A host of eccentric characters populated Hooterville, the fictional setting of the hit 1960s TV sitcom Green Acres about a lawyer named Oliver Wendell Douglas who flees New York City to pursue his pipe dream of rural life. Hooterville’s daffy denizens included Sarah, the elderly switchboard “oppa-ray-TOR” who tended to turn calls through the town’s antiquated party-line system into a variation on the telephone game.
In the character’s debut episode, Sarah (played with guileless gusto by Merie Earle) began her day by patching her percolator in to the switchboard slots for two neighboring towns — perhaps the reason she misdirected all her subsequent calls. She also insulted her new boss at the Hooterville Phone Company, Mr. Douglas (played by Eddie Albert), who’d purchased the enterprise from Sarah’s brother, Roy, only to learn he’d acquired a dilapidated, money-losing operation. To the annoyance of Mr. Douglas, Sarah never rose above her initial level of incompetence.
By several accounts, Earle — who was 78 when she landed the role of Sarah — embarked on a late-life career in movies, television, and commercials after a talent agent spotted her in a Southern California church play. The actress went on to play the occasionally irascible Maude Gormley in 15 episodes of the rural drama The Waltons and made several appearances on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, whose host was said to have found her perky demeanor charming. She had a wild turn as an old-lady criminal in Crazy Mama, Jonathan Demme’s second film (a Roger Corman production), and well into her nineties was still making commercials. Hooterville was the setting for two CBS sitcoms, Green Acres and Petticoat Junction (in which Earle also played a bit part as one of her earliest TV roles), and occasionally popped up in a third, The Beverly Hillbillies.