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.