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Nancy Kulp, Miss Jane Hathaway

Getty Images / ABC Photo Archive

Nancy Kulp, Miss Jane Hathaway

Nancy Kulp no longer may be a household name, but it only takes watching a couple of episodes of The Beverly Hillbillies to understand her appeal as a comic actress. Often cast as a prim, frustrated spinster, she perfected the role on Hillbillies –– which aired from 1962 to 1971 –– as the flirtatious, bird-watching Miss Jane Hathaway. She received an Emmy nomination for the understated-but-overheated role in 1967.

Kulp originally wanted to be a journalist, writing profiles for the Miami Beach Tropics paper after graduating with a journalism degree from Florida State College for Women (now Florida State University) in 1943. She said she interviewed Clark Gable, Myrna Loy, Errol Flynn and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. (Could that be where she got the inspiration for her role as an English maid on an I Love Lucy episode in which she attempts to teach Lucy and Ethel how to curtsy before the queen?)

In World War II she served as a member of Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service –– the U.S. Naval Reserves (Women's Reserve) known informally as the WAVES –– and earned several medals.

Kulp, who died Feb. 3, 1991 –– 23 years ago today –– also appeared on The Real McCoys, Perry Mason, The Jack Benny Program, Pete and Gladys, The Twilight Zone and The Outlaws, among others.

Kulp was born in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the only child of a traveling salesman and a schoolteacher. She married Charles Malcolm Dacus in Florida on April Fool's Day in 1951, and the couple relocated to California. In Hollywood, she went to work in publicity for a studio and was discovered by director George Cukor and casting agent Billy Gordon in less than three weeks, according to IMDb. She soon had a role –– uncredited –– in her first film, The Model and the Marriage Broker. Other films followed, including Shane (1953), Sabrina (1954), A Star is Born (1954), Forever Darling (1956), The Three Faces of Eve (1957) and The Parent Trap (1961).

Kulp's star really rose on television, first in The Bob Cummings Show (1955) where she played bird watcher Pamela Livingstone, and then for the long Hillbillies run, again as a bird watcher with a hilarious attraction to Jethro. "With her humorless, totally professional approach to life, she became a perfect foil for the daffy Clampett family," her obituary in the Los Angeles Times said.

After the show went off the air, she appeared on The Brian Keith Show and Sanford and Son, and in Morning's at Seven on Broadway. In the 1980s, she returned to Pennsylvania and ran for Congress. Hillbillies colleague Buddy Ebsen recorded a radio commercial for her opponent, saying she was too liberal, and she was defeated. She later moved back to California and settled in Palm Springs.

Despite her decade-long marriage to Dacus, Kulp indicated to author Boze Hadleigh in a 1989 interview at age 67 that she was a lesbian, according to Wikipedia. "As long as you reproduce my reply word for word, and the question, you may use it," she was quoted as saying. "I'd appreciate it if you'd let me phrase the question. There is more than one way. Here's how I would ask it: 'Do you think that opposites attract?' My own reply would be that I'm the other sort – I find that birds of a feather flock together. That answers your question."

Kulp was diagnosed with cancer in 1990 and died the following year at a friend's home in Palm Desert, California. She is buried in Westminster Presbyterian Cemetery in Mifflintown, Pennsylvania, where her gravestone includes her name, dates, naval rank and her most memorable role: "Miss Jane Hathaway."

Susan Soper is the author of ObitKit®, A Guide to Celebrating Your Life. A lifelong journalist, she has written for Newsday and CNN, and was Features Editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, where she launched a series called "Living with Grief." Find her on Google+.