Donna Douglas, the Pride native who rose to television fame as the critter-loving, effervescent Elly May Clampett in the hit 1960s sitcom “The Beverly Hillbillies,” has died.
Charlene Smith, who was married to Douglas’ nephew, confirmed that the former actress died on New Year’s Day at Baton Rouge General Hospital. She was 82.
Smith said Douglas, or Aunt Dot as her family called her, was known for her strong Christian faith and her love of animals — a personality trait she shared with her TV character.
Douglas was born as Doris Smith and raised on a farm between Pride and Baywood. She attended the school that became Redemptorist High School in north Baton Rouge.
Married at 17 and soon divorced, she moved to New York, leaving her young son with her family in Louisiana.
In New York, Douglas attended a casting call for a game show letter-turning girl. In 2006, she told The Advocate that she didn’t get the job because she wouldn’t “show herself” in a bathing suit.
Douglas subsequently got jobs on “The Perry Como Show,” “The Steve Allen Show” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Her early acting work includes the 1959 films “Li’l Abner,” a musical, and, with Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine, the drama “Career.”
The actress’ role of a lifetime, Elly May in “The Beverly Hillbillies,” began in 1962. Douglas played the beautiful daughter of Buddy Ebsen’s mountain patriarch, Jed Clampett. An oil strike on the family’s property in the Ozarks enabled Elly and her entire clan, including Irene Ryan’s Granny and Max Baer Jr.’s Jethro Bodine, to move to a mansion in Beverly Hills.
“It was the American dream,” Douglas told The Advocate in 1999. “You see, here are these little down-and-out people that had nothing. Everybody latches onto that.”
A satirical fish-out-of-water sitcom, the show placed the backwoods Clampetts among the tony denizens of Beverly Hills. But rather than Elly, her uneducated Pa and the home-remedy brewing Granny looking like fools, the southern California characters the family met — including rich folks, movie stars, rock ’n’ roll stars and beatniks — ended up being the butt of the jokes.
“Our show had wonderful principles,” Douglas said. “I mean, people talk about values. The hillbillies had wonderful values. We (Elly and Jethro) had to respect Granny and Pa. We loved the critters. We would try to help our neighbors. No matter who tried to slicker us, take advantage of us, we always came out on top.”
The show, which ran for nine years, was an instant hit. Ranking No. 1 through its first two seasons, it drew as many as 60 million viewers each week.
Elly May’s move from humble beginnings to Beverly Hills paralleled Douglas’ own Louisiana-to-Hollywood story. Douglas related to the fictional rags-to-riches tale.
“Oh, yeah, it was just like a slice out of my life,” she told The Advocate prior to a 1999 singing and speaking engagement at the Old South Jamboree in Walker.
“In my case, I knew everything about Elly,” she said.
“The only direction they ever gave me was when I started to talk. They said you have to talk faster than that or won’t anybody get on that camera but you in a half-hour. Coming from Baton Rouge,” Douglas explained, slowing her speech to a Louisiana crawl, “you talk — just — about — like — that. And they said, ‘Cut, you gotta talk faster than that.’ And that was the only direction. They never did have to tell me anything about Elly, how she’d behave in certain circumstances. Now, I knew her, and that’s the dream of an actor, to know a character that well.”
Before her big break, Douglas had TV guest spots on other programs, from “Mr. Ed” to “The Twilight Zone.” In the midst of her “Beverly Hillbillies” stardom, she co-starred with Elvis Presley in his 1966 film “Frankie and Johnny.”
Douglas acted sporadically following “The Beverly Hillbillies” cancellation in 1971. In the 1990s, she traveled throughout the U.S. and the world, giving inspirational talks at churches, trade shows, banquets and for ladies groups and youth groups. She also appeared at parades and festivals.
She recorded gospel albums and penned books, including “Donna’s Critters & Kids: Children’s Stories with a Bible Touch” and a cookbook called “Southern Favorites With a Taste of Hollywood.”
Charlene Smith recalled that Douglas, who returned to live in Baton Rouge in the mid-2000s, was “always happy, always beautiful.”
“You always saw her with all her makeup on,” Smith said. “She never looked her age.”
Just this Christmas, Smith said Douglas gave her a Bible that she’d signed. She said she was known to sign gifts with Scripture verses before giving them to others.
Douglas is survived by her son Danny Bourgeois, three grandchildren, two great-grandchildren, one brother and many nieces and nephews, Smith said.
She enjoyed great health until a few months ago, Smith said. The family is holding a private service on Monday and is requesting privacy until then.