Tom Lester, the actor who played the guileless, brighter-than-he-seemed farmhand Eb Dawson on CBS’ 1960s sitcom Green Acres, died Monday in Nashville of complications from Parkinson’s disease, his family announced. He was 81.
Born Thomas William Lester in Laurel, Mississippi, Lester set out for Hollywood after graduating from the University of Mississippi. He studied acting with teacher and Petticoat Junction actress Lurene Tuttle (Psycho, TV’s Julia), soon coming to the attention of the show’s creator Paul Henning, who was casting another rural comedy within The Beverly Hillbillies-Petticoat Junction universe.
The show was Green Acres, an alternately hokey and surreal comedy starring Eddie Albert and Eva Gabor as a sophisticated couple who gave up city living – to the chagrin of Gabor’s character – for life on a ramshackle farm in the backwater Hooterville. Forever annoying Albert’s grumpy Oliver Wendell Douglas III, Lester’s Eb nonetheless became part of the family.
“He was the only connection with youth that the show had,” Green Acres director Richard L. Bare told the TV Academy’s The Interviews series in 2003. “They designed it that way – they needed some guy to hook in the younger viewers.”
Green Acres was an immediate hit upon premiering in September 1965, finishing that season as the No. 11 show in all of primetime. It jumped to No. 6 for the 1966-67 season and ranked in the top 20 the next two seasons. The series ended in 1971 as a victim of CBS’ famous “rural purge”, when it and the likes of The Beverly Hillbillies, Mayberry R.F.D. and Petticoat Junction were replaced by socially conscious fare including All in the Family, Maude, The Mary Tyler Moore Show and M*A*S*H.
Lester would subsequently make infrequent appearances on episodic TV (Marcus Welby, M.D., Little House on the Prairie), reprising the Eb role on 1990’s TV reunion movie Return to Green Acres. He also had roles in 1974’s Benji and 1994’s Gordy, eventually returning to Mississippi where he lived on a farm in Jasper County and devoted himself to his Christian faith.
Survivors include his fiancee and long-term caregiver Jackie Peters, brother Michael, and extended family. A graveside service for family and close friends is planned for Friday at Hickory Grove Cemetery in Laurel, with a celebration of life service to be held at a later date.
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