The following interview between True Believer magazine's publisher
Randy Hill and Tom Lester appeared in the Spring 2001 issue of True Believer magazine (www.truebeliever.com). [True Believer magazine is distributed by Ingram Periodicals, Inc. to independent and national retail outlets throughout the United States and Canada, as well as to subscribers worldwide.]
Randy Hill: Let's start with a little about where you grew up.
Tom Lester: Well, I grew up here in Laurel [Mississippi]. We moved to Laurel when I was two years old, but I was born in Jackson, Mississippi. I've lived here all my life, except for the time I taught school for a year, and then of course when I was out in California. We worked from May until December on Green Acres and then the rest of the time I was back in Mississippi.
What did you do before co-starring in Green Acres?
I taught school for a year in Oklahoma. Then I went to California and was on Green Acres. I taught school right out of college, so Green Acres was about the first thing that I did besides teaching school.
How did you get into acting? Did you always want to be an actor?
Well, no, but pretty early on I felt impressed that this is what God wanted me to do. As a ten-year-old boy I came to Christ and received Jesus as my Savior and Lord. From that point on I began to realize that I would never fulfill God's purpose in my life unless I did what God wanted me to do. So as I began to understand and know God's will for my life, everytime I went to a movie or watched any kind of television show or a play, I began to feel impressed that God wanted me to go to Hollywood to be an actor.
This thought stayed with me until I was a teenager in high school and about ready to go into college. At that time I was pretty tall, about 6 foot 4 inches, and very thin. All my friends said, "What do you want to do for a living?" And I said I'd like to go to Hollywood, California and become an actor. They said, "Aw, man, you'll never make it. You're too tall, too skinny, and too ugly and you've got a Southern accent. You don't look like Rock Hudson…you'll never make it in Hollywood, California." So I thought, "Well, maybe I can't," yet in my heart I knew that's what I really wanted to do. I thought about becoming a doctor. Now, I really didn't want to become a doctor, but I majored in Chemistry and Biology at the University of Mississippi. I also took some graduate work, down at Southern, but med school was not where God wanted me. Then I taught school for a year in Purcell, Oklahoma. School teaching is a wonderful profession, but I knew that it was not what God wanted me to do. In my heart I still wanted to go out to Hollywood. After teaching school for a year I came home and told mother and dad, "If I'm going to make it in this industry I'm going to have to go out there." So away I went. I didn't have a job or a place to stay, and I didn't know anything about the motion picture business.
I found a little church first thing after arriving there…First Baptist Church of Beverly Hills. I met Loraine Tuttle, a drama coach, and began to study with her. She sent me out to the North Hollywood playhouse where I did three little showcases and a play. It was there that Mr. Paul Henning who created, produced, and wrote the Beverly Hillbillies, Petticoat Junction, and was executive producer of Green Acres saw me. His daughter was in each one of those theater presentations that I was in, and also played "Betty Jo" on Petticoat Junction.
So Mr. Henning would come to see his daughter, and he saw me and liked me. Then I did a play with his little niece…it was all a bunch of tiny kids and me. He came to see that little children's play, and there I was again. When the play was over, he talked to me for a long time and he said, "Tom, I like your accent. Maybe one of these days I can put you on the Beverly Hillbillies." So I thought that was pretty terrific. Several weeks went by and I began to pray like I never had before. I said, "God, get me out of Hollywood if it's not your will for my life to be out here…let me just come back to Mississippi. I've been out here for two years, and I'll just go back and do whatever you want me to do." I felt pretty impressed that God was going to put me in the industry, but I also felt peace about coming back to Mississippi.
About a month went by, and in the middle of June I got a call on Saturday morning from Mrs. Henning. She said, "Tom, Mr. Henning wants you to go try out for 'Eb.' Now, they want an older man, but he thinks it will be good experience for you." So I went over there and met with the producers, and they said, "We want you to do a screen test on Monday with Eddie Albert," who played the part of "Mr. Douglas." I did the screen test with Eddie, and on Thursday they called and said that I had the job and that I started work the next week. They tested over 400 guys for the part, and all of them had more experience than me. I ended up getting the part - of course I was "Eb" in real life [laughter] - and I was on the show for six years.
Did you have a hand in developing the character of "Eb Dawson?"
Oh, no. They had an idea of what they wanted in the character. They first thought they wanted an older man, but the part was just not right for an older guy. Of course, when you have brilliant writers like we had - not like the writers that they have today–they watch you and your little idiosyncrasies and add them into the character. "Eb" really kind of became me. They would write all of the little things that I do in regular life into the show. I say "golly" a lot, so they wrote that in for "Eb" [laughter].
Do you have a favorite episode?
Yeah, my favorite episode is the one where "Arnold" [the pig] could tell the weather with his tail [laughter]. His great-great-grandfather, "Herman Burnbarger Pig," could tell the weather with his tail and had become a multimillionaire pig. He died and left twenty million dollars to the long lost grandson whom he couldn't find. There was a big search to find the pig that could predict the weather with his tail, and sure enough it was "Arnold." So me and "Mr. Douglas" and "Mrs. Douglas" took him to Chicago to get his money. We get to this hotel and the guy is trying to throw us out until he finds out who the pig is [laughter]. So he's all excited now about having us in the hotel. Anyway, they let us stay in the hotel and they gave the pig and myself an incredible suite, and they put "Mr. and Mrs. Douglas" in a room that was so tiny, the bed covered the entire floor [laughter]. They had to walk across the bed to get to the bathroom.
When it came time to tell the weather, we went to the attorney's office. It was supposed to be the middle of July and about 90 degrees, but "Arnold" predicts snow. So they said that the pig was a fraud, and the newspaper read, "Pig Blows It – Predicts Snow in 90 Degree Weather." We went back to the hotel and found that they had piled all of our luggage on the floor, and told us that they're kicking us out of the hotel. I go out to get a taxicab, and then run back in covered with snow. The minute that the guy at the hotel desk sees snow on me, he immediately turns to the pig and says, "Oh, Mr. Ziffel, we're so glad to have you back in the hotel." Every time the pig was rich, he was all for him, but every time he was poor, he hated him, which is the way society is. So "Arnold" won the 20 million bucks [laughter].
You see the producers and writers took all of the hypocrisy that's in society and wrote it into Green Acres; but Hollywood wasn't smart enough to know what was going on. They didn't realize how brilliant the show really was. Of course, they honored us at the University of Southern California's film department as one of the greatest television shows of all time. As a matter of fact, we won an award that no television show has won out there because they understood. Hollywood never realized what a great show it really was because it was written over their heads.
Do you watch any of the shows on television?
No, I watch almost zero television. I watch old John Wayne or Clint Eastwood movies, and some of the old movies that have values. I also like to watch C-Span a little bit and the weather channel. The weather channel is my favorite channel…because I don't have to hear all the sexual inuendo jokes that a lot of the shows have now.
Was there any cast member that you became particularly close to?
Alvy Moore (Hank Kimball) and I became very, very close. He was a Christian and we became best friends. Of course, everybody is dead now except for Eddie Albert and myself, and Mr. Albert and I have become very close. I call him once a month and see how he's doing. He's 93 years old now and still a wonderful man.
What was life like after you left Green Acres?
Oh, it was fine, but I missed the show of course. I continued my speaking engagements and the Lord opened up a lot of doors for me to share my faith. I felt like God wanted me to be an actor. I went out there and became an actor, was on a television show, and as opportunities opened for me to speak, I would go out and share my faith. I was pretty much typecast on Green Acres because there were times when I got the chance to try out for something else and they would say, "No, he's not right for this. We loved him on Green Acres, but he's not right for this." But they did give me the chance to try out; a lot of times I didn't even get a chance to do that.
What ministries are you involved with now?
Basically, I just go out and share my faith. When churches call me and ask me to come and speak, I do it. Most of them probably don't know how to reach me. I never used an agent before because I never made a business out of it. It was just always a ministry. But I did go with the Ambassador agency in Nashville because they are very wonderful, and fine Christians who are very fair and don't overcharge.
When you're out and about do people recognize you?
If I'm in Mississippi people recognize me very quickly. In other states they'll recognize me if they are a big Green Acres fan. They recognize me first for my voice, and then of course they recognize me for my look. But if I put my "Eb" outfit on and walk through an airport it would be a whole different bag of beans.
What are your future plans?
Oh, I don't have any idea. Whatever God wants me to do will be fine. Wherever God is at work and wants me involved, I'll be there.
Copyright 2001 PeytonHill Communications, Inc. All Rights Reserved. Use only with permission from PeytonHill Communications: firstname.lastname@example.org