Beverly Hillbillies star Max Baer Jr. never got much of a chance to show off his real self in front of the camera.
The actor who played Jethro Bodine always got put into one of two boxes. Before his acting career kicked off in the early 60s, he was known as the son of a world champion boxer. Post Beverly Hillbillies, he mostly was typecast as the big, handsome, goofy guy. After all, perception is reality.
Baer put it into more philosophical terms during an interview in 2017:
“I was born Max Baer Jr., the son of a great boxer,” Baer said. “And I’ll die Jethro Bodine. Period. I never really got the chance to be me.’’
Baer turned 84 last month. He’s the last surviving cast member of the Beverly Hillbillies, a classic TV comedy from the 1960s. And on the series, Jethro always was trying to figure out who he wanted to be as an adult, whether it was an astronaut, a “double naught spy,” a general or a chauffeur. (Remember, he drove the truck with Uncle Jed, Granny, and Elly May from the Ozarks to the Beverly Hills).
His funniest bits on the Beverly Hillbillies came when he was showing off his math skills, his “cypherin” or “gazintas.” Other funny moments included each time Miss Janes and Jethro were on screen together. That’s because Miss Jane had a mad crush on Jethro.
So after The Beverly Hillbillies ended its run in 1971, you can imagine how other producers perceived Max Baer when considering him for other parts.
“I couldn’t go into a producer’s office and say I wanted to play the part of a neurosurgeon or pilot,’’ he said. “As soon as I came on screen, people would say, there’s Jethro.’’
For Baer, It Was Difficult Escaping Jethro
Yes, he’ll always be Jethro. And even when he first started acting, he was hired because he looked like James Garner. He was having lunch at Warner Brothers Studio when he was discovered. Garner had just left Maverick. Looking like Garner landed Baer a $250 weekly acting contract.
When the Beverly Hillbillies audition came up, Baer pushed back his tryout so he could listen to the records of Andy Griffith and Jonathan Winters. So even his speech patterns weren’t unique to him. Reportedly, he and Irene Ryan (Granny) did a little day drinking at lunch. Baer stumbled during the audition. After he bumped into a door, he apologized to it. All of this was on camera.
Beverly Hillbillies creator Paul Henning thought it all charming that Baer was the perfect Jethro.
Baer “was a big man and, normally, would be threatening,” Henning told the Television Academy Foundation. “I mean, he was so powerful. But, he had this wonderful, silly grin that, you know, you couldn’t be afraid of him. He just … Your heart went out to him. ”
But even that powerful persona was pretend, said the Beverly Hillbillies star.
“I was Max Baer’s kid, so everyone wanted to see how tough I was,’’ Baer said in 2017. “I was scared of my own shadow and always got beat up.