There's a surprising link between Green Acres' Eb Dawson and The Andy Griffith Show's Barney Fife
Don Knotts inspired Tom Lester's Hollywood career.
If anybody on TV ever really needed a farmhand, it was Green Acres’ city slicker Oliver Wendell Douglas. Luckily, he found Eb Dawson, the quippy farmhand eventually hired to help out, despite Oliver’s initial proud rejection, bolstered by his wife Lisa’s praise that her husband grew the biggest squash on Park Avenue. Soon enough, Eb was coming around so often, he was a regular fixture at Lisa’s pancake breakfasts and a fan favorite on the show.
Tom Lester played Eb Dawson on Green Acres, and history tells that he beat out 400 actors to land the role. How did the young man from Mississippi without a credit to his name accomplish this feat, co-starring alongside the prolific Eddie Albert and the showstopper Eva Gabor?
It turns out Lester’s courageous decision to try acting was inspired by another rural sitcom star, The Andy Griffith Show’s Don Knotts.
In an interview with a radio show called “Faith Forward," Lester explained how very few people from his hometown seemed to believe he could make it as an actor in Hollywood.
Lester said, "I told them I was going out to Hollywood to become an actor and they all said, 'You’re crazy. You’ll never be able to do that. You’re too tall, too skinny, too ugly. You’ve got a Southern accent and you’ll never make it in the motion picture business. You don’t look like Rock Hudson.'"
These pessimistic voices were so persuasive, Lester actually stopped pursuing his acting dream and started to become a doctor, earning degrees in chemistry and biology from the University of Mississippi. But acting was what he was truly pulled to do, and one day, he picked up a magazine that would affirm for him that he could maybe make it in Hollywood after all. Lester said:
"I might not make it, but at least I’m going to try. And I would’ve rather gone out there and tried and failed then to never have gone out there at all. And I read an article once where they asked Don Knotts who was Barney Fife on The Andy Griffith Show, 'How in the world did you ever get into movies?' Because he didn’t look anything at all like Rock Hudson. And he said, 'I figured everybody in Hollywood was good-looking and had a good physique. I figured they needed somebody a little bit different.' And he was."
Inspired by Knotts’ success, Lester decided to take his chances, too, and that decision threw him all into acting. He left for Hollywood with no real plan, but plenty of heart: "I didn’t figure there were a lot of folks like me in Hollywood, so the way I went, no job, no place to stay, didn’t know anything about the motion picture business."
A man of deep faith, Lester didn’t go straight to an agent or seek out casting calls. Instead, he went to church, where he not only got a job to support himself while pursuing his dream (working at a chemical plant), but he also met "a wonderful drama coach," one of TV’s finest character actresses who got her start as the “First Lady of Radio,” Lurene Tuttle.
Tuttle appeared on a wide variety of shows, including Perry Mason, The Andy Griffith Show, Leave It to Beaver, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murder, She Wrote, The Munsters, and just about every TV Western you can think of. But it wasn’t Tuttle who directly launched Lester’s acting career. She was just a helping hand along the way.
What Tuttle did instead was help Lester get cast in plays that put him onstage with Linda Kaye, the daughter of Paul Henning and Petticoat Junction star. Lester featured in three plays with Kaye, performances he said were always attended by Henning and often followed by parties at Henning’s house where the up-and-coming actor struck up an easy friendship with the well-known sitcom creator.
Lester expressed extreme admiration for Henning, "He was executive producer of Green Acres and at that time was the most powerful comedy producer in the world. So he’d come to see Linda Kaye … and he liked me, got to know my little idiosyncrasies and all these things about me, because we’d have little parties over at his house and drink Cokes and eat hot dogs and have a good time."
It took one more play to scoot Lester into Henning’s Hooterville. This time, Lester shared the stage with one of Henning’s nieces in a rendition of Beauty & the Beast — he said he played a wizard. Afterwards, Henning approached the actor with a specific piece of praise that likely made everybody in Lester’s hometown’s ears burn:
"[Henning] said, 'Tom, I like your accent,'" Lester said. "Now see, all my friends in Mississippi said,m 'You’ll never make it because you’ve got a Southern accent,' and here was the most powerful comedy producer and writer in the world, saying 'I like your accent.' And he said 'Maybe someday I could put you on The Beverly Hillbillies, how would you like that?' And I said, 'Oh, Mr. Henning, that would be wonderful.'"
After a couple weeks without word, though, Lester started having doubts and sensibly made a plan to go home by December if he didn’t make it in the industry. He set his deadline far enough back to receive this fateful phone call before he left:
"Three weeks went by and Mrs. Henning called me on the phone and said, 'Tom, we tried to reach you last night. Mr. Henning wants you to get over to the studio as fast as you can and read for the part of Eb on Green Acres.'"
It was seemingly a whole Henning family affair getting Lester cast in this special Hooterville role, and sure enough, Mrs. Henning’s phone call sent him straight over to the studio, where he read for the producers and writers, including series creator Jay Sommers and writer Dick Chevillat. After his audition, he knew he was getting somewhere when they said, "How would you like to do a screen test on Monday with Eddie Albert?" His humble reply? "That’d be great."
It’s important to note here that when it comes to Eb Dawson on Green Acres, the character was not intended to be as big a part of the show. Instead, Lester’s performances in early episodes proved to be so popular, producers decided to keep the character around.
In the end, it turned out that Lester was not only the perfect person to play Eb Dawson, but perhaps the only one willing to put so much enthusiasm into the character to ensure that he stuck around the farm — and that the actor stuck around Hollywood.
In the interview, Lester said it didn’t take long after the screen test for him to get the news that he didn’t need to pack his bags and head home. He said, "The following Thursday they called me up and told me I had the job."
And in a way, it’s all thanks to Don Knotts, whose rise from sitcom scene-stealer to movie star told a young Tom Lester: If he can do it, I might as well try.