Christmas With 007: ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (United Artists 1969)

(Okay, so technically ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE isn’t a Christmas Movie. But neither is DIE HARD, though many consider it to be because it’s set during the holiday season. Well, so is this film, and it’s as close as you’ll get to a James Bond Christmas Movie, so I’m gonna go with that!)

ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE was the first Bond film to not star Sean Connery . Instead, newcomer George Lazenby was given the plum role of 007. Lazenby was a model whose claim to fame was a British TV commercial for a chocolate bar; despite having virtually zero acting experience, producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli offered him an audition and gave him the part. Critics of the time derided Lazenby’s performance, more due to the fact that he wasn’t Sean Connery than anything else. Looking back on the film, he isn’t bad at all; he handles the action, romance, and quips more than adequately, and makes Bond all-too human. Perhaps that’s the trouble, that they wanted their super-spy to be super, but personally I think Lazenby made a fine Bond, and wish he’d continued in the part.

(courtesy ‘Art of the Title’ website)

Along with humanizing 007, ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE gives us a back-to-basics approach, with more emphasis on plot and less gadgets and gimmicks. This is evident in the pre-credits sequence, where Bond (whose new face isn’t fully shown until around the halfway mark) saves a young woman from drowning herself in the ocean, then is attacked by and fights off some unknown assailants (and gets off the witty line “This never happened to the other fellow”). There’s no bombastic theme song; what we get instead is a montage of the previous Bond films inside a stylized martini glass, as if to state “out with the old, in with the new”!

The young woman is Contessa Teresa di Vincenzo, who prefers to be called Tracy (“Teresa was a saint; I am not”), who turns out to be the daughter of European crime boss Draco, who may have information leading to the location of Bond’s nemesis Blofeld. But Bond is taken off the Blofeld case by M (still played by Bernard Lee ), and the licenced-to-kill agent angrily submits his resignation. The loyal Miss Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell ) arranges instead for Bond to be granted two weeks leave. Bond travels to Portugal to meet Draco, who thinks Bond would make a good match for Tracy, and uses his information as leverage.

Bond and Tracy fall in love for real, and 007 then goes back on Blofeld’s trail, disguising himself as a genealogist to infiltrate the SPECTRE chief’s Swiss Alps mountaintop lair. Blofeld is posing as a benevolent research scientist seeking to cure the world’s allergies, and his patients are twelve beautiful women – Bond’s in heaven! But heaven can wait, as he discovers Blofeld’s fiendish plan to use the girls as his “Angels of Death” and spread his deadly “Virus Omega”, which will cause infertility among all species of life on Earth and the destruction of the human race unless his demands are met…

There’s no lacking on the action front, with exciting sequences like Bond’s daring escape down the mountain on skis while pursued by Blofeld and his minions, an icy stock car race in Tracy’s Mercury Cougar XR7, Bond vs. Blofeld in a bobsled chase, and Draco’s team assault on Blofeld’s lair. First time director Peter Hunt had been an editor on several Bond films and was more than familiar with the territory. Editing chores were taken over by John Glen, who’d eventually move to the director’s chair for five Bonds (the final three with Roger Moore, two with Timothy Dalton).

Diana Rigg  was no stranger to the spy game, having spent three seasons as Mrs. Emma Peel on TV’s THE AVENGERS. Diana makes a great Bond girl as Tracy, the only woman he’d ever fallen in love with to this point, and can hold her own in the action department (*SPOILER ALERT* her death by Blofeld’s assassin after her wedding to James comes as a sad but necessary shock, as Bond must always remain a man alone). A pre-KOJAK Telly Savalas is an elegantly evil Blofeld (though my favorite is still Charles Gray ). Italian star Gabrielle Ferzetti (L’AVVENTURA, WE STILL KILL THE OLD WAY, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) is equally elegant as the cultured crime lord Draco. Among those “Angels of Death” you’ll find Julie Ege (Hammer’s CREATURES THE WORLD FORGOT), Joanna Lumley (ABSOLUTELY FABULOUS’s Patsy), Catherine Schell (SPACE: 1999’s Maya), and Angela Scoular (the ’67 Bond spoof CASINO ROYALE).

As for George Lazenby, he marched to his own drum, and has had a varied career, including the Italian giallo WHO SAW HER DIE?, some kung-fu films for producer Raymond Chow, and the French soft-core EMMANUELLE series. His post-Bond work doesn’t amount to much, but he’s happy. We’re happy too, if only for his one appearance as Her Majesty’s Greatest Secret Agent. I’ll leave you with James & Tracy’s love theme, “We Have All the Time in the World”, sung by jazz legend Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong:

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40 Years of SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE (Warner Brothers 1978)

Unlike today, when superheroes dominate at the box office and your local multiplex, costumed crusaders were dead as the proverbial doornail in theaters of the 1970’s. The last was 1966’s BATMAN, at the height of the camp craze, but after that zer0… zilch… nada. I didn’t care; my comic book reading days were pretty much at an end by 1978, driven away by other distractions, like making money, girls, beer, and girls. I had moved on.

But when Warner Brothers announced they were making a new, big budget Superman movie, I was intrigued. I’d always loved the old 50’s TV series starring George Reeves as the Man of Steel, corny as it was, and with a cast featuring Marlon Brando , Gene Hackman , and Glenn Ford , not to mention that girl from Brian DePalma’s SISTERS as Lois Lane, I wanted to see this new version. I also wanted to see this new guy, Christopher Reeve. Never heard of him (no one had!), and we speculated whether he was cast because his name sounded like Reeves, the TV Superman. The advertising was telling us all “You’ll believe a man can fly”, promising cutting-edge special effects, and there was a buzz in the air. I had to see it. Everyone, even my non-comic book loving friends, wanted in, too.

We weren’t disappointed. The all-star lineup was a treat, the story balanced action with humor, and the new guy knocked it out of the universe – Christopher Reeve WAS Clark Kent/Superman! Those special effects were fantastic, seamless in their execution. SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE was a blockbuster, and produced three sequels (SUPERMAN II was as good, maybe even better than, the original; the other two, not so much). All this was forty years ago, and movies have evolved since then, with CGI effects (for better or worse – you make the call) and visual innovations unthought of back then. Does it hold up compared to all those costumed cavorters battling in today’s big screen epics? Recently, Fathom Events re-released SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE to theaters, and I took the trip out to Swansea, MA to find out.

I made the half hour trip down the highway on a Monday night, grabbed some popcorn, a soda, and a box of Chocolate Peanut Chewies (hey, it’s a long movie… I’ll be at the gym tomorrow, I promise!). I settled in and prepared to be transported back… back to 1941, it turned out, as the show began with the animated Superman short THE MECHANICAL MONSTERS, a treat in itself! Then SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE started, and I’d forgotten all about that pre-credits black-and-white sequence with the kid flipping through a copy of Action Comics, a throwaway bit, for sure, but it helped set the film’s tone.

The first few notes of John Williams’ iconic score hit, and those eye-popping credits roll (I always smile when I see “Superman created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster”, knowing what a raw deal they got from DC). The first thing we see is Brando as Jor-El, still commanding the screen with his sheer presence (even when he’s later in hologram form), and setting up the sequel by sending General Zod and company to the Phantom Zone. I still love the way he pronounces ‘Krypt’n’ with his faux English (or is it a Kryptonian) accent.

Those Oscar-winning, “cutting edge” special effects hold up astoundingly well about 98% of the time: the destruction of Krypton, Kal-El’s journey through “the 28 known galaxies”, and Superman saving Lois from impending doom in that helicopter are standouts. The film introduced the then-new process of front projection, which gives the effects their seamless look. The final cataclysm at the San Andreas Fault was the only part that looked a bit on the cheesy side, but for the era it’s more than passable. Best of all for me was Superman taking Lois out for a fly, which in my opinion is one of the most romantic scenes in ANY film genre. You really will believe a man can fly!

Highlights among the cast are most certainly Gene Hackman’s turn as the evil genius Lex Luthor. He makes a diabolical villain, and his crazy wigs are a funny touch. Lex and his motley crew in their subterranean lair are a mismatched trio to be sure, and while I enjoyed Ned Beatty’s moronic henchman Otis, it’s Valerie Perrine who truly shines as the ditzy (but ultimately heroic) Miss Teschmacher. Glenn Ford and Phyllis Thaxter make a perfect Ma and Pa Kent, with both  giving understated performances. Jeff East as the teenaged Clark Kent doesn’t get a lot of attention from fans, but his performance is vital to the character’s back story. Veteran Jackie Cooper makes a blustery Perry White, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the brief but memorable cameo by Kirk Allyn and Noel Neill as young Clark rushes past the train they’re on; film buffs know they were the original Lois & Clark in the 1948 serial.

When Christopher Reeve first appears onscreen in the Fortress of Solitude, you knew you were watching the birth of a star. His dual role as the shy, bumbling Clark Kent and the heroic Man of Steel is a joy to behold, imbued with a sense of humor without going the camp route. Reeve’s interpretation of the character is the measuring stick for all screen superheroes; compare him to Henry Cavill – there’s no contest! The chemistry between Reeve and Margot Kidder’s Lois is palpable, and rewatching that wonderful scene of Superman and Lois in flight I mentioned earlier brought a tear to my eye, knowing the tragedies that befell both these fine actors later in life. That scene alone will have you wishing they were still with us.

Several screenwriters (Mario Puzo of “The Godfather” fame, Robert Benton, David and Leslie Newman) tried to capture the essence of Superman, but it took a rewrite by Tom Mankiewicz to polish this gem. His witty, knowing take on the Superman legend is pitch perfect, and Robert Donner’s superb vision as director brings it all to life. John Barry’s production design is outstanding, and cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth captures it all beautifully. The film is “dedicated with love and affection” to Unsworth, who died while filming TESS the following year. Altogether, SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE not only holds up extremely well, it’s a classic fantasy film that has stood the test of time. It’s got heart, humor, and most importantly characters you care about. While I do like some of the superhero films of today (and I’m sure you do, too), I can’t help but wonder… will audiences of the future be heading out to their local theaters to see the 40th anniversary of any of them? Only time will tell…

 

Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree: “Christmas Wrapping” by The Waitresses (ZE Records 1981)

Tis the season for Christmas music, and today we have New Wave rockers The Waitresses with their peppy little classic “Christmas Wrapping”:

The song first appeared on a ZE Records compilation album called “A Christmas Album” featuring artists like Suicide and Was (Not Was).  Since it’s release, it’s become a Yuletide standard on Classic Rock Radio, featured in movies and ads, and covered by the likes of The Donnas, Kylie Minogue, Spice Girls, Bella Thorne, and the cast of GLEE. The Waitresses had another hit that still gets plenty of airplay, “I Know What Boys Like”:

The band was formed by Akron, Ohio’s Chris Butler, formerly of the punk group Tin Huey, and included the late Patty Donahue on lead vocals, Mars Williams (sax), Dan Klayman (keyboards), Dave Hofstra (bass), Ariel Warner (backup vocals), and ex-Television drummer Billy Ficca. The Waitresses also  recorded the theme to the ahead-of-it’s-time sitcom SQUARE PEGS before breaking up in 1984:

Though short lived, The Waitresses left us with a catchy, danceable Christmas classic that’ll be around for years to come.

“Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas/Couldn’t miss this one this year”!

Hollywood Babylon: TOO MUCH, TOO SOON (Warner Brothers 1958)

Hollywood biopics are by and large more about their entertainment value than historical accuracy. TOO MUCH TOO SOON is no exception. It tells the story of actress Diana Barrymore, daughter of “The Great Profile” John, based on her 1957 best-selling tell-all, and though it pretty much sticks to the facts, many of them have been sanitized for audience consumption. Dorothy Malone , fresh off her Oscar-winning role in WRITTEN ON THE WIND, is very good indeed as Diana, whose true life was much more sordid than fiction, and we’ll get to all that later. What makes the film for me was the actor portraying the dissipated John Barrymore – none other than Errol Flynn !

Errol Flynn (1909-1959) as John Barrymore

Don’t expect to see the dashing star of CAPTAIN BLOOD and THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD here. Flynn (who a year later would release his own tell-all book, MY WICKED, WICKED WAYS) looks bloated, paunchy, and haggard… and it ain’t makeup, folks! Years of carousing and alcohol/drug abuse had taken their toll on the once-athletic star. John Barrymore was Flynn’s idol and the younger actor modeled both his acting and his lifestyle on his hero. The two became friends and drinking companions in a band of Hollywood reprobates known as ‘The Bundy Drive Gang’, along with W.C. Fields , artist John Decker , writer Gene Fowler, actors John Carradine and Alan Mowbray , and others. There’s a famous story about how, after Barrymore’s death from cirrhosis of the liver, director Raoul Walsh “borrowed” the actor’s corpse and propped it up on Flynn’s couch, scaring the beejezus out of him!

Flynn gives a warts-and-all portrayal here, a loving tribute that finds the star even getting to spout some Shakespeare like his mentor. His Barrymore, much like himself, is a washed-up, booze-soaked old ham who’s squandered his talents with his alcoholism and womanizing, yet still manages to exhibit an undeniable charm. Errol Flynn himself was at a low point in his career, no longer the flamboyant screen swashbuckler but still capable of delivering the goods when the material was right. The part of John Barrymore fit Flynn like a glove and he gives it his all. It’s a poignant performance that surely hit close to home for Flynn, yet he wasn’t even nominated for an Oscar. The romantic hero of countless films died a year later at age fifty after completing the low-budget CUBAN REBEL GIRLS with his then-teenaged girlfriend Beverly Aadland.

As for the rest of TOO MUCH TOO SOON, Malone gives a scorching performance as Diana, who heads to Hollywood to live with the father she (like Flynn) idolized. Signing a contract with ‘Imperial Films’ (actually Universal), Diana meets and marries handsome young actor ‘Vince Bryant’ (Efrem Zimbalist Jr., in reality older actor Bramwell Fletcher, who acted with Jack in 1931’s SVENGALI). The elder Barrymore hasn’t been onscreen in five years (untrue; he worked right up until his death in 1942), and is offered the part of Sheridan Whiteside in the movie version of THE MAN WHO CAME TO DINNER (true; Bette Davis wanted him badly, but Jack Warner didn’t). When The Great Profile succumbs to his disease, Diana descends into alcoholism and madness, proving the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Now married to ‘Vince’, Diana’s drinking and neediness escalates. She takes up with tennis bum Johnny Howard, a real rat bastard as played by Ray Danton (the real Howard was ten times worse, and later convicted of “white slavery”). Howard goes through Diana’s money like water, and her mother cuts her off. Diana tries to restart her career onstage, meeting sympathetic actor Robert Wilcox (Ed Kemmer; the real Wilcox once starred in the serial THE MYSTERIOUS DR. SATAN), who’s eight months sober. The play flops, and the two are back on the bottle, living in a sleazy hotel. Diana is reduced to doing a vaudeville act doing bad impressions at a seedy strip joint (true). Now destitute, she breaks down when seeing her reflection in a window (a little dramatic license here), smashing the glass, and is arrested and put in a state mental hospital. She’s visited there by author Gerold Frank, who offers to write her life story when she’s released, giving her the chance to begin anew.

The real Diana Barrymore (1921-1960) with Errol Flynn

The real life Diana never did stop drinking or taking barbiturates (a deadly combination, trust me) before her own death in 1960 at age 38. Diana Barrymore was used for her name value on marquees, and is remembered today for her tragic life rather than any films she made. Hollywood always devours its own, and TOO MUCH TOO SOON exploits Diana  once again, bringing to the screen her sordid (though sanitized) story for profit. It’s redeemed only by the performances of Malone and, especially, Errol Flynn.

Pre-Code Confidential #24: THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE (Paramount 1933)


I’d heard so much about THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE – that it was so depraved and salacious it almost singlehandedly led to stricter enforcement of the Production Code – that it was almost a letdown when I first viewed it. I say almost because, knowing the era this adaptation of William Faulkner’s SANCTUARY was made, I understand how shocked audiences must have been. THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE could be a TV Movie of the Week today, but in 1933 people couldn’t handle this level of lasciviousness.

Georgia-born Miriam Hopkins is outstanding as Southern belle Temple, though she does lay on the “sho’ nuffs” a little too thick at times. Temple, daughter of a prominent judge, is a wild child, a big tease to all the men in town. Solid, steadfast lawyer Stephen Benbow wants to marry her, but the self-centered Temple thinks he’s too dull, preferring to party all night. While speeding down a dirt road with the equally irresponsible Toddy Gowan on their way to a backwoods roadhouse, they get into an accident. The two are found by some  moonshiners and their big city bootleg connection, the cold-blooded gangster Trigger, and taken to their gloomy Gothic hideout.

Temple is then raped in the barn by Trigger, who shoots her young hillbilly bodyguard Tommy. The girl is in shock, as Trigger lugs her along his sordid path, making their way to Miss Reba’s Place, where she’s forced into a life of prostitution. Moonshiner Lee Goodwin is arrested for Tommy’s death, and Benbow is appointed council, but he refuses to talk, fearing reprisal from Trigger. Lee’s common-law wife Ruby isn’t afraid to speak the truth though, and Benbow tracks down Trigger with a subpoena. To his shock, Benbow finds the missing Temple with him. The murderous Trigger reaches in his pocket for his gun, but Temple gets between them, telling Benbow she’s been with the gangster all along, willingly, acting as his alibi and secretly saving Benbow’s life.

Temple then tries to leave Trigger, but the vicious hood won’t let her. He’s about to lay another smackdown on her when she grabs his gat and shoots her tormentor. Returning to her hometown just in time for the trial, Temple’s  father is outraged when Benbow plans to put his daughter on the stand, and now Temple faces a moral dilemma: tell the truth and suffer total disgrace for herself and her family name, or let an innocent man hang for a crime he didn’t commit…

Miriam gives one of her best performances as Temple, the party girl whose lifestyle leads her on the road to ruin. Hopkins doesn’t get the acclaim her contemporaries Bette Davis and Joan Crawford do, but her work in this and 30’s films like DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE , TROUBLE IN PARADISE, DESIGN FOR LIVING, BECKY SHARP, and THESE THREE show what a talented actress she was. Jack LaRue (Trigger) was Hollywood’s most hissable gangster, and here he’s so repugnant and evil, with that ever-present cigarette dangling from his mouth, you can’t help but hate him. Florence Eldridge (wife of Fredric March) is really good as the hardened Ruby, as is Irving Pichel in the role of Lee. William Gargan plays Benbow as written – bland – and one can see why Temple isn’t interested. A plethora of Familiar Faces appear: Oscar Apfel , Louise Beavers, John Carradine (a courtroom extra), William Collier Jr (the wastrel Toddy), Jobyna Howland, Elizabeth Patterson, Sir Guy Standing (Judge Drake), Grady Sutton , and Kent Taylor.

Faulkner’s controversial novel had to be watered down, even in the Pre-Code era, by scriptwriter Oliver Garrett, and even then, the censors demanded cuts due to pressure from the newly formed Catholic Legion of Decency . The rape itself, as well as any mention of Temple being a prostitute, are only implied, but you’ll get the drift (onscreen murders seem to be okay, though!). DP Karl Struss had worked on F.W. Murnau’s silent classic SUNRISE (receiving an Oscar) and early talkies COQUETTE, DR. JEKYLL, and ISLAND OF LOST SOULS. His camerawork on THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE was film noir before the term was ever coined.

Director Stephen Roberts handles the material well, cutting at times to the busybody townspeople talking about the scandalous Temple, and keeping the film moving at a brisk pace. Roberts had a long career in silent movies, mainly directing shorts, before being assigned to features. He died in 1936 after making only six more pictures. TEMPLE DRAKE may not have killed him, but it’s sinful reputation pretty much killed his career. The story was remade as SANCTUARY in 1961, but despite looser film restrictions it’s even more watered down than the original! I’d like to see a contemporary filmmaker(Quentin Tarantino? Martin Scorsese?) tackle the material, but for now, I’ll settle for the sleaziness of THE STORY OF TEMPLE DRAKE.

 

Kung-Foolery: Jackie Chan in DRUNKEN MASTER (Seasonal Film Corp. 1978)

Jackie Chan’s  combination of slapstick comedy and kung-fu action helped make him a worldwide superstar, and DRUNKEN MASTER put him over the top as a cinematic force to be reckoned with. While I’m no expert on the genre, I’ve seen my fare share, and I can tell you this movie’s more than a few belts above because of Chan’s natural charm and comic timing.

As per usual with these films, the plot’s thinner as a Chow Mein noodle, which is okay because who needs a plot when you’ve got Jackie Chan? The dubbed version I saw casts Jackie as Freddie Wong, a rascally scamp whose father runs a kung-fu school. Pop tries to break the spirited Freddie without success, so he sends for Great-Uncle So Hi, a tough old buzzard with a fondness for saki (hence the title!). So Hi drives Freddie so hard with his grueling training the youngster runs away! But an encounter with the deadly assassin Thunderleg, in which Freddie suffers abject humiliation, finds Freddie crawling back to his Drunken Master to perfect the Technique of the 8 Drunken Gods. And just in time, for Pop’s unscrupulous enemies have hired Thunderleg to kill him, resulting in a Freddie vs Thunderleg rematch that’s a dizzying display of both athletic grace and Jackie’s comic gifts.

The film’s an almost non-stop orgy of graceful kung-fu action scenes highlighted by Jackie’s comedic talents. It’s a “star vehicle” all the way, and launched Chan to international acclaim. He’d been around the Hong Kong film scene awhile, as a child actor in the 60’s, a stuntman in the 70’s (working on the Bruce Lee films FISTS OF FURY, ENTER THE DRAGON , and GAME OF DEATH), and even a Hong Kong porn flick before finally breaking through with SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW and this movie, catapulting him to “overnight” stardom. His athletic martial arts moves have a balletic quality to him, and his comedic chops are impeccable.

Chan didn’t really break through stateside until 1995’s RUMBLE ON THE DOCKS, though he’d been seen here in 1980’s THE BIG BRAWL and Burt Reynolds’s CANNONBALL RUN movies. Thanks to VHS and DVD, fans quickly caught up on his Hong Kong-made Kung-Foolery, and mainstream films like RUSH HOUR and SHANGHAI NOON elevated him to his rightful place as a major action star. DRUNKEN MASTER was the second film for director Yuen Woo-ping, who also made SNAKE IN THE EAGLE’S SHADOW with Jackie (and whose father Yuen Siu-tien plays Master So Hi), and his talents led him to mainstream work as well, choreographing the action scenes in the MATRIX and KILL BILL movies.

DRUNKEN MASTER gives fans the opportunity to see a young Jackie Chan honing his screen persona, and doing what he does best – giving audiences plenty of laughs to go along with plenty of action! Like I said, I’m no expert on Martial Arts movies, but I know what I like, and I liked this one a lot. Chances are, you will, too!

Confessions of a TV Addict #12: An Appreciation of Ken Berry


I’ve always said if Ken Berry had been born a bit earlier, he would have taken up the mantle of song-and-dance masters Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in films. But Berry, who died this past weekend at age 85, came up at a time when Hollywood musicals were, if not dying, definitely on life support. Berry had his greatest success in the world of TV sitcoms, though he did find opportunities to display his dancing skills in variety shows of the era.

Moline, IL born Ken won a talent contest at age 15 and toured with popular Big Band leader Horace Heidt’s Youth Opportunity Program. Joining the Army after high school, he was assigned to Special Services to entertain the troops. His sergeant encouraged Ken to head to Hollywood after his hitch was over. The sergeant’s name: Leonard Nimoy ! Ken begun his professional show biz career as a Universal contract player, though he didn’t get in any films. Instead, he wound up working in Vegas as part of Abbott & Costello’s revue. Small television parts followed: a stint as Woody the bellhop on THE ANN SOUTHERN SHOW, comic relief Dr. Kapish on DR. KILDARE. A pair of episodes on THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW as choreographer Tony Daniels allowed Ken to show off those song-and-dance skills, but it looked like he’d be forever relegated to second string before a fateful call in 1965 changed his life.

That call was for the role of Captain Wilton Parmenter on F TROOP (1965-67), casting Ken as the bumbling, klutzy, accidental Medal of Honor winner who’s sent to command Fort Courage in the wild and wooly West. Berry’s dance training came in handy as Parmenter, who was forever stumbling about – he could take a pratfall with the best of ’em! F TROOP is slapstick farce at it’s best, definitely not politically correct, and still one of my favorite sitcoms. Veterans Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch costarred as Sgt. O’Rourke and Cpl. Agarn, a pair of hustlers grateful to have the clueless Captain around so they can continue their money-generating O’Rourke Enterprises. 16-year-old (at the time) Melody Patterson played Berry’s love interest, the feisty cowgirl Wrangler Jane, who was definitely the aggressor in their relationship. Frank De Kova was Chief Wild Eagle, leader of the friendly Hewkawi tribe (as in “Where the Heck Are We”), co-conspirator in O’Rourke’s schemes.

The spoofs ran wild and the series featured a host of familiar TV guests: Milton Berle , Jack Elam , Bernard Fox, Harvey Korman , Paul Lynde, Julie Newmar, Don Rickles (as Wild Eagle’s renegade son, Bald Eagle!). Even Vincent Price showed up as an ersatz bloodsucker in the horror lampoon “V is for Vampire”! Ken Berry more than held his own amid all the anachronistic jokes (a rock band in the Wild West?), catchphrases, sight gags, loony supporting cast (including Western vet Bob Steele as Trooper Duffy, last survivor of the Alamo!), and the manic antics of Storch as the dimwitted Agarn. His Captain Parmenter was the Krazy Glue that held the whole thing together.

Next up , Ken moved from the Wild West to a much more sedate setting: Mayberry. Berry’s character, widowed farmer Sam Jones, had been introduced in the final season of THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW , and was poised to star in the spinoff, MAYBERRY RFD. Griffith had tired of the weekly sitcom grind after eight years, but didn’t want to give up his cash cow completely. In contrast to the bumbling Parmenter, Sam Jones was the moral center of this new show. Mayberry denizens Jack Dodson (Howard), George Lindsey (Goober), and Paul Hartman (Emmett) provided continuity, as did Frances Bavier’s Aunt Bee for the first season, replaced by Alice Ghostley as Sam’s Cousin Alice. MAYBERRY RFD ran three seasons and was still in the ratings Top 20 when it was cancelled along with several other ‘country’-themed programs ( THE BEVERLY HILLBILLIES, GREEN ACRES, HEE HAW ) in 1971 during CBS’s “rural purge”, as the network sought a younger, more urban demographic.

Ken survived the “purge” and became a frequent guest on variety shows, even hosting his own brief summer replacement series THE KEN BERRY WOW SHOW in 1972 (featuring a young comic named Steve Martin). He made nineteen appearances on Carol Burnett’s hit series, and made the rounds of THE LOVE BOAT and FANTASY ISLAND. He returned to weekly TV in Burnett’s own spinoff show MAMA’S FAMILY (1983-4; 86-90), based on the popular skits about the Bible-belt Harper family. Vicki Lawrence reprised her role as sassy matriarch Thelma Harper, and Ken was cast as her somewhat dopey son Vinton, whose “tramp” wife Naomi (Dorothy Lyman) was the constant butt of Mama’s wrath. The series ran for a year on NBC, then was revived in syndication, where it achieved it’s greatest popularity.

Berry never made the leap to feature film star, though he did headline a pair of 70’s Disney family comedies, HERBIE RIDES AGAIN and THE CAT FROM OUTER SPACE. While never achieving superstar status, Ken Berry was a reliable performer, a likeable presence who always gave his all in whatever the part called for. Even though his first true show biz love was as a song-and-dance man, starring in three hit sitcoms over three decades is certainly nothing to sneeze at! F TROOP alone would have cemented his legacy among sitcom aficionados. Thanks for the laughs and Godspeed, Captain Parmenter.