Before Lee Meriwether took over the role of ALL MY CHILDREN’s Ruth in 1996, she already had been a Miss America (1955) and Catwoman (1966’s Batman movie), and she starred in two of the most popular series of the ’60s and ’70s: THE TIME TUNNEL (1966) and BARNABY JONES (1973-’80), both now available on DVD. BARNABY JONES: THE FIRST SEASON was released last month. “Finally. Good grief. How long has it been?” laughs Meriwether, who is ready to relive one of the happiest work experiences of her long career. The show starred Buddy Ebsen as Barnaby Jones, Meriwether as Barnaby’s widowed daughter-in- law Betty Jones, John Carter as Lt. John Biddle, and Mark Shera as J.R. Jones.
What was it like working with Ebsen (THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES), who was considered a showbiz legend? “Heaven,” remembers Meriwether. “Seven-and-a-half years of sheer bliss while working with that man. He’s such a dear, dear, sweet soul. I mean a gentlemanly, caring personality, funny, witty, just a charmer. And a love. It was a mutual admiration society, and we all appreciated how good he was. We had a wonderful time. He was always genuine. He was always on time. He knew his lines. He was gracious. All the wonderful things that you want when you’re working. When it’s as stressful as it is [on TV], he made it the most unstressful time ever. It was a joy.” Meriwether stayed in touch with Ebsen via dinners and phone calls until the actor’s death in 2003 at 95.
Meriwether is dying to “see these shows, because most of the time, I was doing a lot of theater around the same time — I was doing so much work, it was just idiotic. But I really didn’t get a chance to see many of the shows, and we didn’t have the capability of copying them at the time.”
BARNABY JONES was one of the forerunners of today’s popular procedurals — the LAW & ORDER of its day, if you will. The self-contained episodes (in each, a mystery, usually a murder mystery, was solved) were also stomping grounds for actors starting out. “A lot of people [got] their first start [with us]. We had a very young Nick Nolte [and] Loni Anderson. I remember Bill Shatner early on. It just goes on and on. It was eight years’ worth, 36 episodes a year,” adds Meriwether.
“The audience loved Buddy,” continues Meriwether. “They just adored him. Every year, we’d be in another time slot and another night, and he had that caring audience that followed him no matter where he was. CBS used his popularity to boost the ratings wherever they needed it.”
Currently, Meriwether is working on a one-woman show, The Women of Spoon River: Their Voices From the Hill. “The University of Indiana Southeast is mounting a production for me,” smiles the actress.
Meriwether believes that she’s been blessed to work with such a large selection of wonderful people. “I have worked with the best, the nicest men, who were co-stars and wonderful working partners.” That includes Ebsen, Andy Griffith (on THE NEW ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW) and AMC’s Ray MacDonnell (Joe), of whom she notes, “I love that man. [He has the] same kind of personality [as Ebsen].”
Meriwether has her fingers crossed about a return or two to Pine Valley. “They did leave the door open a teeny bit. Michael (E. Knight, Tad) said in a scene, ‘We want you to be a part of our kids’ lives.’ I’m sure they would have us up for holidays. I think Ray has a daughter living here in Los Angeles. I remember one of the producers coming up and saying, ‘Be sure and let us know when you’re coming to Los Angeles, so we can maybe write you in.’ And Ray just smiled and laughed. So hopefully, he’ll do that.”