was successful enough to be cast in the 1934 version of the Ziegfeld Follies, where his co-stars included Fanny Brice and Eve Arden. Other shows included Flying Colors (1932) and Yokel Boy (1939).
Unlike another brother and sister act of the time, Fred and Adele Astaire, Ebsen's hoofing style was casual and loose-limbed. His long arms would windmill about, while his rubbery legs and large feet flapped and shuffled about the stage. The ingratiating impression was that of an unpretentious country hick's version of elegance. His technique was preserved in such films as "Broadway Melody of 1936," "Broadway Melody of 1938" and "Captain January," in which he provided a towering counterpart to partner Shirley Temple.
His biggest film credit, however, was the one he didn't make. Cast as the Scarecrow in the movie of "The Wizard of Oz," he agreed to switch parts with Ray Bolger, who was playing the Tin Man. But Mr. Ebsen had to bow out after nine days of filming when he discovered he was being poisoned by the aluminum make-up. He was replaced by Jack Haley.
Whatever renown he lost by relinquishing that part, he won it back on television, first as Fess Parker's sidekick on the early adventure show "Davy Crockett." The show was a huge success with kids, who knew the theme song by heart. He was cast as another back woods character, Jed Clampett, in the unlikely hit series, "The Beverly Hillbillies," a fish-out-of-water sitcom that placed some ignorant, oil-rich yokels in a Beverly Hills mansion. He was cast after the creator of the series saw the actor play yet another hayseed, Audrey Hepburn's husband in the film "Breakfast at Tiffany's." Critics pilloried "The Beverly Hillbillies," but viewers loved it, leading to a nine-year run, from 1962 to 1971 on CBS. As always, Mr. Ebsen's warm demeanor and casually bemused speaking voice added greatly to the appeal of the program.
The actor achieved a third hit television series with the detective program "Barnaby Jones," which ran from 1973 to 1980.
Mr. Ebsen was born Christian Rupolph Ebsen in Belleville, Illinois, on April 2, 1908. He learned his skills as a dancer at his father's dancing school. He moved to New York City when he was twenty and soon found work. His first marriage was to Ruth Cambridge and produced two daughters. He had four daughters and a son by a second marriage, to Nancy Wolcott. Both marriages ended in divorce. He married Dorothy Knott in 1985.