Actress recalls her days in 'Petticoat'

By Susan King
Los Angeles Times / December 18, 2008
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HOLLYWOOD - The 1960s are often remembered as a time of marked political and social upheaval in America, and despite this - or maybe, because of this - the decade also produced a host of television programs with a distinctly cracker-barrel appeal. On CBS alone, there was "The Andy Griffith Show," "The Beverly Hillbillies," "Green Acres," "Mayberry, R.F.D." and, of course, "Petticoat Junction," whose first season just came out on DVD.

The show, which was created by Paul Henning ("Beverly Hillbillies") and premiered on CBS in fall 1963, was set in the quaint fictional town of Hooterville and revolved around the Bradley family - widowed Kate (Bea Benaderet), her three nubile daughters, Billie Jo (Jeannine Riley), Bobbie Jo (Pat Woodell) and Betty Jo (Linda Kaye Henning), and their rather slow-moving Uncle Joe (Edgar Buchanan) - who owned and operated the Shady Rest Hotel.

"The people who watched it really identified with it because they lived those lives," says Linda Henning, now 63.

Although Henning is the daughter of the series' creator, her father didn't originally write Betty Jo for her. But he did include his daughter's love for animals in the role - today, Henning is a docent at the Los Angeles Zoo.

"He wrote the series for Bea Benaderet," she says. "He had worked with her for many years, and Bea went with him to see me in a play I was doing at a neighborhood playhouse. She said, 'Paul, why in the world won't you let your daughter try out for Betty Jo?' "

But her father feared he would be accused of nepotism. So Henning went through screen tests before she was hired.

Henning was the only constant among the original actresses. Riley and Woodell left after the second season. Lori Saunders played Bobbie Jo from 1965 to 1970; Meredith MacRae was the third and last actress to play Billie Jo.

"They wanted to pursue other careers," Henning says of her departed TV siblings. "It was tough. But we all got along, and I tested with the [other] girls, and they asked me my opinion."

Benaderet died of lung cancer in 1968. "It was terrible," Henning recalls. "The last few shows we knew she was very ill. They recorded her voice, and there would be a stand-in."

Eventually, June Lockhart, from "Lost in Space," was brought on to play Dr. Janet Craig, who came to Hooterville to replace the town's retired physician.

"She was absolutely perfect for replacing Bea," Henning says. "She wasn't trying to be our mother - she was a doctor. We were just very lucky."

By spring 1970, however, all of the rural homespun shows were put out to pasture. Henning shares how Pat Buttram, who played Mr. Haney on "Petticoat" spinoff "Green Acres," explained the decision.

"CBS," he said, "canceled every show with a tree."

Correction: A Los Angeles Times article about the sitcom "Petticoat Junction" in today's G section incorrectly says that "all of the rural homespun shows" popular on CBS were canceled by 1970. Although "Petticoat Junction" ended in 1970, the last of them departed CBS's prime-time schedule in fall 1971.

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