It’s All Right There in
Black and White–and Green
The Colorful Story of One Boy’s Unique Mayberry Mission
By Jim Clark
There are two people that I know of who contacted a partner in a Mayberry television production to suggest themselves for a role. The first was Don Knotts, who, after watching the “Danny Meets Andy Griffith” episode of “The Danny Thomas Show” (aka the pilot for TAGS) on February 15, 1960, called Andy Griffith, his old No Time for Sergeants buddy, and, in a nutshell, asked him, “Don’t you need a deputy?” Andy heartily agreed. Their exchange and Don’s subsequent casting are fabled parts of the Mayberry origin story. Barney Fife became a television legend and a pop culture icon.
This is not that story. This story is about the other person who had the gumption to tell Mayberry powers-that-be, “You need me.” This is the unlikely story of Calvin Peeler and his journey, first to Mayberry and then far beyond.
The summer of 1968 was a tumultuous time in America. The increasingly unpopular war in Vietnam continued to have mounting casualties both on the battlefield and back home. There were growing tensions and sometimes violence associated with not only the war protests but also the fight for civil rights. Presidential candidate George Wallace was spewing segregationist hatred. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated in Memphis on April 4. Presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy was mortally wounded by an assassin in Los Angeles on June 5.
Against this backdrop, Calvin D. Peeler, a 13-year-old African-American kid in Greeneville, Tenn., was spending his summer the way many kids did back then. He played with friends in the neighborhood. He often tagged along to help his father, Albert Peeler Sr., who moonlighted as a custodian for various offices and at Pet Milk Company. (Albert was an accomplished mason and also worked for decades at Metals Engineering Corp.) Calvin’s mother, Barbara, worked as domestic help for a wealthy Greeneville family and later also worked at Pet Milk for many years before retiring. Calvin had three sisters, Barbara Lucille, Wilma and Deborah, all older. (An older brother, Albert Jr., died during infancy.) The Peelers were an especially close-knit family, and surviving family members remain so.
With more than a little help from his dad, Calvin, who preferred to be called Little Peeler in those days (he doesn’t remember why now), delivered The Greeneville Daily Sun (now The Greeneville Sun) to roughly 125 customers. The paper route, Calvin’s first job, provided the Peeler family with an extra $12 to $14 of income per week.
Calvin would ride with his dad in the family’s two-tone Packard station wagon to the loading dock of the newspaper office to pick up bundles marked “Peeler” with the allotted newspapers for the father and son’s afternoon route. “My father,” Calvin says, “drove to a point where I would take half of the papers, and he took the other half and drove away to make deliveries from his station wagon. After he let me out of the car, I would walk, come rain or shine, to deliver my half. We would meet up again after each of us had delivered our share, and he then drove me home before going to do custodial work. Sometimes I would help him in return.”
Calvin adds, “On the very few days when my father was unable to help me with the deliveries, I had to go to every home assigned to me. Some people asked whether I was their new carrier– particularly if I rang the doorbell to collect the weekly fee of 25 cents. That’s just how involved my dad was in the paper route.”
An avid reader, Calvin not only delivered the newspaper–he read it, as well as anything else he could get his hands on. That included the national TV Guide magazine. “We often bought the TV Guide,” Calvin recalls, “and I enjoyed reading it mostly for the cover stories about the Hollywood elite.”
Even so, he says, “Television was not a focal point of our family experience at the time, although we did regularly watch ‘The CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite.'” He remembers being a fan of TAGS. “I probably watched other popular television programs of the time, but have no recollection of what others, except that I had favorite cartoons.”
He particularly remembers “Casper the Friendly Ghost,” whom he adopted as his friend. “Who could deny that he existed for me?” Calvin muses. “After all, he was a ghost!”
Calvin adds, “My family went for an extended period without a television set in our house. When my parents finally purchased one, it was a black-and-white set that was more common during those days. Color televisions were undoubtedly more expensive. I’m not sure that we did, but I recall others using a multi-colored clear plastic sheet to cover the screen to create the illusion of ‘in living color.'”
He continues, “At that time, most of the children in our community spent our leisure time playing outside, where we socialized with other neighborhood children. We were relatively adventurous and creative about making our own entertainment from nature and the simple things around us without the benefit of the technology that appears to have altered human interaction in more modern times.”
He adds, “We often went to the movies as children, and especially during the summer months when school was out, because it was cheaper to do so. The only movie house in town, the Capitol Theatre, offered discounts for Wednesday matinees. As minority patrons, we would form a separate line from others. We had to wait outside to enter through a side door located to the left of the front of the movie house.
“A vivid part of that memory,” he continues, “was that the manager would hurriedly exit the theater and come to us from the main double doors behind the ticket booth. He would regularly shout out to us, ‘Get your money ready! Get your money ready!’ We were on notice to have our nickels, dimes and quarters to pass on to him prior to entering the big side door. Once inside the building, we climbed several dimly lit steps that led directly to the very top of the theater–to the upper balcony where we were to sit segregated from the other patrons.”
Recalling those years of his early childhood, Calvin continues, “Equally memorable was that when we wanted refreshments, we had to walk back down the stairs to a small opening in the wall that was about waist high and just to the left of the door where we entered the building. Sometimes the window was closed, so we would knock on a wooden door to get the manager’s attention. When opened, the window looked directly into the manager’s small office.
“Once we had his attention,” Calvin remembers, “he took our orders for popcorn, soda and candy while we waited in the stairwell for him to go to the concession area, which, if we peered through the opening, we could see at a distance beyond his office. He returned with our requests, and we climbed back up the stairs again to take our seats and watch the matinee movie. I certainly enjoyed going to the movies very much and believe that movies were as much a part of my interest in Hollywood as television at the time.”
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had improved racial equality in America in significant ways, but in 1968 there was still a long way to go, and 13-year-old Calvin was keenly aware of that reality.
Calvin recalls one trip in particular. “My mother’s brother was driving us on the treacherous, winding roads through the mountains between Greeneville and Shelby, N.C., where my mother was from and where much of her father’s family still lived during my childhood.”
The trip was scary for more reasons than just the narrow roads along mountainsides. Calvin continues, “We stopped at a service station to get gas. Everyone stayed in the car except my uncle, who entered the building to buy coffee as he was a little tired.
“He did not return for a very long time,” Calvin says, “and my mother became very worried. She sent me inside to check on him. When I entered the building, I saw that he was being taunted with racial slurs and was too afraid to move or get up and leave as he thought it might be interpreted as a physical provocation.
“Fortunately,” Calvin says, “my arrival gave him the excuse he needed to leave, and he immediately did with gratitude to me. I so remember how scared he was as he hurriedly returned to the car. He shared with us what had happened once we were again on the road. Needless to say, he was never served coffee. Certainly, a guide such as the Green Book would have been useful that day!”
During the summer of 1968, it was a guide of a different sort that was about to spur an epic event in Calvin’s life. The adventure began the day the July 13 issue of TV Guide arrived in the Peeler home. Calvin took a particular, personal interest in the cover story: “The Wondrous Andy Griffith TV Machine.” (It was a story too big for just one issue of TV Guide. Part two of the story was in the next week’s issue.)
The TV Guide story focused on Richard O. (Dick) Linke’s role in managing an entertainment empire that included personal management of Andy Griffith, Jim Nabors, Ken Berry, Maggie Peterson, Ronnie Schell, Larry Hovis, Jerry Van Dyke, and others. Dick also was an ownership partner for TAGS, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and the upcoming “Mayberry R.F.D.” for which he was co-executive producer with Andy Griffith.
Calvin was sad that TAGS was ending, but was encouraged to read that Mayberry would continue with a new series. But he also thought something had been missing in Mayberry, and he was inspired to write a letter with his thoughts about that situation.
As reported by Reuters at the time, Calvin said, “I think television shows should have more Negroes in them. So I wrote the producers of the show and told them I thought they should put a Negro in the show, and suggested myself.”
Calvin today says the following: “I think it would be difficult to impossible for me to assume that I am able to recapture today with any precision the relevant thoughts I had as a child. I am able to recreate in my mind only some of what may have inspired me, although my memory has been altered by the passage of time.”
He continues, “Generally speaking, the representation of African Americans in film and television was very limited and much less than it is today. I do remember the ‘Amos ‘n’ Andy’ sitcom with an all-African-American cast before it ceased to air–for political reasons, I believe.” (After its original broadcast run from 1951 to 1953, “Amos ‘n’ Andy” was available in syndication for local stations until 1966. Because of the controversy over its being racist, few stations aired the program after 1963, though it did also briefly resurface on a local station in Atlanta in 1983.)
Calvin continues, “If African Americans had previously appeared on ‘The Andy Griffith Show’ prior to the time that I wrote the letter, I was not aware of that fact. I did not know then nor was I at any time aware of who Rockne Tarkington [Flip Conroy in “Opie’s Piano Lesson”] was.”
About his letter, Calvin remembers, “I expressed two concerns: my sadness and disappointment that the original show was scheduled to end and also my recommendation that they consider adding an African-American child character to the Mayberry cast.”
The most logical person Calvin could think of to write to get something done was Dick Linke, who from the TV Guide article seemed to be at the center of all the action in Mayberry.
Calvin grabbed a spiral-bound notebook with lined paper and chose a pen with green ink.
Calvin today says, “I recall two things about my letter. One, it was obviously handwritten and in green ink. And two, I sent it via expedited mail. To my young mind, both would stand out and get attention.”
Calvin doesn’t remember the exact words he wrote. “I did not keep a copy of the letter and never read it again after sending it,” he says. Fortunately, much of what Calvin wrote was shared with the news media at the time. Here are excerpts pieced together:
“Please read every word, please! My name is Peeler. Everybody calls me Little Peeler. I would love to be in show business. … I am smart enough to make A’s, B’s and some C’s.
“I have a suggestion: The boy who is playing Farmer Jones’ son have a friend who is a Negro. Don’t you see that’s what Negroes want to see. I could play the part of the Negro. … You’ll miss the chance of a lifetime if you pass me by. … You make me the happiest boy in the world. Please call me collect. Even if you don’t agree, call.”
Calvin’s letter continued, “Most important. P.S. You can put it like this: ‘Mayberry R.F.D. introducing Little Peeler, who comes to Mayberry to teach them to sing and dance.’ And you could have a preview of me dancing. Soul singing and with the usual Mayberry gang. I think it could make something terrific. And if it didn’t work after you tried, you could have me moving on.”
In his letter, Calvin also anticipated possible counter-arguments and noted that he had relatives in California, including oldest sister Barbara Lucille, who lived with her husband, Alvin Bryant, in Merced. So, he wrote, “Don’t worry about me getting homesick. … Change my part any way you want. Just don’t turn me down.”
Calvin tore the paper from its spiral binding and mailed the rough-edged letter by special delivery. At Dick Linke’s office, 18-year-old daughter Nanci was working as Dick’s secretary during the summer break between her freshman and sophomore years at Ohio University, which was also Dick’s alma mater.
One of Nanci’s daily tasks was opening the mail. Calvin’s plan to make his letter stand out worked. And the earnestness of his appeal caused Nanci to bring the letter to the special attention of her father, who immediately began to see the possibilities. As it turned out, the arrival of Calvin’s letter couldn’t have had better timing.
The three commercial television networks of the time had been encouraging producers of their shows to include more minority characters. (To read more about that, see the accompanying article titled “Taking Full Measure of Strides Beyond the ‘Mayberry March'” following this story.) Dick Linke and the other “Mayberry R.F.D.” producers, petitioned by the NAACP and others, had been looking to include African Americans, possibly a family, in the cast of the new show.
As he had been earlier with casting Rockne Tarkington in “Opie’s Piano Lesson,” Andy Griffith was in favor of casting African Americans for roles in Mayberry.
In an August 1968 interview about casting minorities, Andy told a reporter that the key to including African Americans in Mayberry was that “it has to be believable. What I mean is this: Mayberry is obviously a small place– probably in the South. Now, the network and the NAACP wanted the colored role to be a doctor, lawyer, judge, dentist or something like that. In a small community, you’re just not going to have white folks going to a colored doctor. No way. It’s just not like that. It’s just not believable. In television, you’ve got to tell the truth.”
And so it was that the character of Ralph Barton, an African-American farmer, was set to be a recurring character played by Charles Lampkin (whose last feature film role would be as Pops in Ron Howard’s Cocoon in 1985). Having Calvin play Ralph’s son was the simplest route for giving Calvin a part.
Dick Linke talked to fellow executive producer Andy Griffith, producer Bob Ross and other principals, including CBS executives, about the idea of giving Calvin a shot. They agreed that it sounded like something they should do. (Dick also mailed an autographed photograph of Andy to Calvin with a personal note from Andy thanking him for writing.)
Nanci then called Calvin and his parents and asked if they would take another call from Dick himself a short time later. On the night of Friday, August 16, Dick called the Peelers with an invitation for an all-expenses-paid, first-class trip to L.A. for Calvin and his mother in order for Calvin to audition for a part. The trip would be in the next two or three weeks.
“I was caught totally off guard and was as surprised as anyone else by the invitation to go to Hollywood,” Calvin remembers.
Calvin was said to be facing long odds for landing the part. An unidentified aide to Dick Linke (likely Nanci) was quoted at the time as saying Calvin’s chances were “about a billion to one. But we’d all like to see it come off.” Dick Linke himself was more optimistic, saying that it was “a million-to-one shot.” Even Calvin had his doubts. “I never thought I’d do it,” he was quoted saying before the trip.
Calvin’s acting experience included only small parts in a few school plays and playing the part that Calvin described to reporters at the time as a “kind of slave” in a Greeneville Little Theatre production of The Miracle Worker when he was 11 years old.
Dick Linke added, “Usually we want experienced actors, and I don’t know whether the boy can act. The worst he can get out of it is a pleasant trip to Hollywood at our expense.
The whole story of Calvin’s writing the letter and then travelling to Los Angeles for the audition and filming received enormous coverage by the news media at the time.
Savvy Dick Linke, fresh off his recent two-issue splash in TV Guide, enlisted the services of his own press agent to spread the word about Calvin’s initiative and adventures. Scores (if not hundreds) of newspapers carried wire-service stories by the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters and others. Coverage in Tennessee also included local TV and radio.
Calvin, who was described in one wire-service account as “soft-voiced, handsome and well-mannered with close-cropped hair and a front tooth broken when he fell in his school playground,” was off to Hollywood on Wednesday, September 4, less than a week after the raucous Democratic National Convention and its accompanying protests and riot in Chicago.
The trip was to be Calvin’s first time ever flying in an airplane. It was not, however, his first trip to California. “We had travelled by car from Greeneville to Sacramento as a family in 1965. Although I was, even at my young age, certainly familiar with how segregated our society was at that time, I do not remember being particularly apprehensive during that trip. I am sure my parents bore that burden all alone. I was simply too excited.”
He continues, “My best recollection is that we did not stay overnight even one time in a hotel or motel, but instead would pull over at rest stops so that my father, who did most of the driving, could sleep and rest before continuing our journey. We obviously packed food to eat in the car, but that only lasted a short while during the rather long trip, which I recall was about three days and three nights.
“How my parents decided where to stop for gas may have been through some resource like the Green Book,” Calvin says, “but it was not uncommon for people that we knew to make that trip. My father had three brothers who lived in California, two in Sacramento and one in San Diego, and they, too, had travelled across the country. I am sure they shared with each other sufficient information to minimize any trouble. I do know that we did not seek any lodging and only rested inside the car. As for food, we would usually have fast food that we also ate in the car. It was as exhausting as it sounds even for a young lad as I was.”
Calvin’s flight to Los Angeles was an entirely different kind of trip. In comments to local news media before heading to California, Calvin said, “All this publicity is good, I guess. But I can’t get used to people staring at me on the street.”
Mother Barbara said at the time, “It all came as a surprise. And I’m still stunned by everything that has happened.” She added that CBS had already asked whether the family could move to California. “We don’t know whether that means this year or next. It all depends on the results of the audition.”
About his trip, Calvin says, “I don’t have an exact memory of it, but I assume that my father and both sisters still living at home in Tennessee at the time escorted my mom and me to McGhee Tyson Airport in Knoxville for our initial departure. I remember that we flew on American Airlines and stopped in Memphis before continuing on to L.A.”
Nanci Linke was at L.A. International Airport to greet Calvin and his mother when they arrived that Wednesday afternoon. The Associated Press was there for their arrival, too, and asked Calvin about the flight.
“I liked it,” Calvin said. “Just looking down was fun.”
Dick Linke also provided his Cadillac limousine (a gift from Andy Griffith; “I remember the soft leather of the interior,” Calvin says) and his chauffeur, Mr. Tidus Brown, to drive the Peelers to their suite at the swanky Hollywood Hawaiian Gardens. Nanci and Mr. Brown would also be at the Peelers’ service throughout their time in L.A., including for Calvin’s audition on Friday and for sightseeing. “She was an excellent host,” Calvin recalls about Nanci. “Everyone there did everything possible to make us feel comfortable and special, and for that I was very grateful.”
That first night Calvin and his mom had dinner with Nanci at Villa Capri, a favorite Italian restaurant of Frank Sinatra. When asked how he felt about his upcoming audition, Calvin responded, “I’ll have to sleep on it. Rest, get up my nerve, go to bed and worry about it in the morning.”
Nanci said about Calvin at the time, “He handles himself like a pro.”
When the time came for Calvin’s audition, he went to Dick Linke’s production office at the old Desilu-Cahuenga Studios (846 N. Cahuenga Blvd. and by that time officially part of Paramount Studios) in North Hollywood. The verdict was swift. Dick Linke declared that Calvin was “excellent.” Nanci Linke exclaimed, “This is better than Christmas!”
Reflecting on his audition, Calvin says today, “I am all but certain it was a simple formality. To my mind, there would have been no reason that they would have incurred the expense of flying my mother and me to California for an all-expenses-paid vacation if they were not certain that they would hire me for at least that one episode.”
He adds, “I am certain my story and forthcoming appearance were a great PR opportunity for the new sequel that likely created additional interest in ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’ My ‘story’ was picked up in press releases everywhere as a perfect human interest story.”
Anticipating Calvin’s successful audition, Dick had a contract ready for Calvin to sign with his parents’ approval. Calvin was signed for three days’ work the following week. He was paid the standard $250 per day for his role as Martin in the episode titled “Youth Takes Over.” It beat delivering newspapers.
It was also at the studio offices that Calvin met Jim Nabors, who had likely been asked by manager Dick Linke to drop by and say hello during a break while filming “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” on the same lot. Calvin adds, “He probably made the biggest impression on me. We took a picture together that appeared in the newspaper.”
Calvin was given the weekend to learn his lines and do some sightseeing. He commented at the time that he was “excited but not nervous” about his first day of working on a Hollywood set.
Over the weekend, Calvin and his mother boarded a Greyhound bus to Merced (a trip of several hours) to spend time relaxing at the home of Barbara Lucille and her family. They then rode another Greyhound for the long trip back to Los Angeles–arriving back at their hotel late Sunday night.
Early Monday morning, Calvin reported to the studio, where he met Andy Griffith and then went about the business of rehearsing his lines with his fellow actors. Filming began that afternoon and continued daily, as was the Mayberry routine, through Wednesday.
The Episode: “Youth Takes Over”
Though no one remembers for sure, it’s likely that the name of Martin for Calvin’s character was selected in homage to the late Martin Luther King Jr. His last name of Barton is assumed, because of the earlier creation of the character of Martin’s father, farmer Ralph Barton.
It is believed that the first episode both written and filmed with the Ralph Barton character was “Sam Gets a Ticket,” but it ended up being aired a few weeks after “Youth Takes Over.” Therefore, the television audience meets both Ralph and Martin for the first time in “Youth Takes Over.”
It’s not documented, but it’s possible that the last name Barton was chosen in honor of Charles T. Barton, who directed all episodes of TV’s “Amos ‘n’ Andy” (1951-53). Both Bob Ross (“R.F.D.” creator and also producer for the show’s first two seasons) and Bob Mosher (“R.F.D.” producer for its final season) had worked on that show, which was the first network television show to star African-American actors, though its portrayals were not without controversy. In any case, it’s likely that the presumed first-and-last-name combo of Martin Barton was an accidental artifact of the producers not realizing how odd the names would sound if ever used together.
The “Youth Takes Over” script was originally credited as Story by Jim Brooks and Teleplay by Jim Brooks and Bob Ross. By the final draft in late August, the credit was simply: Written by Jim Brooks. (Jim Brooks, who also wrote “Emmett’s Brother-in-Law” and “The Mayberry Chef” for the final season of TAGS, was at the beginning of a legendary Hollywood career that included creating most of the “Mary Tyler Moore” family of shows, “Taxi” and “The Simpsons,” not to mention earning an Academy Awards hat trick for writing, directing and producing Terms of Endearment, among many other accolades.)
It’s difficult to determine with certainty from the chronology of Calvin’s letter and the completed Jim Brooks script whether the “Youth Takes Over” story was created specifically to include Calvin or whether the script was already planned, and it just turned out to be a good episode for including Calvin. There is no discussion in the script’s dialogue about race.
As far as the episode’s plot, the Martin character could’ve been any race. The character’s name could’ve been changed to Martin at some point after it was decided that the role would be good for Calvin, if indeed the name choice of Martin was to honor Dr. King. A best guess, though, would be that the episode was written with using an African-American actor already in mind and with the idea of naming him Martin as a tribute.
In the episode, Martin joins Mike Jones (Buddy Foster) and Arnold Bailey (Sheldon Collins, aka Sheldon Golomb) in shadowing, respectively, Howard Sprague, Andy Taylor and Sam Jones as they go about their civic jobs one morning. During a luncheon that follows, the boys report on what they’ve learned, but it’s mostly the adults who have learned that they’ve underestimated the kids.
The filming spanned three days and included shooting the interior scenes at Paramount Studios and exteriors at the Forty Acres lot in Culver City. More than 50 years later, Calvin Peeler doesn’t remember many of the specifics of the actual filming.
“I recall filming in three different locations: First, in the classroom on the studio lot. I believe this was the first scene that I filmed. The director constantly reminded me to sit up straight in my seat as I tended to slump down in my chair to avoid appearing to be taller than Buddy Foster and ‘Arnold.’ After all, I had referred to myself in the letter as ‘Little Peeler.'”
And in fact, director Hal Cooper apparently thought he could hide some of a seated Calvin’s height by adding a thick textbook on top of Calvin’s desk. (It’s a Cooper blooper that the textbook magically comes and goes from the desktop between different cuts in the scene.)
“The second scene,” Calvin continues, “was in the County Clerk’s office where my character was assigned as part of the ‘Youth Takes Over’ program theme. There were just two of us in that scene, Howard Sprague [Jack Dodson] and me.” Calvin adds, “He was very kind during the several takes we shot as we sat at the counter pretending to wait for the business that would never come.
“For the third scene,” Calvin recalls, “I vividly remember being at the outdoor location, but at the time I did not know it was the famous Forty Acres lot where other films were made. I was awed and impressed by the outside set and the magical illusion of a real town without even knowing I was in a part of greater Los Angeles called Culver City.”
Reflecting further, Calvin adds, “Everyone was absolutely wonderful. I’m not sure that anyone knew of my story at the time I arrived. But regardless of anything that they may have heard, I was treated respectfully by all the actors, who were professional and kind.”
When filming wrapped on Wednesday, September 11, Calvin and his mother had a couple of more days for sightseeing in the L.A. area before flying back home the following Saturday.
“A lasting impression of Los Angeles at the time was that it was extremely smoggy–so much so that my eyes would burn when we were outside for an extended period,” Calvin recalls. “But it was a wonderful experience that was more significant in hindsight because I was able to share it with my mother.” (Barbara Peeler celebrated her 90th birthday in 2018.)
Back home in Tennessee, Albert Peeler and other family members waited with anticipation for the return of Calvin and his mother. At that point, it was still not known whether Calvin’s work on “Mayberry R.F.D.” and in Hollywood in general was a one-shot opportunity or a whole change of course for the family.
“We wouldn’t have any alternative, but to move if he gets regular work,” Albert Peeler was quoted in a newspaper report at the time.
When Calvin and Barbara arrived back in Knoxville, the welcome they received was not unlike the reception for Teena Andrews when she returned to Mayberry. (Sorry, Barney, they weren’t waiting for you.)
“When we returned from Hollywood,” Calvin says, “there was a ‘caravan’ of people from Greeneville who met us at the airport in Knoxville. As the plane came to the gate upon arriving and prior to deboarding, there was an announcement over the PA system inside the airplane for the ‘celebrity’ to exit the plane last. It took me a moment to realize that they were talking about me!”
Calvin adds, “My mother and I walked off the plane to a red-carpet reception. My father and sisters were there along with other members of our Greeneville community to greet us upon our return. We continued with a celebratory party at the Negro Women’s Civic Center back home in Greeneville. I was even invited at some point to perform at a special dinner for the women members of the Center, who, ironically and in spite of our small community, never invited my mother to join their club. I was also granted a key to the city, which I responsibly still have in my possession today.
“Overall,” Calvin continues, “the local people were proud and responsive, and for their support I was grateful.”
As the night of the broadcast of “Youth Takes Over” approached, the Peeler family faced the prospect of having to watch the color episode on their black-and-white TV set.
Fortunately, Calvin says, “When the day came for the ‘Mayberry’ episode in which I appeared, a local retailer graciously let us borrow a color monitor, but only for that evening. We all sat to watch the show together as a family.”
The broadcast date for the episode is an interesting story in itself. It was originally scheduled to air on November 4 in the usual “Mayberry R.F.D” timeslot of 9:00 ET/PT. But because the next day was Election Day (including for the hotly contested presidential race between Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey), many stations were having to yield airtime to paid political ads.
Following guidance from the national network, some markets simply shifted the episode time that night. Other markets, including all of California, ended up bumping the episode to the following week. It’s unclear from TV listings at the time which day and time the episode aired in Greeneville, Tenn., because some programming changes may have been at the last minute. Calvin doesn’t remember that detail. (Most current-day references list the official airdate as November 11, an indication that CBS ended up needing to bump the airing for most stations nationwide, if not all. )
Ironically, because the episode dealt with civics and public officeholders, the original choice of November 4 for an airdate probably had been made in part to coincide with the day before Election Day.
That airdate likely was also selected in part because November was a Nielsen sweepstakes month and the episode was expected to draw a strong audience, not only because of Calvin’s debut but because it was the third of four “R.F.D.” episodes that season to feature Andy Griffith guest-starring as Andy Taylor.
After the exhilaration of the episode airing, Calvin continued to get a mixed reaction of positive and negative feedback in the community. Mostly positive. “I personally received many, many letters from all over the country,” he says.
“The reaction back home,” he adds, “really was tremendous–much to my surprise. I was as often dismayed by the attention as I was delighted by it. At one point, I discovered that I was receiving disturbing hate mail from a classmate.
“And throughout my time in Greeneville,” Calvin continues, “I often felt that I was mocked and the butt of jokes from one or two bullies and, in particular, the more outspoken classmates who enjoyed poking fun at me—and anyone, for that matter—throughout my high school years. It was not the kind of bullying that we so often hear of today and was probably intended with no vicious will except to catch a laugh at any expense. Nonetheless, although I was often deeply hurt, I survived and learned to find ways to deal with the embarrassment.”
Though there had been speculation in advance of his Hollywood trip about Martin becoming a recurring “R.F.D.” character, Calvin recalls, that, during filming, “there was no discussion with me about continuing my role. The only person who spoke in my presence about a future career in acting was Buddy Foster’s mother, Brandy. I knew she was also mother to Jodie Foster, whom I also remember very well. Jodie had a mere walk-on role and more minor than mine—go figure!”
Calvin adds, “Mrs. Foster was probably the biggest and most friendly advocate for advising us about the tricks of the trade and how to succeed in Hollywood. She told my mother that I needed an agent/manager. Neither my mother nor I knew much about the tricks of the trade at the time, and we did absolutely nothing to follow her recommendation. We can only wonder whether my life would have been different if we had taken steps to inquire further. Once I returned home, I did receive a couple of calls about making appearances on other shows. That did not happen.”
But for at least the rest of that November, Little Peeler was a big fish in his hometown pond. He served as grand marshal of the Greeneville Christmas parade on Saturday, November 30.
A report at the time stated that more than 100 units, including floats and marching bands, were expected for the parade. It was big! (The top non-commercial float received a prize of $450.) The theme of the parade was Christ Liveth.
“I actually marched in the Christmas parade many times since that day as part of the high school band,” Calvin says. “That I remember too well because it was so cold, and I played the tuba!”
He adds, “Back when I was in the sixth grade, other students began studying music, and I wanted to start doing so, too. I wanted to play saxophone, but it was too expensive. The music teacher, who also owned the only store in town that sold musical instruments at the time, convinced me (and my mom) to go for the clarinet, a cheaper woodwind.
“Well, I loved the clarinet,” Calvin says, “but we did not have the funds to pay for it all at once. So we entered into a purchase agreement. One of the saddest memories of my childhood was when the same man came to our house and took it back for failure to pay. I became a loner and somewhat despondent after that embarrassing incident.”
He continues, “Many years later, when in high school, a friend who was in the band called me and said that they needed a tuba player. Desperate for some outlet and friends, I did not hesitate to accept. The tuba was owned by the school and too big to bring home. So I never really mastered it. I had no one to blame but myself. I had already given my attention to French and other studies by then, but enjoyed all the perks of being in the band, including marching in parades, travelling to football games and developing a new cast of friends. That said, I always knew that they thought I was the weak link in the musical chain.”
Meanwhile, back to junior high. Calvin says, “In the year or so that followed my Mayberry experience, I probably watched episodes of ‘Mayberry R.F.D.’ because it was so familiar to me. At some point, though, I lost interest as I attempted to disappear into the normal life that I had known before. When I was not invited to make additional appearances on the show, I remember one disparaging and hurtful newspaper article that said, and I paraphrase, ‘Peeler has had to learn that you do not call upon Hollywood but must instead let them call you.'” Well, either that, or break out the spiral-bound notebook and that pen with green ink!
In any case, Calvin tried to resume his regular routine as an eighth-grader at Greeneville Junior High. That is, as normal as possible for being one of only a handful of African Americans in his class or even his entire school. “I do not recall the exact number,” Calvin says, “but I am certain that we were fewer than 10 and maybe as few as five African Americans in the 1973 graduating class of almost 200 students.”
He continues, “After the Mayberry experience, I turned my attention to my academic studies with some focus on and interest in foreign languages and travel. I recall both a young desire to explore new and different places that I read about and a yearning to learn about things in faraway places that I read about and saw in movies.”
Calvin’s grades improved from the A’s, B’s and C’s that he had mentioned in his letter to Dick Linke to mostly A’s and B’s, and eventually almost all A’s. Calvin also did some acting in high school plays. “I played the doctor in The Man Who Came to Dinner,” he recalls.
He adds, “I spent most of the fall semester of 1972 in Southern France as a participant in the New Dimension Program that was part of The School for International Training’s Experiment in International Living, located in Brattleboro, Vt.
“I vividly remember my family driving me to Knoxville,” he says, “but this time to the Trailways Bus Station where I boarded a bus headed to Vermont. I had to change buses in New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal and to this day am amazed that I survived what was truly an intimidating first trip alone to New York.”
After the semester homestay in France, Calvin returned to Greeneville for the spring semester of his senior year at Greeneville High School. He graduated with honors and was salutatorian for the Class of ’73.
From this point on is where Calvin’s life truly becomes filled with both adventure and distinction. Though it’s not his tendency to talk about himself and his accomplishments, Calvin graciously agreed to share an overview of his life after Mayberry. Even Howard Sprague would be impressed!
“My experience in France had a profound effect on my life and the path I chose afterwards,” he says. “I lived with a wonderful family in the small town of Villeneuve-sur-Lot and attended a high school called Georges Leygues. The French family has visited me and my family here, and I have returned to stay with them many times.”
He continues, “Although I admittedly was very unsure about how to put together my growing passion for foreign language study with my desire to choose a path that would lead to financial success and stability, I have always tried hard to find an appropriate intersection between language and whatever I did.”
He adds, “After one year of college at George Peabody College for Teachers in Nashville (now part of Vanderbilt University) [and about six years ahead of and a few blocks away from the founding of TAGSRWC!-editor], I moved to California to join two siblings who already lived there. I struggled to identify what I wanted to do professionally and to find my own voice. Ultimately, I matriculated at the University of California, Berkeley, where I earned a BA in linguistics.” Calvin graduated with honors and received an invitation to join the prestigious Phi Beta Kappa Society.
“Believing that I might become a lawyer,” Calvin continues, “I immediately entered law school and concurrently completed a degree in public policy at Berkeley, all while maintaining my contacts in France.”
Calvin adds, “I went to France as often as possible. After a few years of working at a small law firm, I decided to attempt graduate work in French literature, as well as an advanced degree in law. I matriculated at Stanford University in Palo Alto, where I discovered a passion for teaching. As a graduate student, I taught French language courses at Stanford and a seminar at the Law School while earning the advanced law degree” (a Master of the Science of Law degree, or JSM).
“During that time,” he says, “I twice travelled to Paris where I taught an intersession course in law at the Faculte de Droit at Universite de Paris X, which is located in the suburb of Nanterre. After teaching French at San Jose State University as a Visiting Lecturer, I was offered the opportunity to join the faculty of Whittier Law in Costa Mesa.
“Whittier was attractive to me for several reasons,” Calvin continues. “First, it was located in California, a state I had come to like and call my home, and second and most important, the Law School proudly offered a large number of nontraditional students a chance to enter the practice of law. Often cited as the most diverse law school in California and one of the most diverse in the country, Whittier Law was a relatively young school when I joined the faculty. I saw an opportunity to continue my own self-exploration without rigorous requirements of more traditional institutions.
“Much to my surprise,” he adds, “I was invited to join the administration early in my tenure. With a supportive dean and faculty, I initiated Whittier’s foreign outreach and I assisted to negotiate collaborations with various foreign law faculties. I travelled often to Europe as well as to Asia and Mexico on behalf of the school, and inaugurated the international law focus, which became the most popular specialization at the school.
“For over ten years,” Calvin continues, “I directed summer law programs in Spain and France and oversaw programs in Israel, Mexico, China and The Netherlands. My goal was to expose students to other cultures and their legal systems and to provide an avenue to understand our world and our role in an increasingly interconnected and interdependent world.
Gomer may have liked to use a bucket on his head to “take a think,” but Calvin Peeler clearly needs no bucket. He adds, “In unprecedented numbers, today people travel regularly around the globe and rely upon other nations and nationals for economic collaboration and cooperation. The fact is that we share globally mutual concerns about the health of our humanity, as well as issues common to all of us, regardless of nationality, about social inequality and our aggregate effect on the one environment that we all share.”
Calvin continues, “I had the good fortune to go abroad when I was relatively young, although I was already in my late teens. My first foreign trip was to a culture relatively similar to our American culture. But as I began to question why things I observed in a different culture were different from what I knew, I realized that I was equally questioning my culture and my own value system.”
He adds, “I thought exposure to other cultures was an important way to encourage students to think critically about the assumptions they made about themselves relative to others and to think critically about things we take for granted. I hoped that it would open students up to reflective introspection and help them understand how we are seen through the lenses of people from other cultures. It is a valuable exercise for all professions and particularly critical for lawyers who wish to practice law in the dynamic American legal system.”
And for the record, just how many languages does Calvin speak besides English? His modest reply: “I am conversant in French and Spanish with a keen interest in other Romance languages, as well as notions in German.” (So, Barney, there’s no need to ask him, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?”)
Calvin brings his life’s story up to today: “I left Whittier in 2016, shortly after my youngest sister, Deborah, lovingly referred to by family and friends as ‘Miss Debbie,’ was diagnosed with terminal cancer. She and I were also best friends and, with very few exceptions, lived in close geographic proximity all of our lives. For the last ten years of her life, she lived with me in Southern California. She spent a few years in New York City where she attended Columbia University prior to moving to Southern California to help take care of our parents.”
Calvin adds, “I had moved my parents from Eastern Tennessee to live with me in California after my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. My mother, my sister and I stayed together during the years following my father’s death in 2008. Needless to say, I was overwhelmed by my sister’s diagnosis.
“Coincidentally,” Calvin continues, “Whittier decided to discontinue its law program and offered all tenured faculty an opportunity to separate voluntarily. It only made sense for me to accept that offer and be able to give my attention to my sister. During the last year of her life, she chose to move back east to be with my other two sisters, who had recently relocated to North Carolina. I travelled frequently to the East Coast to be with them. Although I was able to travel to be with them many times, my sister passed away before I was able to wind down my commitments in California. Eventually, I moved to be with and near family.”
Concluding the requested summary of his life after Mayberry, Calvin says, “I am currently serving on the board of a couple of corporate entities and travel frequently. I have taken up some therapeutic hobbies that include learning to play the piano. I am but a hopeful novice largely self-taught at this point.” (Where’s Flip Conroy when you need him?!)
Calvin adds, “I’m also doing some creative writing. Largely in memory of my beloved late sister, Miss Debbie, but also with my father and other loved ones in mind, I wrote the following poem. I wish to share as I close, as it has become my evening prayer that I entitled ‘At Heaven’s Gate.'”
At Heaven’s Gate
Disquieted by Unrelenting Love
Chasing Notions of Where You Are
Waiting for the Light to Shine Above
The Splendor of Your Sparkling Star
Mellow Sounds Pierce Ears So Blind
Deafening Silence from Tearful Cries
When the Lights Turned Off Behind
Your Melancholy, Mournful Eyes
Broken Hearts Barely Standing Tall
Kneel at Dusk Till Day Has Dawned
Beseeching God to Hear Our Call
To Keep Your Soul in Life Beyond
You Built a Bridge Between Us and the Sky
To Shine Your Light and Show the Way
So When from this Earth We Must Say Goodbye
We Shall Not Fear that Judgment Day
Everlasting Memories Give Daily Bread
To Sustain Us Now While We Must Wait
And Give Us Strength to Look Ahead
Till Next We Meet at Heaven’s Gate.
Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Calvin Peeler for sharing memories of his extraordinary experience in Mayberry. His story reminds me of NASA’s amazing Voyager spacecraft. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 were launched many decades ago with a modest mission of exploring our solar system, but to this day both spacecraft continue to explore a vastness far beyond that original dream.
Calvin likewise had a dream to explore, and long ago he could have declared, “Mission accomplished.” But his fantastic expedition continues. And as it happens, Calvin has, at long last, once again entered Mayberry’s orbit. One thing’s for sure: It’ll be interesting to see what Calvin explores next.
Taking Full Measure of Strides
Beyond the “Mayberry March” *
* “Mayberry March” is the title of the Earle Hagen
composition used as the theme for “Mayberry R.F.D.”
By Jim Clark
Though maybe not a truly groundbreaking year in American television, 1968 was at least a pivotal one for racial diversity in television programming by the country’s three commercial networks.
The first national television show starring an African-American actor was ABC-TV’s “Beulah,” which ran for four seasons from 1950 to 1953. Beulah, a humorous, problem-solving housekeeper, began as a supporting character (voiced by a white man) on radio’s “Fibber McGee and Molly” in 1944 before becoming the central character on radio’s “The Beulah Show” in 1945. (At first, a white man again provided the voice, but actress Hattie McDaniel eventually took over the part.) The show then made the transition to television with noted singer-actress Ethel Waters, who played the title role in 1950 and ’51. Louise Beavers assumed the role in 1952. (Hattie McDaniel also played the TV role for a few episodes in 1952.)
“Beulah” was joined on television in 1951 by another radio hit, “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” considered to be the first national television show with a largely African-American cast. Both shows, though, were controversial because of the often unflattering African-American stereotypes that they portrayed. As the civil rights movement began to gain momentum, both shows ended production in 1953.
It wouldn’t be until 1965, on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that an African-American actor would have a starring role in an American dramatic series: Bill Cosby as Alexander Scott in producer Sheldon Leonard’s “I Spy” for NBC.
African-American actors had some good parts in ensemble casts as well, including Ivan Dixon as Sgt. James Kinchloe in “Hogan’s Heroes” beginning in the fall of 1965 and Greg Morris as Barney Collier in “Mission Impossible” the following fall.
And even though race may ultimately prove to be America’s protracted final frontier, “Star Trek” at least made progress in space with the casting of Nichelle Nichols in the iconic role of Lt. Uhura, Chief Communications Officer for the Enterprise, though Nichols did have to fight both for equitable pay for herself and for more substance for her character. No less than Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. himself at one point needed to persuade Nichols to stick with the mission and continue to go boldly where no African-American woman had gone before.
By the spring of 1967, an African-American character was also finally given a voice in Mayberry, when classically trained pianist and pro football star Flip Conroy (Rockne Tarkington) returns to coach football in his hometown in “Opie’s Piano Lesson.”
Though having significant speaking roles for African-American actors shouldn’t have been so long in becoming a reality (not just for Mayberry, but for virtually all television shows up until that time), it was a fulfillment of a longtime hope in Mayberry, especially for executive producer Sheldon Leonard.
It’s noteworthy that Sheldon also was executive producer of “The Dick Van Dyke Show,” which both startled and delighted television audiences with the hilarious “That’s My Boy,” the 1963 episode in which Rob and Laura Petrie worry that their newborn boy was accidentally switched with another baby in the maternity ward, only to find out in the end that the parents (including the father played by Greg Morris) of the other baby are African American. The storyline was considered bold for its time.
Having an African American in a significant role had always been a conundrum for the TAGS producers, because one of the hallmarks of TAGS was its believability. The prevailing view had been that, for a small town in North Carolina in the early 1960s, it wouldn’t have been viewed as realistic for the white sheriff to have an African-American deputy or, for that matter, even to have an African-American barber cut his hair.
And the producers also realized that having an African-American portray goofy characters, such as Gomer or Goober, would’ve been criticized from all directions. Ernest T. Bass? No chance. Otis Campbell? Forget about it. That wouldn’t have been helpful to any social cause. Andy Griffith and the other principals of the show therefore just stuck to their assigned mission: simply to produce an outstanding half hour of television entertainment. Fighting for civil rights and justice was left to different arenas.
It really wasn’t until 1968 that that view, common throughout television programming, finally began to ebb in a concerted way. (TAGS is often singled out as the prime example of the lack of diversity in the television programming of its era, but that’s largely because of the show’s longevity and continued popularity in syndication compared to other shows of the time. TAGS comes to mind so quickly because it remains relevant television and is still part of pop culture in 2019.)
In addition to the civil rights protests gaining real traction in 1968, President Lyndon Johnson became more adamant about pressuring leaders in all realms to be more inclusive of minorities. Television network executives in particular were feeling that pressure, and they in turn began encouraging producers of their shows to have more diversity.
The assassination of The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in April of that year may have been the tipping point for many decision-makers. Enough was enough. Things simply had to change, not just in certain sectors, but in society as a whole. Nowhere was change thought to have potential for more impact than the newly powerful medium of television. But change was making headway in all media, even the comics page.
Dr. King was assassinated on April 4. On April 15, Los Angeles schoolteacher Harriet Glickman wrote to “Peanuts” cartoonist Charles M. Schulz and suggested that he should include an African-American character.
Schulz, having a lot of the usual concerns about perception and seeming to promote racial tokenism, initially resisted. But his mind was changed when he received letters from two African-American fathers saying that they thought adding an African-American character would be a good idea. While including an African American in the “Peanuts” gang might seem like a small gesture, maybe even tokenism, the fathers conveyed to Schulz that it was at least something. It was a start.
The character of Franklin made his first appearance in “Peanuts” on July 31, 1968, just a couple weeks after the publication of the issue of TV Guide that inspired a young Calvin Peeler to action. (Franklin wouldn’t get a last name until the early 1990s, when it was revealed that his last name is Armstrong, a tribute to African-American cartoonist Robb Armstrong, creator of “Jump Start.”)
While minority characters were still not usually in the driver’s seat in Mayberry or in other TV settings, the wheels of diversity were, by the late 1960s, finally beginning to turn in a progressive direction. At CBS, “Mayberry R.F.D.” wasn’t the only show trying to include more minority characters in significant roles.
For “Gentle Ben,” there was a casting call in Miami for the character of Willie Porter, a new friend for Mark Wedloe (played by Clint Howard). Fourteen-year-old Angelo Rutherford got the part, which became a recurring role. His first episode aired a couple of weeks after Calvin Peeler’s appearance in “Youth Takes Over.”
Clint Howard today recalls about Angelo, who died in 1987, “Angelo was a nice kid. I knew he was older but I never knew how much. Nice guy.” (Clint was also impressed to recently learn about Calvin Peeler’s saga: “That’s a cool story about the kid repping himself [to get the part].”)
Probably the most prominent move to diversify television in 1968 was over at NBC, which launched “Julia,” starring Diahann Carroll in the lead role or Julia Baker, a widow and a registered nurse who was raising her young son, Corey, played by Marc Copage.
The pilot for “Julia” was written without any thought of having an African-American star. It didn’t sell. But when NBC later was looking for a show that could be sacrificed against the powerful “Red Skelton Show” on CBS, “Julia” was dusted off and retrofitted with Diahann Carroll as the lead. NBC execs figured that, if they were going to get walloped in the ratings anyway, they might as well at least go down getting credit for airing a more diverse show.
Much to NBC’s surprise (and no doubt Red Skelton’s), “Julia” was an instant ratings hit. (It ended up finishing seventh for the season in the Nielsen ratings. “The Red Skelton Show” tied for 11th. Incidentally, “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” finished that season in second place, and “Mayberry R.F.D.” was fourth.)
At the time, “Julia” was praised by many as a groundbreaking show for African Americans. Its title character was not a regrettable stereotype, as had been the case with the African-American shows of the 1950s. She was a regular mom in a highly respected profession. But some civil rights activists at the time and observers since then have criticized the show for not being an accurate portrayal of African-American life. Some thought the character of Julia was too much like white characters on other television shows.
Others, though, consider “Julia” to have been a good step in the right direction, in the process of social progress. Having shows like “Julia” paved the way for the success of shows in the 1970s, such as “Sanford and Son,” “The Jeffersons” and “Good Times.”
Before there could be a ground-shifting epic like “Roots” in 1977, there needed to be groundwork laid. (And also by 1977, television was finally ready for a white police chief with an African American as his second in charge in a small town in the South in ABC’s “Carter Country.”)
And that’s not to mention the later huge success of “The Cosby Show” or current acclaimed shows and ratings hits with predominantly African-American casts, such as “Empire” (in association with Ron Howard’s Imagine Television), “Black-ish” and “Greenleaf,” or “How to Get Away with Murder” and the long-running “Scandal” with casts led by African-American women. All can trace their own roots back to the earlier efforts of others, including young Calvin Peeler with his lined notebook paper and pen with green ink.
The bottom line is that both American television and our society as a whole have come a long way. While both still have far to go, the arc of history still encourages us to believe that both television and society shall overcome persistent obstacles and achieve their enormous promise.Printer Friendly Version
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