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Ken Berry: WOW!

by Jim Longworth

In the entertainment business, a triple threat is someone who can sing, dance and act. It’s also someone who’s accomplished on stage, in film and on television. I guess that makes Ken Berry a double-triple threat because he can do just about everything in any venue.

I first got to know Ken some years ago when I was preparing an event for the Television Academy.

Last month we reconnected to talk about his career.

Born in Moline, Illinois on November 3, 1933, Ken was drawn to performing at an early age. As a teenager his considerable skills as a dancer landed him a spot in the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, which performed all over America and Europe. After graduating high school, Ken enlisted in the Army, and was stationed at Fort Bragg. It was his first introduction to North Carolina but not his first connection. More on that later.

In the second year of his enlistment, Ken and other soldiers from Special Services Corps toured the country and entertained other troops. It was during that time that he won the All-Army Talent Competition. Thanks to YouTube, you can catch his winning act via “The Big Picture,” a weekly TV series produced by the Army in the early 1950s.

If you have not seen an athletic dancer do his thing, then treat yourself to this video gem.

Ken’s biggest supporter in those days was Sgt. Leonard Nimoy, the future Mr. Spock, who had already dabbled in acting and knew the ropes in Hollywood.

“I was going to be on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ because Ed put the winners of the AATC on the air every year. And Lennie said, ‘You really ought to get in touch with the heads of the talent departments at major studios, and see if you get any response.’ And I said, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ So Lennie said, ‘Well then I’ll do it for you,’ and he got two bites “” one from Fox, and one from Universal. I can’t remember why, but we settled on Universal, and I went out there after I got out of the Army. I did a screen test that turned out very well I thought, and I don’t usually think that about my work.”

Despite the successful screen test, Ken’s first regular TV series work was still several years away. In the meantime, he continued to hone both his academic and artistic skills.

“I was going to school on the GI Bill. I wanted to stay in school and keep studying because I wasn’t well-rounded, and I wanted to be a better song and dance man. I didn’t have any money, so I took a job in Vegas working with Abbott and Costello. I made a whole $125 a week. They weren’t really getting along, in fact, it was the last time they ever worked together.”

Ken was ready to make his move; though his timing was perfect on stage, it couldn’t have been worse for a career in singing and dancing.

“I realized that the studios weren’t making motion picture musicals anymore. It’s like aspiring to be a basketball player and things are coming along, then you pick up the newspaper, and it says ‘Basketball canceled.’ I couldn’t believe it.”

But while musicals weren’t in demand, Ken’s acting abilities were, and he landed roles on “The Ann Southern Show” and “Dr. Kildare.” Then in 1965, Warner Brothers hired Ken to play a bumbling cavalry officer in “F-Troop,” a spoof of the old West. The role called for a lot of physical shtick, but Ken was up to the challenge. In fact, his pratfalls earned him high praise from his idol Buster Keaton. “F Troop” was ABC’s second-highest-rated comedy and an instant cult hit, and it outperformed such classics as “Gilligan’s Island” and “Star Trek,” the latter of which starred his old Sergeant. Despite its popularity, however, “F-Troop” was canceled after two seasons, presumably because Warner’s new owner, 7-Arts, didn’t want to incur the high costs of producing a series in color. Fortunately for Ken, Mayberry, North Carolina came calling.

“My wife read that Dick Linke was President of the Personal Managers’ Council, so she wrote to him asking if he would watch a Carol Burnett special I was going to be on with Carol, Frank Gorshin and Rock Hudson.”

The letter worked. Linke, who was also Andy Griffith’s manager, took Ken on as a client, and before long Andy hired Ken as the lead in a spin-off series, “Mayberry RFD.”

“I always knew how lucky I was to get that job,” Berry said. “I think they were scraping the bottom of the barrel, that’s how I got most of my jobs (laughs)” In the series, Ken played farmer Sam Jones, a widower who was also head of the town council. He was now the straight man for all of the old familiar Mayberry characters, and the show was an instant hit, ranking 4th in the Nielsens, with a 25 rating for the first two seasons. To put it into perspective, “Seinfeld” usually garnered no more than a 21 rating, and “Friends” averaged about a 15. If “RFD” aired today, CBS would have to bring in a Brinks truck to pay Ken each week. Instead, some punybrained network executive decided to purge all of the so-called rural comedies from its line-up in 1971, and once again, a Ken Berry show was canceled at the height of its popularity.

The following season, Ken hosted his own variety series, titled, appropriately, “Ken Berry’s WOW Show!” The program was short-lived, but it gave audiences a glimpse of Ken’s prowess as a singer and dancer. In 1974, he appeared on an episode of “The Brady Bunch” in what was to be a spin-off series, with Ken playing the father of three multiracial children. But “Kelly’s Kids” never made it onto a network schedule. Afterward, Ken appeared in several films and a number of stage plays, before being cast as the dim bulb son of Vicki Lawrence, in the long running series “Mama’s Family.”

Today, after six decades in show business, Ken deserves a rest, yet he joked about his retirement, telling me, “I don’t have anything going on until April.”

“What happens in April?” I asked. “Nothing happens in April. I was just kidding,” he said.

Before we ended our conversation, Ken said he had one more thing he wanted to tell me: “When I was stationed at Fort Bragg, I had a strange feeling of being at home in North Carolina. Not long ago I got in touch with a genealogist and learned that the Berry family settled in Orange County. One branch then went South into northern Alabama, and my branch wound up in southern Illinois. But I always did feel at home in North Carolina.”

Praise indeed from the head of the Mayberry town council. !

JIM LONGWORTH is the host of “Triad Today,” airing on Saturdays at 7:30 a.m. on ABC45 (cable channel 7) and Sundays at 11 a.m. on WMYV (cable channel 15).

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