While Paul Henning had a way of using words to create witty yet heartfelt dialogue and memorable characters, the Independence native turned famed screenwriter and producer didn't like make himself the subject.
“He was too modest and shy,” said Carol, the older daughter of the man whose chief credits include creating the hit 1960s TV shows “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Petticoat Junction” and “Green Acres,” as well as movies such as “Lover Come Back” and “Bedtime Story.”
“He didn't like to write about himself. He really didn't like to be center stage.”
Carol and younger sister, Linda Kaye, who starred as one of the Bradley sisters in “Petticoat Junction,” visited Independence this week and were featured guests for a program Friday evening at Ophelia's on the Square. Earlier in the day, the sisters sat down for a conversation with The Examiner.
A memoir by their mother, Ruth, “The First Beverly Hillbilly: The Untold Story of the Creator of Rural TV Comedy,” was published last year by the Mid-Continent Public Library and the Jackson County Historical Society. The manuscript had been finished in 1994 but was never published, but her friend and longtime Examiner reporter, editor and columnist Sue Gentry kept a copy. The Historical Society was gifted Gentry's papers when died, and from there the manuscript was re-discovered and a publisher found.
Carol said her mother had to be talked out of trying to get a book published about going back to college in your 40s – “She thought everything she did was interesting,” Carol said – but she decided to write about her husband's career, which she believed had been under-appreciated, “because he wasn't going to do it.”
Not many people in any walk of life get a fan letter from U.S. president, but well after the fact and from others did the Henning sisters learn their father received two such pieces of correspondence from Dwight Eisenhower.
“It was very difficult,” Linda said about getting her father to talk about himself, “But sometimes, you could get him on a subject he was fascinated with.”
Some fascinations became the subject of his writing. The residents of the Ozarks that he enjoyed so much naturally inspired the “Hillbillies.” His wife's stories about visiting a grandmother who owned a hotel next to a train stop in rural Missouri led to “Petticoat Junction.”
Carol recalls her own fond memories of visiting the Branson area in later years. It was a foreign place compared with her Southern California upbringing, but she soon appreciated how the simple nature of many people's lives that inspired her father's storylines.
“In all nine years, Jed (Clampett, the “Hillbillies” patriarch) never really changed that much,” she said.
And Henning, who died in 2005 at age 93, knew his characters extremely well, Linda said.
“Daddy, when he was writing his characters, he wrote his own backstory,” she said.
While many critics at the time did not care for Henning's shows, his family knew they resonated with many people across the country – even beyond the sometimes strange fan mail that arrived. Some people thought Clampett (played by Buddy Ebsen) could lend money from his oil profits or that Elly May (Donna Douglas) was a romantic possibility or that Granny's spring tonic water was available.
Linda also recalls “Petticoat” fan mail from girls who pretended to be the Bradley sisters, or even a foxhole in Vietnam.
“We were a close family, even though the father had died,” she said of the show's appeal. “In the 60s, things got crazier and crazier and crazier. We would get fan letters saying they wish they could have a family like that.
“I think we still need (shows) like that.”
As for favorite characters of their father's creation, both sisters point to the con men played by Marlon Brando and David Niven in “Bedtime Story,” which later inspired “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels.”
“Not only was he a good con man, he was decent,” Carol said. “There were certain people he wouldn't steal from.”
“Nobody's 100 percent anything,” Linda added.
The sisters also agree that shows like their father's, even if re-runs might have a home, in all likelihood wouldn't be created and find large appeal today. Rather, they were perfect for the time they ran.
“It's not the same world,” they said.