Benaderet was then a prominent figure on television in situation comedies, first with The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show from 1950 to 1958, for which she earned two Emmy Award nominations for Best Supporting Actress. In the 1960s, she had regular roles in four series up until her death from lung cancer in 1968, including the commercial successes The Beverly Hillbillies, The Flintstones, and her best known role as Kate Bradley in Petticoat Junction. She has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame honoring her work in television.
Beatrice Benaderet was born on April 4, 1906 in New York City. She was of Spanish, Turkish, Jewish and Irish descent. Her mother, Margaret O'Keefe (1888-1936), was Irish-American, and her father, Samuel David Benaderet (1884-1954), a Turkish Sephardic emigrant, was a tobacconist who relocated the family from New York to San Francisco, California in 1915 after his participation in the Panama–Pacific International Exposition. The same year, he opened a smoke shop that would conduct business in the city for the next 65 years, making it the oldest such retailer in California at the time of its closure in 1980.
Benaderet studied voice and the piano at a young age, and her participation in a children's radio production of The Beggar's Opera at the age of twelve attracted the attention of the manager of radio station KGO, who invited her to join as a junior vocalist. Benaderet graduated from St. Rose Academy, a private all-girls' high school, and made her professional stage debut at sixteen in a production of the Broadway musical The Prince of Pilsen. She then attended the Reginald Travers School of Acting and joined his San Francisco stock company The Players' Guild, appearing in stage productions of works such as Polly, Lysistrata and Uncle Tom's Cabin.
In 1926, Benaderet joined the staff of KFRC, which was under the new ownership of Don Lee and where her duties included acting, singing, writing, and producing. Initially seeking work as a dramatic actress, she switched to comedy and performed on multiple shows in nine years with the station, in particular the Blue Monday Jamboree variety program, where her castmates included Meredith Willson, Elvia Allman, and future I Love Lucy producer Jess Oppenheimer. Benaderet honed a variety of dialects such as French, Spanish, New York English, and Yiddish, the latter from voicing a character named "Rheba Haufawitz". She additionally hosted the musical variety show Salon Moderne and gained attention for her work as a female announcer, which had become a rarity in radio in the 1930s.
Benaderet moved to Los Angeles station KHJ in 1936. She made her network radio debut upon being hired by Orson Welles for his Mercury Theatre repertory company heard on The Campbell Playhouse. The following year she received her first big break in the industry on The Jack Benny Program, where she played Gertrude Gearshift, a wisecracking Brooklyn-accented telephone operator who gossiped about Jack Benny with her cohort Mabel Flapsaddle (Sara Berner). Intended as a one-time appearance, the pair became a recurring role starting in the 1945-46 season, and in early 1947, Benaderet and Berner momentarily took over the actual NBC switchboards in Hollywood for publicity photos. She performed in as many as five shows daily, causing her rehearsal dates to conflict with those of The Jack Benny Program and resulting in her reading live as Gertrude from a marked script she was handed upon entering the studio.
Other recurring characters Benaderet portrayed were Blanche Morton on The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show; school principal Eve Goodwin on The Great Gildersleeve; Millicent Carstairs on Fibber McGee & Molly; Gloria the maid on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet; and Iris Atterbury on the Lucille Ball vehicle My Favorite Husband, opposite Gale Gordon. Benaderet voiced various one-time parts before joining the main cast as Iris, the neighbor and friend of Ball's character Liz Cooper. The 1950 CBS program Granby's Green Acres, a perceived spinoff of My Favorite Husband, was her one radio lead role and reunited her with Gordon as a husband and wife who abandon city life to become farmers, but it lasted only eight episodes.
Starting in 1943, Benaderet became Warner Bros.' primary voice of adult female supporting characters for their Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes animated shorts. Her characterizations included an obnoxious teenaged version of Little Red Riding Hood in Little Red Riding Rabbit (1944), Witch Hazel in 1954's Bewitched Bunny, Tweety's owner "Granny" over several cartoons including the Academy Award-winning Tweetie Pie (1947), and Mama Bear in a series of Three Bears shorts, which animator Chuck Jones called one of his favorite portrayals. Benaderet did not receive onscreen credit for her work, as she was employed by Warner Bros. as a freelance actor voicing peripheral characters and, unlike Mel Blanc, was not under contract with the studio. In 1955, she was succeeded by June Foray as Warner's premier female voice artist.
Benaderet was Lucille Ball's first choice as Ethel Mertz for I Love Lucy, and Ball said in a 1984 interview that she had "no other picture of anyone" for the part. However, Benaderet had to turn down the offer since she was contracted to the television adaptation of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, and Vivian Vance was eventually cast. She guest-starred on the January 21, 1952, first-season episode "Lucy Plays Cupid" as the character of Miss Lewis, a love-starved spinster neighbor.
From 1950 to 1958, Benaderet continued her Burns & Allen radio role of the Burns' neighbor Blanche Morton, Gracie's friend and staunchest supporter who plays along in her escapades. She was the only secondary cast member to appear in every episode, and the first six shows were shot live in New York, resulting in her regularly commuting to and from Los Angeles where she worked several radio assignments at the time. Blanche's husband Harry was played by four actors; the last, Larry Keating, was introduced on the October 5, 1953 fourth-season premiere when George Burns entered the set and halted a scene of an angered Blanche preparing to hit Harry with a book. Burns introduced Keating to Benaderet and the audience and she broke character to exchange pleasantries with Keating. The segment then resumed and Benaderet struck Keating with the book. Benaderet and Gracie Allen regularly shopped for their own on-set wardrobe, and she developed a high-pitched laugh for Blanche that became a staple of the character and was often used for comic effect: "When we had a scene with some silent spots in it, George would say to me, 'Laugh there, Bea.'" Benaderet garnered two Primetime Emmy Award nominations for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series in 1954 and 1955. Following Allen's retirement at the end of the eighth and final season, the program continued as The George Burns Show in 1958-59 with Blanche repackaged as George's secretary, but it was canceled after one season due to low ratings. Benaderet worked sparsely in 1959, filming one-time appearances on General Electric Theater and The Restless Gun.
The 1960s saw Benaderet become a fixture on television, which included her working on two shows simultaneously from 1960 to 1964. In the lone season of the 1960-61 Peter Lind Hayes-Mary Healy sitcom Peter Loves Mary, Benaderet played the lead characters' housekeeper Wilma, a part she received on the back of references from Burns. She was then cast as Betty Rubble in the Hanna-Barbera primetime animated series The Flintstones after she auditioned with former radio costar Jean Vander Pyl for Betty and Wilma Flintstone by exchanging dialogue before show co-creator Joseph Barbera. He asked afterwards what part they preferred; Vander Pyl recalled in 1994: "I said, 'Oh, I want to be Wilma!' [and] Bea said, 'That's fine with me.'" Benaderet adapted her Burns & Allen laugh for Betty's signature giggle, and she voiced guest spots on the side for fellow Hanna-Barbera productions Top Cat, The Yogi Bear Show, and The Jetsons between 1961 and 1962. While filming the debut season of her show Petticoat Junction the next year, she continued voicing Betty by recording with her Flintstones castmates during evening hours, but scheduling conflicts forced her to drop the role at the end of the fourth season in 1964, and she was replaced by Gerry Johnson.
In the late 1940s, Benaderet befriended Paul Henning, a scriptwriter on the radio production of Burns & Allen. She appeared on nineteen episodes of the show that he had written between 1947 and 1951, and became one of his regular television players with the first two seasons of Burns & Allen, a two-episode guest appearance as Blanche Morton on The Bob Cummings Show in 1956-57, and then her involvement in three of the most successful sitcoms of the 1960s. After reading the 1961 first script for The Beverly Hillbillies, Benaderet wanted to audition for the role of Granny. Despite considering her to be too buxom for his vision of the character as a small and wiry woman, Henning allowed her to test anyway. Irene Ryan would win the part; according to Henning, "Bea took one look at the way Irene did the part and said to me, 'There's your Granny!'" He additionally took Benaderet's suggestion of casting Harriet MacGibbon as Granny's rival Margaret Drysdale. Henning created for Benaderet the supporting character of Cousin Pearl Bodine, the middle-aged widowed mother of Jethro Bodine (Max Baer Jr.) and cousin of main character Jed Clampett (Buddy Ebsen), whom she convinces to move from his humble home in the Ozarks after he strikes oil on his property and becomes a millionaire. Prior to shooting the pilot, Benaderet enlisted a dialect coach to help her learn a hillbilly accent. Impressed with her performance while screening the pilot to potential sponsors, Henning made Cousin Pearl a recurring character in the 1962-63 first season as she moved into the Clampetts' Beverly Hills mansion, feuded with Granny, and pursued oil tycoon Mr. Brewster (Frank Wilcox) as a love interest. Bluegrass duo Flatt & Scruggs, who performed the show's opening theme, recorded a comedic serenade in 1963 titled "Pearl Pearl Pearl", and Benaderet was pictured with the duo on the single's cover. Benaderet described Pearl's curly hair as "just my mental image of the character. ... Pearl played the piano for the silent movies and she saw such high fashion and ridiculous hairdos. She could read and write, and the curled hair seemed to Pearl the height of smartness." Her performance as Pearl was well received; author Stephen Cox wrote in his 1993 book The Beverly Hillbillies: From the Small Screen to the Big Screen: "When The Beverly Hillbillies first aired, it started to become 'The Bea Benaderet Show.' Every scene that had Cousin Pearl in it was just about stolen by the actress."
Paul Henning had long admired Benaderet's talents and strove to create a starring vehicle for her, as he felt she was worthy of headlining her own series after years of supporting parts. When CBS granted him an open time slot after the massive success of Beverly Hillbillies, he crafted the 1963 rural sitcom Petticoat Junction around Benaderet, and she starred as Kate Bradley, the widowed proprietor of the Shady Rest Hotel. Cousin Pearl was consequently written out of the Beverly Hillbillies storyline as having moved back home. The character of Kate represented Benaderet's first straight role: "Kate Bradley is different from the characters I've played in the past. She has to walk a fine line between being humorous and tender. The other women I've played were strictly for laughs." Benaderet and director Richard Whorf auditioned the young actresses who would play Kate's three teenaged daughters, and she persuaded Henning (serving as executive producer) to let his eighteen-year-old daughter Linda read (successfully) for the role of Betty Jo Bradley. Linda Henning and Benaderet's son Jack Bannon were members of a young actors' theater group at the time. CBS promoted the show's September 22, 1963 premiere with a print ad featuring an Al Hirschfeld caricature of Benaderet as Cousin Pearl. Petticoat Junction was an immediate hit, peaking at fourth in the Nielsen ratings, and remained in the top 30 during Benaderet's four full seasons on the show from 1963 to 1967. Her former Flintstones costars Alan Reed and Jean Vander Pyl filmed guest spots in later seasons.
Henning was again given free rein for a new show with no pilot needed, which he bestowed to colleague Jay Sommers due to his busy schedule. Sommers created the 1965 sitcom Green Acres, adapted from his 1950 radio program Granby's Green Acres that had starred Benaderet, thus making it a spinoff of her own television show. Benaderet filmed six appearances as Kate in the first season as both shows' casts intermingled on several episodes in a process dubbed "cross-pollination".
Benaderet played bit parts in six motion pictures from 1946 to 1962, four of which were uncredited. She was chosen from two hundred actresses for the part of a government file clerk in Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious (1946) and completed filming in half an hour, but her scenes were cut from the final print. She told Radio Life magazine that year that after having struggled to remember her lines, "Mr. Hitchcock looked me right in the eye and asked 'You want to go back to radio?' I said yes". Her first onscreen appearance, also uncredited, was in the 1949 film On the Town, as one of two women whom the main characters (played by Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra) encounter while riding the subway.
In 1945, Benaderet and fellow voice actresses Janet Waldo and Cathy Lewis were to appear on a televised fashion show on Don Lee's W6XAO network before the project fell through. On Irving Taylor's 1960 novelty album Drink Along with Irving, she duetted with Elvia Allman and Mel Blanc, respectively, on tracks titled "Sub-Bourbon Living" and "Separate Bar Stools".
Benaderet and her first husband, actor Jim Bannon, met while employed at KHJ in Los Angeles. They married in August 1938 and had two children: Jack (b. June 14, 1940); and Maggie (b. March 4, 1947). However, Bannon's heavy filming and touring schedule required for his portrayal of fictional cowboy hero Red Ryder took a toll on their marriage, and she filed for divorce in September 1950. In 1957, Benaderet married Eugene Twombly, a sound effects technician for movies and television who had worked on The Jack Benny Program, and they remained together until her death in 1968. Her son Jack Bannon became an actor, making his television debut in bit parts on Petticoat Junction and working on the show as a dialogue coach, and later starred in Lou Grant.
In 1961, Benaderet dressed in a Flintstones-style leopard-print costume to collect donations for City of Hope and March of Dimes, and worked with Welcome Wagon in the San Fernando Valley. On February 5, 1964, she was named an honorary sheriff of Calabasas, California, with her daughter Maggie accepting a badge on her behalf that was presented by her Petticoat Junction costar Edgar Buchanan in a public ceremony.
During a routine checkup in 1963, a spot was discovered on one of Benaderet's lungs. The spot was no longer visible at the time of her followup visit, but by November 1967 it had returned and grown in size. She resisted immediate exploratory surgery as she was filming the fifth season of Petticoat Junction at the time and feared the show would be affected by her absence. On November 26, she underwent the operation at Good Samaritan Hospital in Los Angeles, and a tumor was found that could not be removed. Diagnosed with lung cancer, Benaderet underwent six weeks of laser radiation treatment via a linear particle accelerator at Stanford University Medical Center. A longtime smoker, she cut down her multiple-pack-a-day habit following her initial checkups, and quit entirely after her surgery.
Benaderet's treatment was successful and concluded in January 1968. She missed ten episodes of the show as she recuperated, while her fan mail increased as she received many get-well wishes. Her character of Kate Bradley was described in the storyline as being out of town caring for an unseen ill relative, as expectations were that Benaderet would eventually recover and be able to resume filming. Rosemary DeCamp (Kate's sister Helen) and Shirley Mitchell (Kate's cousin Mae Jennings) filled in as temporary mother figures during her absence; Mitchell had previously worked with Benaderet on The Jack Benny Program in 1954-55 as Mabel Flapsaddle. Benaderet returned for the March 30 fifth-season finale "Kate's Homecoming", but after shooting the first three episodes of the sixth season, she took leave from the series in August 1968 due to fatigue. Initial plans were for her to record her voice to be inserted into future episodes. However, her condition declined and on September 26, chest pains related to her illness forced her to return to the hospital for the final time. The fourth show of the sixth season, "The Valley Has a Baby", marked Benaderet's last episode and featured only her voice with her stand-in filmed from the rear.
Benaderet died at age 62 on October 13, 1968, of lung cancer and pneumonia, and was survived by her second husband Gene Twombly and two children. She was entombed in Valhalla Memorial Park Cemetery in North Hollywood. On October 17, four days after her death and the day after her funeral, Twombly died of a massive heart attack, and was interred beside her.
When Benaderet was cast in Petticoat Junction, she was hailed as having "finally" become a star. She had previously played supporting roles throughout her career, usually as a next-door neighbor, and had been averse to leading roles; while working on Peter Loves Mary, she commented that she would "run like sixty if one were offered me." However, in January 1963, following CBS' acquisition of Petticoat Junction, she enthused to Eve Starr of The Mercury: "Isn't it nice? After all these years. ... [It] just never occurred to me that it might...golly, my own show!” During promotional interviews, Benaderet often discussed facets of the acting profession with reporters, and felt that leading a series required a "feeling of responsibility", including her being more observant of on-set activity and her costars' performances, and continuously evolving her character: "I spend sleepless nights trying to think of ways to improve Kate. If you have anything to offer as an actress, you have to grow."
Benaderet garnered praise for her mastery of dialects and her work as a comedienne and character actress, while she is recognized for her voice characterizations in animation. MeTV considered her an "icon" of 1960s television. Donna Douglas said, "Watching her timing is like watching a ballerina. She’s so effortless. You know how a seagull floats so lazily and gracefully above the water and then suddenly dives for a fish and hits it right on the nose? That’s Bea." Benaderet credited George Burns with teaching her "all I know about comedy," but claimed that television scriptwriters focused more on her voice and delivery than her characters, which she believed stunted opportunities for her to play dramatic roles. For her contributions to television, Benaderet received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960, on 1611 Vine Street, and she was the recipient of a Genii Award in 1966.
She is credited with over one thousand combined radio and television episode appearances, and was nicknamed "Busy Bea" by the press due to her prolific body of work. The Pantagraph columnist Ernie Kreiling remarked in 1965 that "probably no Hollywood personality has spent as many hours in our homes". Benaderet was good friends with Mel Blanc, and they frequently worked together over the course of their careers. Blanc wrote in his 1988 biography That's Not All Folks!: "[We] spent so much time together in studios that I used to refer jokingly to her as the 'other woman' in my life."
Benaderet also gained notoriety for the complexity of her surname, which has been misspelled as Benadaret or Benederet. She first resisted requests to change it when she began performing at twelve years old: "They told me no one could remember it, no one could pronounce it, no one could spell it." When she was introduced to Orson Welles in 1936, he remarked that her name "sounded like something you ad lib in a mob scene," and it was misspelled in a 1946 press release created specifically about its proper spelling. Radio Life wrote in 1947: "If someone were to conduct a survey to decide the radio personality with the most frequently misspelled name, Bea Benaderet would probably win hands down." Early in the first season of The George Burns and Gracie Allen Show, her full name appeared as Bee Benadaret in the closing credits.
In one episode of the 2016 seventh season of the FXX animated series Archer, Sterling Archer (voiced by H. Jon Benjamin) purposely confuses the plot of The Manchurian Candidate with that of On the Town in order to annoy his friend Slater (Christian Slater), then lists off Benaderet's television roles.