In this story from October 1993, the actress best known as Elly May Clampett reveals how God met her halfway in her pursuit of an acting career.
I stood looking around the airport in Newark, New Jersey, trying not to panic. It was the early 1960s. I was a young girl just arrived from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, hoping for an acting career in New York City. I’d made a terrible mistake.
An acquaintance had promised to meet me at the airport. But nobody told me that three airports served New York City! I’d originally had tickets to La Guardia, but at the last minute the ticket agent switched me to another flight. He didn’t mention I’d be arriving at a different airport.
Believe me, I was afraid. But I had been brought up in the church. I remembered that the Bible says, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”
To me, in plain language, that means faith is when you trust God, even though you can’t see what’s a-coming around the corner.
So I said a little prayer and I sat down to wait. I was thankful that when I didn’t show up at La Guardia, my friend figured out what had happened and was able to track me down. I had never been so happy to see anybody in my life.
I didn’t know it at the time, but that was just one of the many “comers” that would be upcoming in my life.
A few days later, alone in my hotel room, I was about out of courage. I’d come to New York to find work. But how did I expect to find a job in Manhattan? I hadn’t gone to college and had never had an acting lesson in my life.
I’d done a speck of modeling–in Louisiana. I could throw a mean curve ball (I’d even been approached about playing semipro softball), and had some experience fishing and milking cows, but these were far from talents that would get me hired as an actress.
On top of that, people teased me about my southern accent. I, of course, thought they were the ones who talked funny. Back home in Louisiana, everyone had a drawl like mine.
Fortunately, some photographers decided to give me a break and hired me to do ads for catalogues and magazines. This led to a few TV commercials where I smiled a lot. But I never said a word.
Finally I got a call to audition for a TV game show. The job was as an “elbow grabber,” one of the hostesses who brings the contestants out and presents them to the host.
If I got the position I’d have steady work, “bread-and-butter money,” and national exposure. And once again, I wouldn’t have to say a word.
The day of my audition, I was shown to the office of the show’s producer–and was thrown for a loop by what came next.
“We’re looking for a certain kind of girl,” he said. “Are you willing to, ah, do some extra work after hours?”
Warning bells went off in my head.
“What...what does that mean?” I asked.
“Would you be willing to go out with one of our sponsors?”
“Would the sponsor be married?” I asked.
“What does it matter? You’d just be going out to dinner.”
“No, sir,” I said emphatically, “I couldn’t do that.”
The producer shifted in his chair. Disappointment overwhelmed me. I’d heard there were girls who were willing to do anything to get work. I had tears in my eyes. “Mister,” I said, standing up, “I don’t want your job. It’s not that important to me.” And I walked out.
I was mighty surprised when I heard: I got the job. It turned out there’d recently been a big exposé of dishonest game shows, and the producer had to be very careful about everyone he hired. He’d been trying to find a girl who wouldn’t do anything questionable.
Not long after that, I was asked to go to California to do a screen test at Paramount. The folks back home couldn’t believe it when I told them I got a movie contract. But since I had little experience and was no good at bluffing, I got only small parts.
I wanted to better myself, so I took acting and speech lessons from a coach who taught me to act and talk like anyone from a working girl to a refined lady.
So I hoped I was ready when I went off to be interviewed for a pilot for a new television series. I wanted this part so much; it seemed like everything I’d worked and prayed for.
When I did my reading, the producer smiled and told me I seemed like a real possibility for the part. She said she’d get back to me as soon as possible. I couldn’t speak; I just nodded my head up and down. I was so thrilled I thought my heart would pop wide open.
On my way home, I was scheduled to take my car in for an oil change. I’d arranged for the mechanic at the garage to drop me off at home, then take my car back to service it. He was at the wheel and I was in the passenger seat as we waited at a red light–when a large Bentley rammed into us from behind.
The mechanic was okay, but I ended up in the hospital for 17 days. During that time, the producers of the television pilot interviewed more than 500 girls for that part.
They selected six for screen tests–and I was one of them. It was wonderful news, except for the fact that I was supposed to show up for a screen test in three days.
This was sure one corner I couldn’t see around.
“Please, God,” I prayed from my hospital bed, “let me have a chance at this.”
Woozy but determined, I went to that screen test. On my way over, I couldn’t help thinking of all the sophisticated actresses I was up against–ones who had a lot more experience, and none of whom were wobbly from an accident.
At the studio, the producer Paul Henning explained the series to me more fully. “And for the screen test,” he said, “we’ve got a special request.”
I nodded, desperately hoping I’d be able to remember my recent elocution lessons and theatrical training.
“We’d like you to read the part,” he said, “using a southern accent.”
I couldn’t believe it! The camera started rolling and I read the part in the down-home voice I knew the best–my own Louisiana drawl.
The producer smiled. He seemed pleased. But then the smile left his face. “There’s one more thing,” he said. “Can you milk a goat?”
I looked to the side of the set, and sure enough, there was a little nanny goat! One look told me she had the same equipment as the cows back home.
“Sure, I can milk that goat!” I said.
That nanny goat was the first of more than 500 “critters” I worked with during the nine years I played Elly May Clampett on The Beverly Hillbillies.
There have been ups and downs in my life. But time and again I’ve found it to be true that if you give God your best, He’ll meet you where you are and use whatever you have to offer.
Even when you can’t see what’s a-coming around the corner.
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