Former Beverly Hillbillies actor finally embraces past
LAS VEGAS — Max Baer Jr. once played the burly, doltish Jethro Bodine on “The Beverly Hillbillies” television series. Now the 64-year-old Baer intends to prove he is no fool by leading the hillbillies to prominence again after more than 30 years of relative obscurity.
Baer recently signed a deal with International Game Technology of Reno to produce hundreds of penny slot machines featuring “The Beverly Hillbillies” show that once drew millions of loyal viewers.
“It’s so obvious it’s not a gamble,” Baer said in a recent interview at his Las Vegas home. “It fits in. It meshes with the characters and the show.”
After 10 years in prime time and years of syndication, most everyone knows how Jethro’s uncle, Jed Clampett, was hunting with his dog one day and stumbled upon an oil geyser and instant riches. The Clampetts — Jed, Elly May, Granny and Jethro — moved to tony Beverly Hills and sitcom stardom.
Once Baer hits his jackpot in the casinos, he wants to strike gold in supermarkets with bakery goods, such Elly May’s Buns, Granny’s Lye Soap and perhaps Jethro’s sausage.
Tapping into the hillbillies’ name might make plenty of business sense now, but it has been a long time coming for Baer, who retired from the movie and television business in 1979 and moved to Lake Tahoe where he has a second home.
He said it never occurred to him to try to obtain the rights to the TV show from CBS until a decade later. Instead, he spent years after the show ended trying to shed the sticky Jethro persona that resonated with America and doomed his acting career.
Baer, a college graduate with a degree in business and philosophy, could not escape the hillbilly image any more than viewers can forget the show’s catchy theme song.
Fans loved the classic rags-to-riches story, giving it top ratings and longevity. The show was produced from 1962 to 1971, and the 274 episodes remain in syndication.
Baer earned about $4,500 an episode by the time the cast disbanded, good money but not enough to call it a career at age 33.
Typecast as dumb Jethro, Baer found little work as an actor. He made four movies, including the profitable “Macon County Line” in 1974.
“If I hadn’t done that I would have been selling pots and pans,” he said and then recalled the TV series. “It was good to me when I was doing it, but I could never get an acting job afterward. I couldn’t play anything.”
This left Baer frustrated, but not bitter.
Finally the 6-foot-4-inch, 225 pound Baer, the son of 1934 heavyweight boxing champ Max Baer, stopped fighting the hillbillies.
“What happened was I turned 50,” he said. “I was about as much in demand as cancer. If I have to be Jethro, I’ll be Jethro.”
Roger Camras, Baer’s business partner of more than 30 years, said the turnaround was surprising because Baer had tried to distance himself from Jethro for so long.
“Max is far from dumb,” Camras said. “He’s very intelligent. Max is a marketing genius. He saw the popularity in it. It’s going to go on forever, just like Elvis.”
Baer still keeps in touch with Donna Douglas (Elly May) and Buddy Ebsen (Jed Clampett), the only other surviving members of the show’s cast. Douglas lives in her native Louisiana, and Ebsen resides in Palos Verdes, Calif.
Baer obtained the sublicensing rights, including food and beverage rights, to “The Beverly Hillbillies,” from CBS in 1991. Camras said optioning the rights and developing the ideas over the past decade have cost the pair about $1 million.
Baer’s initial venture was an attempt to build Jethro’s Beverly Hillbillies Mansion & Casino in Reno replete with Granny’s shotgun wedding chapel. The plan fell through after he couldn’t get the necessary financing, but Baer holds out hope the casino will be developed.
In 1999, IGT approached him a second time about a deal to make the hillbilly slot machines and an agreement was reached.
Now 65 machines sit in 10 Station Casinos around Las Vegas.
So far, the slot machines seem to be attracting new customers and probably a few people who grew up watching the show.
Dan Roy, Station’s corporate vice president for slot operations, said the machines are creating a buzz.
“They are doing good,” Roy said. “We need a little time, but the early numbers indicate that they should be a success.”
Baer doesn’t expect anything less.
“What I like to do is win,” he said.
The former TV star, who divorced in 1971 with no children, said he’s content with his life in Nevada and the three dogs he saved from the local animal shelter. Though he also has a house in Los Angeles, he doesn’t give the place a second thought.
“I don’t like L.A.,” he said. “I don’t like the people in L.A. The majority of actors and actresses are jerks because they are so self-absorbed.”
Baer doesn’t think the anticipated success from his venture will change him that much, though.
“Maybe it will get me a date,” he said.
ON THE NET