I know Gov. Huckabee likes to pay respects whenever one of the entertainers who made our childhoods more enjoyable passes on. So it’s our sad duty to report that on Saturday, one of the busiest and most likable and talented, but underrated, TV stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s, Ken Berry, passed away at 85. The news was announced Saturday via social media by Berry’s former wife, actress Jackie Joseph-Lawrence, and his “F-Troop” co-star Larry Storch, who, happily, is still alive and well at 95.
Ken Berry was a terrific light comic actor who appeared on countless TV shows, in movies and onstage, but he was best remembered for the hilarious series “F-Troop” and the sequel to “The Andy Griffith Show” called “Mayberry RFD.” “Mayberry RFD” and several other shows such as “Green Acres” and “The Beverly Hillbillies” were still ratings hits when they were abruptly canceled by CBS simply because they appealed to rural audiences and CBS wanted to chase young urban dwellers. This might be considered the first shot in the media’s war on Middle American conservatives.
From there, regular appearances on “The Carol Burnett Show” led to a role on “Mama’s Family,” the long-running spin-off from a classic Burnett sketch. After that series ended, the TV offers dried up, but Berry kept working in guest roles and performed around the nation in stage musicals.
Even if you are old enough to remember Ken Berry well, you might not know the extent of his talents. A fantastic song and dance man, he recorded an album in 1970 (“Ken Berry RFD”), and in his early years, was compared to Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. Unfortunately, in the “Bonnie & Clyde” ‘60s, Hollywood lost interest in making elegant musicals, so Berry turned his dancer’s gracefulness in a different direction by performing balletic slapstick on “F-Troop.” His physical gags even drew praise from silent comedy icon Buster Keaton, as he recalls in this interview:
If you’re of a “certain age,” you might also remember his classic musical commercials for Kinney’s Shoes, "The Great American Show Store." Several are on YouTube if you want a blast of nostalgia. Here’s one inspired by “The Music Man.”
Finally, here’s a clip of Berry on “Hollywood Palace” doing a song and a dance routine that would put most of us in traction just thinking about it.
Our condolences to Ken Berry’s family and friends. We hope it’s some comfort knowing how many people fondly remember him. And with so much of today’s “comedy” having devolved into nasty, bitter political diatribes, audiences searching Netflix and YouTube for clean, funny entertainment from less partisan times will be discovering his talents for years to come.
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“Huckabee” writer and our resident pop culture historian Pat Reeder, co-author of the book, “Hollywood Hi-Fi.” See more at www.facebook.com/hollywoodhifibook