Just reading Ken Berry's biography and filmography makes you wonder why he isn't considered one of the biggest stars of Hollywood today. From starring roles in four of TV's most popular series to guest appearances on over 50 others, and his own variety show to boot, it is perhaps Ken Berry's anonymity that makes him such an interesting subject, a Hollywood fringe type whose career was filled with the modest success we all aspire to.
Kenneth Ronald Berry was born November 3, 1933 in Moline, Illinois. Growing up, his idols were Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, and at the age of 12 he had signed up for dance lessons. At 15, he was picked from over 500 high schoolers to join the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, a traveling revue for young entertainers. He and the group made stops all across America, France, Ireland, and north Africa. When he returned, the acting bug had hit hard, and after graduation, he headed off to California to make his fortune.
Before long, however, he was drafted into the Army and shipped to Missouri for training. As part of the artillery unit, he was unhappy, and tried consistently to get into Special Services - the entertainment bureau of the Army. Nobody seemed to believe he had ever been an entertainer, though. When he learned of a "talent night" where the winner would get to join a USO parade, he went and dusted off his tap shoes and wowed the crowd with an elaborate act and some daredevil acrobatics - tricks he had learned from Donald O'Connor's choreographer. He got into Special Services (where his sergeant was none other than Leonard Nimoy), and later appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
He returned to California in 1955 and used his GI Bill funds to attend acting classes. In 1957, he was asked to join a small group that was opening for Abbott and Costello in Las Vegas. With the Hollywood musical on the decline, Berry decided to become a nightclub star; unfortunately, his first night in Las Vegas he went to see Sammy Davis, Jr. perform, and was convinced he couldn't make it at the clubs either. So he moved back to California and got a job at Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz's production company, Desilu Studios, working as a writer and performer for the "Billy Barnes Revues." It was here that he met Jackie Joseph, another singer and dancer. The two were married on May 29, 1960. That same year he got his first major television appearance on "The Andy Williams Show."
Throughout the 1960s, Ken had guest roles on a number of popular television series, "Dr. Kildare", "The Garry Moore Show", "The Bob Newhart Show", "The Dick van Dyke Show", and the war drama "Combat!" among them. In 1964 he and his wife adopted their son John, and their daughter Jennifer was adopted the following the year. 1964 was also the year Ken got his big break: while working with George Burns on a series called "Wendy and Me", George sent him off to a friend of a friend who gave him a screen test for a new series set in the frontier days of the West. Berry won the role, and became Captain Wilton Parmenter on the classic comedy series "F Troop" on ABC.
For two years, Ken battled Indians (the show is often criticized for its portrayal of Native Americans - but in its defense it portrayed the soldiers as equally stupid) on the frontier, filming 65 episodes all in all before the show came to an end. After the show came to an end, he continued to guest star on series galore: "The Danny Thomas Hour", "The Lucy Show" (with his old boss Lucille Ball), and perhaps most importantly, "The Carol Burnett Show." He also won a small role on "The Andy Griffith Show" in 1968, when Andy himself was on the way out. Executives, who knew a hit when they saw one, decided to keep the show running as a spin-off, called "Mayberry R.F.D.", and Ken was given one of the lead roles as a returning character. The show was so popular that in 1970 Ken recorded an album with his old friend Andy Williams, entitled "Ken Berry R.F.D." Featuring mostly folksy older songs, the album's quaintness personified the easygoing nature of Ken himself. He even picked up an old instrument from his youth, the ukulele, for a couple of the songs!
While shooting "Mayberry R.F.D.", Berry continued to stand out as one of the premiere triple threats of Hollywood, as a singer/actor/dancer. (He was even mentioned in an early script of Mike Myers' Austin Powers 2 film.) Making appearances on "The Glen Campbell Variety Hour", "The Julie Andrews Hour", and perhaps the most famous variety show, "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In." In the summer of 1972, he was finally rewarded with his own variety show, called "The Ken Berry Wow Show." It was only a summer replacement and lasted five shows, but for a time Ken was on top of the entertainment world.
I Remember Mama
After "Mayberry" left the air, Ken was stuck in an interesting position: he had many offers coming in, but he wished to branch out a bit. He continued guest starring on TV series ("The Brady Bunch", "The Sonny and Cher Show", "CHiPs"), but he also began appearing in a number of television movies - and the real Hollywood kind. He had had minor roles in Two for the Seesaw with Shirley MacLaine and Sub-a-Dub-Dub with Tony Randall, but his first starring role was in the Disney sequel Herbie Rides Again, in 1974. Four years later, he again made a movie for Disney, the delightful sci-fi family flick The Cat From Outer Space.
At the same time, he had signed a deal with Kinney shoes to be their sponsor. His lavish and flamboyant tap dancing commercials for the company were met with much success; when the ad campaign ended in 1976, letters flooded into the company headquarters, asking "Where's Ken Berry?"
By now Ken was nearing 50 years old, and his dancing and singing days were all but behind him. He still made several appearances on Broadway and off-Broadway, most notably as the attorney Billy Love in "Guys and Dolls" and as Professor Harold Hill in Meri Wilson's "The Music Man." He also made recurring appearances on "The Carol Burnett Show", where one particular skit was a huge splash: that of Vicki Lawrence as a curmudgeonly old matriarch dealing with her nitwit family. When he got a call in 1983 from a producer asking if he'd like to take part in a television series based on the skit, he readily agreed. Thus was born "Mama's Family."
The show ran on NBC for two seasons, and then was picked up for syndication, where it lasted for five more, finally finishing up in 1990. Since then, Berry has taken a sporadic number of guest roles on television and a few performances in the theater, but has otherwise fully retired to his wife and his other hobby: cars. He's collected nearly 30 unique automobiles, from a 1966 Austin Mini-Moke to a Porsche Z28 that he uses today. Ken Berry, you've done us proud.