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.

Confessions of a TV Addict #10: Neil Simons’ Greatest Hit THE ODD COUPLE Will Endure


When Neil Simon passed away this weekend at age 91, the world lost one of the 20th Century’s greatest comedy minds. Simon got his start writing for radio along with brother Danny Simon, and the pair soon moved into the then-new medium of television, hired by producer Max Leibman for the staff of YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS starring Sid Caesar, Imogene Coca, Carl Reiner, and Howard Morris. This seminal variety show ran from 1950-54 and featured the talented comedy minds of writers Mel Brooks , Selma Diamond, Mel Tolkin, and Reiner on its staff. The Simons siblings moved to Caesar’s next venture CAESAR’S HOUR (1954-56) along with most of the writing staff, joined by newcomers Larry Gelbart and Aaron Ruben .

The Simons joined the staff of THE PHIL SILVERS SHOW (1955-59) for its final season, chronicling the escapades of con artist Sgt. Bilko. During this time, Neil began working on a semi-autobiographical play that became COME BLOW YOUR HORN. First produced in 1961, the play was a Broadway smash, and Simon was soon The Great White Way’s most celebrated playwright. He won his first Tony Award in 1965 for THE ODD COUPLE, and it’s this work that’s become his most enduring, with numerous adaptations in all media, including television, where we’ll focus.

The original stage production starred Art Carney as fussy Felix Unger and Walter Matthau as sloppy Oscar Madison, who reprised the role in the 1968 film version opposite Jack Lemmon as Felix. But when Paramount introduced their sitcom adaptation in 1970, they struck comedy gold by casting Tony Randall as Felix and Jack Klugman as Oscar. Randall was well-known for his comic chops, but Klugman was a revelation. Mostly known for his dramatic roles in film (12 ANGRY MEN) and television (including four episodes of THE TWILIGHT ZONE), Klugman had taken over the part of Oscar on Broadway and made it his own. The chemistry between Randall and Klugman was comedic dynamite, and the two actors began a lifelong friendship.

There were some minor changes made (for instance, Felix is now a photographer), but the basic premise remains. Neat freak Felix is thrown out by his wife Gloria and moves in with his messy, recently divorced pal Oscar. The pair constantly drive each other nuts with their opposite personalities. Felix is a bundle of neurosis, a confirmed hypochondriac (Randall’s “honking” allergy fits are classic!), and pines to return to Gloria. Oscar fancies himself a ‘ladies’ man’ despite his slovenly appearance, loves his poker games (which Felix always manages to foul up), and has a love/hate relationship with ex-wife Blanche (who’s portrayed by Klugman’s real-life spouse Bret Somers). Felix is the yin to Oscar’s yang, which sets the stage for hilarity during the show’s five-year, 114 episode run.

The series really hit its stride in Season 3 with some truly classic episodes. “Big Mouth” pits sportswriter Oscar against MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL anchor (and notorious curmudgeon) Howard Cosell, “Password” features Felix and Oscar on the TV game show hosted by Allan Ludden (with Ludden’s wife Betty White on the opposing team), “I Gotta Be Me” finds the mismatched roommates entering group therapy. My favorite is “My Strife in Court”, with the duo mistakenly arrested for ticket scalping, and this classic bit played to perfection by Randall:

THE ODD COUPLE has gone through many permutations over the years: a Saturday morning cartoon, a short-lived African-American version starring Ron Glass (BARNEY MILLER) as Felix and Demond Wilson (SANFORD & SON) as Oscar, a Simon-written female take on the characters, and the recent CBS series that was half good (Thomas Lennon’s Felix) and half not-so-much (Matthew Perry’s Oscar). Many cite Jack Lemmon and Walter Matthau in the film version as the ultimate Felix and Oscar, but far as I’m concerned nobody played the characters better than Tony Randall and Jack Klugman in one of the funniest sitcoms television has ever produced.

RIP Neil Simon (1927-2018)

Confessions of a TV Addict #1: It’s a Bird… It’s a Plane… No, It’s CAPTAIN NICE (NBC-TV 1967)

Yes, that’s distinguished actor William Daniels in those long-johns as CAPTAIN NICE, which aired Monday nights on NBC-TV for eight months and fifteen episodes during the height of the superhero camp craze in 1967. Similar in theme to MISTER TERRIFIC on rival CBS, I preferred this one as a kid because of it’s MAD Magazine-level of jokes and gags – which ain’t a bad thing, in my book! The silly superhero series was created by Buck Henry, who also (along with pal Mel Brooks ) was responsible for another campy sitcom, the 60’s spy spoof GET SMART!

Mild -mannered chemist Carter Nash works for the Big Town Police Department, and invents a super-secret super-formula that transforms him into Captain Nice. His domineering mother (Alice Ghostley) sews him up a super-suit and tells him to go out and fight crime like a good boy. Carter’s got all the powers of Superman, except he’s a bit of a klutz and is scared of heights. Nevertheless, Captain Nice hitches up his britches and embarks on protecting Big Town from the rotten bad guys.

Meter Maid Candy Kane (Ann Prentiss), unlike Superman’s Lois Lane, prefers Carter’s intellect to the brawny Captain. Big Town’s Mayor Finney (Liam Dunn) and Police Chief Segal (Bill Zuckert) are a pair of bumbling politicians dependent on the good Captain to save their city on a weekly basis. Carter’s never seen or heard father, forever sitting in his easy chair with a newspaper covering his face, is none other than veteran movie milquetoast Byron Foulger.

Captain Nice battled a super-powered caterpillar that accidently drank some of his formula, a treacherous Sheik (Larry D. Mann), and other assorted no-goodniks. He even had his own arch-enemy of sorts, the mentalist Medula (played by veteran bad guy John Dehner), who appeared in two episodes. Comedian Bob Newhart even guested in an episode as a night club owner targeted by gangsters, who the Captain was assigned to protect.

Despite the efforts of sitcom directors Gene Nelson, Charles R. Rondeau, and Gene Reynolds (MASH), and a writing staff that included GET SMART vets Henry, Dave Ketchum, Stan Burns, and Arne Sultan, the show was destroyed in the ratings by another superpowerhouse, CBS’s THE LUCY SHOW, and beaten to a pulp by ABC’s THE RAT PATROL. CAPTAIN NICE doesn’t have much of a presence on YouTube, but is available on DVD online, or you can watch episodes at http://www.tvguide.com/tvshows/captain-nice200367/. If you don’t take your superheroes too seriously, you’ll get a kick out of this slice of 60’s satirical camp! We’ll close things out here with the theme from CAPTAIN NICE. Maestro, if you please:

(Readers: do you have any obscure TV shows you’d like to see covered here? Please leave a comment and let me know!)

 

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