NEVER MIND THE ROLLS-ROYCES AND JAGS THAT TOOLED DOWN WILSHIRE Boulevard one L.A. morning: A dilapidated truck upstaged them all. Instantly recognizable, thanks to a rocking chair sitting on the back and four not exactly cosmopolitan passengers, it chugged along, causing pedestrians to stop and stare. “People were lining the streets,” recalls Jim Varney, known as Ernest of TV commercials and movie fame. The gawkers were cheering on the First Family of Arkansas. No, not the Clintons—the Clampetts: Granny, Jed, Cousin Jethro and Elly May. “It was amazing,” says Erika Eleniak. “Everybody from different backgrounds, ages and ethnic groups knew the Beverly Hillbillies.”
Certainly director Penelope Spheeris (Wayne’s World) is hoping for a similar reaction on Oct. 15, when The Beverly Hillbillies brings those filthy-rich bumpkins to the big screen. The movie, based on the TV series that ran on CBS from 1962 to 1971, tampers with the original sitcom premise, in which the Clampetts keep getting bilked of their bucks, but only enough, says Rob Schneider, 29, Saturday Night Live’s Richmeister, who has a supporting role as a swindler, “to bring the fun up to date.”
What’s the same is that Jed (played In Varney instead of Buddy Ebsen), a poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed, is out one day shooting at some food when…well, you know. He stumbles on a gusher and soon moves his entire clan to the luxe hills of Beverly. What’s different, says Varney, 43, is that “the movie is scaled much bigger.” This time, ol’ Jed’s a billionaire, and the Clampelt mansion is about four limes the size of the original.
Capturing the spirit of the old show was the biggest challenge for the filmbillies, especially since—with the exception of 85-year-old Ebsen, who plays a cameo role—none of the original cast is back. Irene Ryan (Granny), Nancy Kulp (Miss Hathaway) and Raymond Bailey (Mr. Drysdale) have all died. Max Baer (Cousin Jethro), 55, went on to direct (Ode to Billy Joe) and is trying to finance a Beverly Hillbillies casino in Las Vegas. And Donna Douglas (Elly May), 59, is now a born-again Christian living in L.A.
So how did the new Clampett clan re-create a world in which a swimming pool is called a “cee-ment pond” and leftover possum is always in the fridge? Varney had a natural advantage. While he was growing up as a farm boy in Lexington, Ky., he says, his family “never missed The Beverly Hillbillies! It was my mother’s favorite show.” Cloris Leachman, 67, who plays Granny in the film, never saw the TV series; she got into character by watching videotapes and clomping around her Hollywood Hills home for a few weeks in Grannyesque combat boots that the wardrobe department had sent to her.
Lily Tomlin, 54, who plays Miss Hathaway, at first wasn’t sure she wanted to get involved. “Nancy Kulp was so good in the part that it just didn’t feel right,” she says. But friends badgered her to accept the role. One enticement, she says, was working with Dabney Coleman, her costar in 1980’s Nine to Five. Coleman, as stuffy banker Drysdale, “makes me laugh. He can razz you so bad.”
Clearly the mood was lighter than on the set of, say, an Ingmar Bergman movie. Eleniak, who plays Elly May, spent countless hours walking on the StairMaster in her trailer. This, she jokes, did not always sit well with Diedrich Bader, 27, who plays Cousin Jethro. “Poor Diedrich is on the other side—we share a double-ender—so the trailer is a-rockin’,” she says. Deadpans Bader: “I’ve been trying to cure cancer. I have a lab set up, but she keeps shaking everything. She’s selling back the progress of medical history!”
Bader, a man capable of calling Jethro a “cultural icon,” also claims that the movie has its noble—or was that Nobel?—elements. “This is about basic American values that still shine through,” he says, “even when tested by Beverly Hills.”
TOM CUNNEFF in Beverly Hills