' Hillbillies go Hollywood So they loaded up the truck, and they moved to . . . a feature film

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Los Angeles --There's a break on the set of "The Beverly Hillbillies," 20th Century Fox's $25 million feature film version of the 1960's CBS sitcom, and Jim Varney, the man who would be Jed Clampett, is sitting out with the extras by the cement pond, smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee and looking not the least little bit like Buddy Ebsen. He's got a dark caterpillar of a mustache, for one thing, brown hair curling over his ears and down to the collar of his bolo-tied shirt. He's wearing a western-cut Hank Williams suit, with charcoal-gray pinstripes and pointy black boots. Compared to the Uncle Jed we grew up with, this one's looking downright foppish.

"I know what you mean," Mr. Varney says with a gravel-voiced drawl. "I might not be what some people expect."

Well, no. Of course not. Mr. Varney is, after all, the guy who's spent the past 12 years playing Ernest. The rubber-faced, goofball, smirk-a-minute, nose-in-the-camera "Hey Vern" neighbor from hell. And now he's the new Uncle Jed?

"I'm playing it pretty straight," he says, trying to sound reassuring. "I'm not doing any mugging and there aren't any wide-angle close-ups or anything. People may be surprised to find out that when I don't have a wide-angle lens in my face, I'm actually pretty normal looking."

As for the suit, it turns out the only reason Mr. Varney is so slickered up is because they're filming a big party scene this morning in the ballroom of the Tower Mansion, a monumentally )) excessive Newport-style residence located high on the hills above Bel Air, that is.

"This is just my courtin' suit," Mr. Varney promises, lounging by the pool between shots. "The rest of the time I'm wearing the clodhoppers and hunting coat and old chewed-up hat."

Even so, this seems like potentially dangerous stuff, messing with people's TV memories. It's especially tricky when you're dealing with something as ingrained in American pop consciousness as "The Beverly Hillbillies." (Go ahead, admit it, you not only know the words to the theme song, you've sung them out loud in your car.) This is a show that was No. 1 practically from the moment it premiered in September 1962, dominated the ratings for nearly 10 years and still pops up on cable at least four times a day.

There are millions of rerun-addicted, hard-core Clampettologists out there who won't take kindly to much big-screen Hillbilly revisionism, people who think Donna Douglas still looks good in pigtails, who worship Max Baer Jr. as a god and haven't quite accepted the notion that Irene Ryan is deader than Elvis. These folks won't be easy to please.

Not that everyone on the film, which is scheduled to be released in the fall, isn't trying. You can hardly turn around on the "Hillbillies" set without someone telling you how much they loved the old series and how the movie -- in spite of its '90's-scale budget and brand-name cast (including Cloris Leachman as Granny, Dabney Coleman as Mr. Drysdale and Lily Tomlin as Miss Hathaway) -- is going to be as much like the TV show as it can possibly be.

"I think people would be really disappointed if it was too different," says Penelope Spheeris, back in the director's chair for the first time since hitting it big with "Wayne's World" last year. "And that would be my reaction, too. It was my favorite show when I was growing up. And if there was any big departure from any of the original characters, I think it would be like sacrilege. Someone came up to me very early in the production and said, 'You've got a national treasure in your hands. Be very careful with it.' "

It has not been an easy morning. Ms. Spheeris, it seems, is having problems with Mr. Varney's face, with the mustache in particular, which is drooping a little more than she'd like. "I've gotta keep an eye on him," she says later, "because his face is so expressive."

"Jim, come over here," she yells out from behind the video-assist monitor where she's been watching the latest take of the all-day party scene, one where Jed is supposed to be congratulating Elly May (played by Erika Eleniak, the chef's surprise from "Under Siege") on what a fine young woman she's become.

"See that?" Ms. Spheeris asks Mr. Varney, pointing out the moment where his mustache starts to sag.

"Uh huh."

"Well, don't do that."

"I make faces sometimes without knowing it," Mr. Varney will explain at the end of the day when the take is over and Ms. Spheeris is, for the moment, appeased. "Sometimes, if I'm not careful, it'll look like something's disturbing me. And the thing about Jed is he's never disturbed. Jed always stays in the same state of mind, no matter what's happening around him. That's why having all this money hasn't changed him. He's at peace with the world. It's basically Hillbilly Zen."

Idea whose time has come

The idea for a Beverly Hillbillies movie had been floating around in development for three or four years, according to Tom Jacobson, 20th Century Fox's president of feature production, before the studio acquired the rights from series creator Paul Henning and green-lighted the project last year, a move that Mr. Jacobson swears has nothing to do with the fact that it seems every TV show ever produced (with the possible exception of "Hello, Larry") is apparently being made into a feature film.

"It's just a good movie story," Mr. Jacobson says. "If someone came to us with a concept about four hillbillies from Arkansas who suddenly became wealthy and moved to Beverly Hills, we would think that was a good idea whether or not it was based on a television show."

Although he doesn't deny the advantages of name recognition and a potential built-in audience, Mr. Jacobson rejects the notion that the current flood of TV-based film projects means major Hollywood studios are either too scared or too brain-dead to come up with anything new.

"There is nothing wrong with basing films on properties that have a built-in name value and it's something Hollywood has always done," Mr. Jacobson insists. "Rights to big, best-selling books are acquired for the same reason and that's one of the reasons David O. Selznick acquired the rights to 'Gone With the Wind,' because it was already well-known. This is no different."

Ms. Spheeris signed on to the project last fall, her enthusiasm based on more than just affection for the original show. "I lived in Hot Springs, Ark., for a long time," she says. "My mom is from the Ozarks. I lived in trailer parks. I ate beans and greens growing up. So the idea of a bunch of hillbillies coming to California? Believe me, I could relate."

Which is why, even though she'd turned down dozens of mainstream comedy offers after "Wayne's World," Ms. Spheeris agreed to direct "The Beverly Hillbillies" without even reading the script. And then, once she'd read it, she proceeded to tear it apart.

"It wasn't true to the show," she says of the original script, written by Lawrence Konner and Mark Rosenthal. "In that first draft Jed ended up with Miss Hathaway. There was no Jethrine. No cousin Pearl. It just wasn't right."

While the script was being re-written ("Saturday Night Live" writers Rob Schneider and Alex Herschlag were eventually brought in to punch up the jokes), Ms. Spheeris turned her attention to casting. Ms. Leachman had been everyone's choice for Granny, even before the first script was written, and Ms. Spheeris had decided early on that she wanted Mr. Coleman and Ms. Tomlin as the money-crazed Milburn Drysdale and unflappable Miss Jane. The only problem was, none of them wanted to do it.

"I really wasn't interested," says Ms. Leachman, who, in spite of her initial reluctance, has come the closest of any cast member to duplicating her television predecessor's performance, looking and sounding almost exactly like Irene Ryan's Granny. "I held them off for several months, until they mentioned Estelle Getty and then I thought, 'Oh, I guess I'd better close the deal.' "

Ms. Tomlin, who plays Miss Jane with considerably more femininity than the late Nancy Kulp, had never watched the original show.

Perfect Miss Hathaway

"Everyone around me kept telling me I should do it, that I was the perfect Miss Hathaway, which I didn't understand," Ms. Tomlin says. "And then when I watched the show I was a little bit hurt. But Penelope was so persistent and after a while even my own mother was saying, 'Oh, you'd be so good at this,' that I eventually came to the epiphany that, yes, I am indeed the perfect person for this part."

"Lily didn't want to do it until she was sure she wouldn't be doing an imitation, which was fine, because I didn't want any of them to be imitations," says Ms. Spheeris. "But Dabney wouldn't sign pTC on until we had Lily and Lily didn't want to do it until she had Hathaway, so that's when I went after her, Tasmanian Devil style."

Casting Ms. Eleniak as Elly May and movie newcomer Diedrich Bader as Jethro took considerably less coaxing. Ms. Eleniak, anxious to prove she could be something other than a sexpot, jumped at the chance to do comedy, even if the role did call for riding motorcycles with chimps and cuddling muskrats in trees, all part of Elly May's critter collection. "I got a few little bites," she says, not complaining, "but nothing that drew any blood."

Ms. Spheeris had worked with Mr. Bader on a Fox television pilot called "Danger Theatre" and pushed for him over a bevy of better-known young hunks because "I saw every young good-looking guy in town and most of them have taken such a ride on their looks for so long that they're not funny. Diedrich was different. And once we dressed him up as Jethrine, I knew that I'd done the right thing."

But, according to Ms. Spheeris, nothing was harder than the search for the perfect Jed.

Jim Varney wasn't exactly what studio executives had in mind. What they wanted was a bigger-name star, somebody like Steve Martin (who was offered the part, but turned it down) or Gene Hackman. There was, at one point, a 52-name list of potential Jeds, with Mr. Varney nowhere close to the top.

"When he came over to read, I thought it was to try for a smaller part, a preacher or something," Ms. Spheeris remembers. "I had no idea he wanted to be considered for Jed. But once I saw him, I knew he was the one. He was authentic for one thing [Mr. Varney grew up in Lexington, Ky.] and although there is no one like Buddy Ebsen, he'd get this sparkle in his face that Buddy Ebsen used to have. So I got on the phone, called the studio and said, 'I want Jim Varney to play Jed.' And their first response was, 'What? Are you out of your mind?' "

"I needed to do something else," Mr. Varney says, clearly grateful for the chance to break out of his "Ernest" box. "I don't delude myself that Ernest is gonna last forever. And after a while, you start questioning your own ability. You wonder, 'Can I do anything else? Have I reached the Peter Principle as an actor?' "

A familiar story

By the time filming began in March, Ms. Spheeris had a script she could live with, a basic plot line that essentially parallels the original television pilot, with a few things adjusted for inflation. The Clampett fortune, in 1962, was $25 million. In the movie, it's up to an even billion.

Other than the extra zeros, though, not an awful lot has changed. The movie starts the same way that the series did, with the Clampetts happy in their Arkansas home, Granny tending to her still, Elly May tending to her critters and Jed out shooting at some food. This time, though, the errant shotgun blast produces not just bubblin' crude, but full-fledged through-the-roof gushers, covering Jed and everything around him with thick black goo.

You know how the story goes. The Clampetts sign a deal with Brewster Oil, load up the truck (with Granny glued to her rocking chair) and head west (along with Cousin Jethro, dumb as a rock and way too big for his clothes) where they deposit their money in the Commerce Bank of Beverly Hills and move in next door to the Drysdales. There are scoundrels (played by Lea Thompson and Rob Schneider) who try to trick them out of their money and in the end there's dancing and singing and eating vittles at the billiard table.

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