Before playing Ozark girl turned Californian Elly May Clampett in The Beverly Hillbillies, actress Donna Douglas was a true southern girl through and through. Though Douglas is best remembered for the nine seasons she starred in the iconic CBS sitcom, there is way more to the actress than her time playing the blonde tomboy on television.
Doris Smith (changed later to Donna Douglas) was born in 1932 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. She was an active athlete at her high school and played softball and basketball before she started participating in beauty contests. Douglas had married her first husband, Roland Bourgeois, Jr., in 1949, but they divorced after the birth of her only child, Danny P. Bourgeois, in 1954. Shortly after, she was named Miss Baton Rouge and Miss New Orleans and decided it was time to pack her bags for New York City.
Douglas started out with appearances in print ads for various toothpaste brands before she started landing acting work, which encouraged her to start taking acting classes. She appeared on The Perry Como Show, The Steve Allen Show and The Ed Sullivan Show. Soon after, Hollywood producer Hal B. Wallis saw her on TV and cast her in the Dean Martin and Shirley MacLaine film Career. The film opened doors for Douglas and led to roles in the Doris Day and Rock Hudson film Lover Come Back as well as television appearances on The Twilight Zone, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and more.
Despite a full resume of acting work, Douglas was definitely not a household name when she beat out over 500 women to land the role of Elly May Clampett in the early '60s. Producer Paul Henning asked if she would be right for the part, and there was no doubt in her mind.
"I just looked at him and grinned," Douglas told AP Hollywood reporter Bob Thomas in 1965. "Could I handle Elly May? Why, it was just like my own life."
Douglas came into her own playing Elly May and become very close friends with Buddy Ebsen, who played her on-screen father, Jed Clampett. She also married the show's director, Robert M. Leeds in 1971 (though they would divorce in 1980).
"I loved doing Elly May," the actress would recall. "And, of course, 'The Beverly Hillbillies' was a story about the American dream. No matter who tried to slicker us or take advantage of us, we always came out on top. We were never the losers. We set a good example."
Despite coming back for The Return of the Beverly Hillbillies in 1981, Douglas left Hollywood to pursue other things. She earned her real estate license and became a gospel singer, speaking around the country to church groups. She even published two children's books -- Donna's Critters & Kids: Children's Stories with a Bible Touch and Miss Donna's Mulberry Acres Farm. She also published a cookbook, Southern Favorites with a Taste of Hollywood, which includes recipes from her show biz buds like Buddy Ebsen, Phyllis Diller, Valerie Harper and Debbie Reynolds.
Later in life, Douglas found herself in the middle of two major legal disputes. In 1993, Douglas sued Disney, Whoopi Goldberg, Bette Midler, and their production companies, saying that they ripped off Sister Act. She had apparently been working on a screenplay adaptation of the book A Nun in the Closet. Douglas claimed the book had over 100 similarities to Sister Act. After turning down a $1 million settlement, the judge sided with Disney.
In 2010, Mattel released a line of Classic TV Collection Barbie dolls which included an Elly May doll. The following year, she settled a lawsuit with Mattel after claiming they never asked for the rights to use her likeness.
Douglas will always be remembered as being the real deal Elly May; the Southern girl who danced to the beat of her own drum even after she left home for the big city. She passed away in 2015 at the age of 82 from pancreatic cancer in her beloved home state of Louisiana.
This article was originally published in May of 2020.
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