May 31, 1915 – Barbara Pepper
As a kid, I just loved Green Acres, the sitcom that ran from 1965 to 1971, about a married couple who move from New York City to a country farm. It was as a companion show to Petticoat Junction (1963-1970) and a cousin of that other rural/urban-themed sitcom The Beverly Hillbillies (1962–1971).
It had solid ratings during its six-year run, but Green Acres was cancelled in 1971 as part of the “rural purge” by CBS, when programming VP Fred Silverman axed The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D., Petticoat Junction, Hee Haw, Lassie, The Jim Nabors Hour, and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. Green Acres costar Pat Buttram dubbed it “…the year CBS canceled everything with a tree“.
The two-part episode A Star Named Arnold Is Born is one the greatest, and most surreal presentations in television history.
Green Acres sprung directly from radio. In 1950, writer Jay Sommers adapted S.J. Perelman‘s hilarious testament to the “joys” of owning country property, Acres And Pains (1947), into a radio series titled Granby’s Green Acres. Sommers later became a writer for Paul Henning, the creator of The Beverly Hillbillies and Petticoat Junction. When those sitcoms became cash cows for CBS, the network gave Henning a time-slot for the fall of 1965, to fill however he pleased, with no pitch or pilot required. Sommers suggested a television version of Granby’s Green Acres.
Eddie Albert stars as Oliver Wendell Douglas, a Manhattan attorney who has a midlife crisis, and he purchases a farm in the hick haven, Hooterville. Eva Gabor plays his wife Lisa, who at first protests the move, but ultimately seems more at home with the oddballs of Hooterville than Oliver. The couple buys a dilapidated farmhouse, hires gawky, childlike live-in handyman Eb Dawson (played by the late Tom Lester), and meets a parade of unhelpful local businessmen and bureaucrats, as the writers carefully build the dreamlike world of Hooterville, episode by episode.
By the second season, Green Acres evolved into outright lunacy. The opening of the episode I Didn’t Raise My Pig To Be A Soldier (1966) has Oliver working on his broken-down tractor in a dress shirt, vest, and tie, as always, and Lisa comes out of the house to ask him for a favor, but both of them keep getting distracted by the show’s credits, which are popping up in front of their eyes.
Green Acres has had a long run in syndication where the very specific freakiness of the show began to take hold, evoking the absurdist work of Samuel Beckett and Eugene Ionesco. Green Acres dares to question the stability of the world and its comprehensibility.
My favorite Green Acres characters remain the Ziffles: Fred (Hank Patterson) and his the shrill, slovenly wife, Doris. They are the Douglases’s childless elderly neighbors. They have a pig named Arnold, whom they treat as their own child. Fred is a cantankerous old-fashioned farmer. Everything about him is “no-nonsense”, except for the fact that his son is a pig. Arnold Ziffel understands English, lives indoors, and is pampered. Everyone understands Arnold when he grunts, as if he were speaking English, except Mr. Douglas. He is an avid television fan who especially likes Westerns, attends grade school (carrying his book pack in his mouth), and signs his own name on paper. Only Mr. Douglas believes Arnold is just livestock, although he frequently slips and begins treating him as a human. Arnold makes regular appearances throughout the series, often visiting the Douglas home to watch his shows on their television set.
Barbara Pepper is delightfully droll as Doris Ziffel. Pepper was a distinctive character actor who had her own individual style, as all great supporting actors do. Her originality both advanced and flummoxed her career. Pepper played worldly “dames” during the 1930s and 1940s, Hollywood’s Golden Era. A bit like Joan Blondell, Pepper patented her hard-boiled persona. Like Blondell, she played saloon girls, shop clerks, chippies, and molls.
Pepper was born in New York City. She was a shapely blonde with expressive wide-set eyes and high defined cheek bones. When she was 16 years old, she was cast in the chorus of the Ziegfeld Follies of 1931-32. She became friends with another Ziegfeld Girl, Lucille Ball. The two were pals throughout their lives. They worked together playing the nubile slave girls wearing nothing but floor-length blonde wigs, in Roman Scandals (1932). Ball and Pepper worked together again two decades later.
Pepper made a splash in screenwriter-director King Vidor‘s Our Daily Bread (1934), in which she plays a vamp who leads the hero astray; unfortunately, the film was not successful enough to lead to larger parts. She would spend the next 30 years in supporting roles.
In 1943, Pepper married actor Craig Reynolds. They were happy, often working together on stage together, until tragically, Reynolds died in a motorcycle accident in 1949. She was left with the monumental task of raising two sons alone. She suffered severe depression and began drinking a lot. She gained weight, she lost her looks, her voice became rougher. She ended up taking in laundry and waiting tables to make ends meet.
To get back in the biz, Pepper adjusted to playing middle-aged women: snoopy next-door neighbors, belligerent landladies, and battle-axes. She also had that drinking problem.
In the early 1950s, Ball wanted Pepper to play Ethel Mertz on her upcoming show I Love Lucy. However, executive producer Desi Arnaz, nixed that idea, thinking that Pepper’s drinking would cause him the same problems as the actor he hired to play Fred Mertz, William Frawley. Arnaz chose not to risk both of his costars showing up drunk on the set; Vivian Vance was hired to play Ethel. Pepper did guest star in many episodes of I Love Lucy: the nurse in the episode in where Lucy gives birth to Little Ricky, and as a customer in the butcher shop in the episode in which Lucy and Ethel purchase a home freezer. She also appears in that great episode where Lucy and Ricky perform, in their apartment, the anti-Mertz anthem, El Breako The Leaso.
Peppers’ career spanned three decades. She appeared in films in supporting, and often uncredited, roles: Dante’s Inferno with Spencer Tracy (1935); Of Mice And Men (1939); The Women (1939); Foreign Correspondent (1940); My Favorite Spy with Bob Hope (1942), Once Upon A Time with Cary Grant (1944); The Snake Pit as a mental patient opposite Olivia de Havilland (1948); Auntie Mame (1958); The Music Man (1962), where she delivers the single line: “No one is our family is whatcha’d call musical“; and My Fair Lady where she dances with Rex Harrison (1964). She played a plus-sized foil to Jerry Lewis in Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958), Who’s Minding the Store? (1963), The Patsy (1964) and Hook, Line And Sinker (1969), her final film role. I especially appreciate her as Big Bertha in Kiss Me, Stupid (1964).
Pepper finally won fans for her own special gifts playing Doris Ziffel. Pepper told reporters that she enjoyed working with a pig. Pepper was the only cast member not to complete the entire run of Green Acres; her final credits rolled in 1969, taken by coronary thrombosis, at 54 years old. She can now be found at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery.