Donna Douglas wanted to play Ingrid Bergman-type roles
After becoming known as Elly May, Douglas struggled with the sudden spotlight.
Fans of classic television will doubtlessly remember Donna Douglas for her role as Elly May on The Beverly Hillbillies. What they might not remember as well is the full picture: Donna Douglas was a young mother thrust into a spotlight nobody could've been ready for.
Prior to Jed Clampett striking oil, Donna Douglas was a struggling actress looking to capitalize on her regional beauty pageant wins. The former "Miss New Orleans" was able to parlay her successes into a few small television roles, appearing initially on variety programs such as The Perry Como Show and The Steve Allen Show. As her career picked up momentum, she co-starred in the 1960 Twilight Zone episode "Eye of the Beholder."
Despite these show biz triumphs, Douglas was still a relative unknown when she was selected from over 500 hopefuls to star in The Beverly Hillbillies as Elly May, the only child of Jed and Rose Ellen Clampett. However, her biggest role to date would go on to completely define her career, even overshadowing her personal life and her aspirations as an actress. Donna Douglas, as Elly May, was a casualty of typecasting.
In an interview with the New York Daily News in 1961, Douglas explained her ambitions. "I hope my career will have a wider horizon which would include the kind of quality parts played by Ingrid Bergman and Deborah Kerr," said Douglas. "I feel that dramatic parts incorporate all facets of a woman."
The hurdles she faced were made immediately clear in that very same interview. Douglas' own words are minimized by the interviewer, who incessantly shifts the focus towards Douglas' body, rather than her body of work. Douglas' career aspirations are lost among reports of her measurements and descriptions of her figure.
So too was her role as a mother. Donna Douglas fits the definition of an overnight celebrity, going from a little-known actress to a star in one of the biggest sitcoms in the history of American television. This necessitated immediate adjustments in her life. One such change came as a decision to relinquish guardianship of her then 7-year-old son, Danny, who went to live with Douglas' mother. As The Beverly Hillbillies elevated her star power to unknown levels of recognizability, Douglas' difficult decision provided her growing son with a much-needed stability.
"I wouldn't want to be dragging him from pillar to post and maid to maid all the time," said Douglas.
Donna Douglas was more than just the pretty face of The Beverly Hillbillies, and deserves to be remembered as such. She was an ambitious actress and a selfless mother, and she was constantly reduced to the sum of her looks. She was a regular person looking to find her place in the irregular world of teleivion fame.
"Show business doesn't have to be the rat race some people make of it. I'm determined that it won't turn me into a sleeping-pill, pep-pill addict or some other kind of kook," Douglas told the Daily News. "Success isn't worth having, if that's the price you have to pay for it."