Editor's note: The following remembrance of Ken Berry, who died at age 85 in Burbank, Calif., on December 1, 2018, is largely adapted (with a few updates) from an interview/profile that TAGSRWC published in the March 1999 issue of our longtime printed newsletter, The Bullet.
Remembering Ken Berry
By Jim Clark
Ken Berry was already five-eighths of the way to Mayberry when he was born in Moline, Ill., on November 3, 1933. Kenneth Ronald Berry was the second child (joining sister Dona Rae) of Bernice and Eugene Darrell Berry, who at the time of Ken's birth was an accountant for John Deere Company.
Ken knew sooner than many what he wanted to do when he grew up. "When I was about 13, they held a carnival in this little auditorium at Willard Grade School (my parents had gone to school there, too)," Ken recalled in January 1999. "At the carnival, people displayed hobbies like Indian arrowhead collections, etc. Part of the entertainment was by a group with Maureen Bennett, who had a dance studio in Rock Island, Ill. The dancers were all just about my age. It just knocked me out.
"I ran home and I took my mother by the hand and said, 'This is it. This is what I want to do.' We walked back over and watched the second show. My parents, who had previously paid for guitar lessons and piano lessons for me, got excited about it. My dad even got into booking variety type shows where he would hire other acts. My parents were having as good a time as I was. And they were always very supportive. I'll always be grateful to them forever for the childhood they gave me."
Ken continued reminiscing, "Fred Astaire was my big hero. As Gene Kelly articulated it, 'He's a phenomenon.' No human body has ever been able to move like that. I don't think people now really appreciate that fact--that there has never been a human being who moved like that. I've never seen anything like it in my life and I don't think any of us ever will. I know just enough about dance to know how impossible it is to do what he did. It's a really 'sweat' job, the hard work. When it comes to dance, nobody has ever touched him before or since."
He adds, "Gene Kelly was dynamite, too. I'm just as enthused about seeing a Gene Kelly movie as I am a Fred Astaire movie. And I loved Donald O'Connor. He was fun to watch. I loved the other guys, like Dan Daily. And Gene Nelson was terrific. Ray Bolger was fun to watch. I was hoping to be a motion-picture star, of course, but even if I didn't ever reach the status of a Fred Astaire, just to be in a motion-picture musical and have a featured number was all I dreamed about. It was my one big ambition."
All through his years at John Deere Junior High School, Ken continued to watch Fred Astaire, take tap-dance lessons and get fairly regular work at various fairs and lodges around Moline. "I lived there until I was 15, and then I got my first real job in show business with Horace Heidt in 1949," Ken recalled.
It was an honor for a young 10th grader to be selected to join the Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program, and Ken was one of the lucky 30 or so kids in 1949. He toured big and small towns all across the nation (including California) with Horace Heidt. Under the aegis of the Air Force, the troupe eventually entertained in Ireland, England, France, Germany, Austria and North Africa during the next 15 months. "We did all one-nighters."
"When I got the job and it took me away from home, that must have been very hard for my parents," Ken remembered. "But they were very supportive and it was really a thrilling experience for me. After the Horace Heidt show, I came back and finished high school in Moline. I used to drive up to Chicago once a week and take a voice lesson and a tap lesson in the same studio. But that didn't last very long. After graduation, I went back out to California to look for work. And I didn't get much at all."
But working or not, Ken took advantage of the opportunity to study dance with Louis DaPron (Donald O'Connor's choreographer) and Al White. And, as it turned out, somebody did indeed have some work for Ken--Uncle Sam. Ken was drafted for a two-year hitch in the Army not long after he arrived in California.
Ken was inducted at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri and then progressed through training at Camp Chaffee in Arkansas and Fort Jackson in South Carolina before finally landing at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. "I was with an artillery unit," Ken said, "and I kept trying to get into Special Services." But nobody seemed to believe his story that he had been a professional, working entertainer.
Then one day, after a particularly grueling experience of military training in the mud, the unit's sergeant announced. "Oh, by the way, they're having a talent contest over at the main post tonight. The winner gets to go to New York and do Arlene Francis' 'Soldier Parade' show." Ken recalled, "So I went into the barracks. I had always kept my tap shoes with me and my ukulele. I went into the latrine, actually, and knocked out a quick number--doing a lot of spectacular tap stuff, the most spectacular stuff I knew how to do--and a floor trick, kind of an acrobatic trick at the end. And I won!"
"After that," Ken continued, "I got invited to join Special Services in Atlanta. That was my home base for the last year I was in the Army. We toured from there--all of the 3rd Army shows in the Southern states and some civilian shows. During that time. I also got into the All-Army talent contest. I was just one of many winners, but I got on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' [aka 'The Toast of the Town']."
When his hitch was up in 1955, Ken was looking for the logical next move. "My sergeant in Atlanta was Leonard Nimoy, from 'Star Trek,'" Ken recalled. "Leonard said, 'You really ought to contact some people on the coast since you're going back out there.' He set it up and I got a screen test. I didn't get the job, but it got me to California." (The film was Francis in the Haunted House and at the last minute Mickey Rooney got the job of essentially succeeding Donald O'Connor in what turned out to be the last of the "Francis the Talking Mule" films.)
Even though Ken didn't get that first movie part, like any good dancer, he still landed on his feet. "In 1957, I enrolled in a school, Falcon Studios, on the GI Bill to study acting for as long as I could afford to do it," Ken remembered. "Then a friend of mine from the All-Army contest was going to Las Vegas with Abbott and Costello. They needed another guy, and it paid a lot more than the GI Bill. I worked in sketches and I opened the show at the Riviera Hotel with a song and dance.
"It was exactly at that time," Ken reflects, "that it was occurring to me that it was getting too late for me to realize the one dream I ever had and that was to be a song-and-dance man in motion-picture musicals. They were on their way out. I said to myself, 'I'm not going to be able to make a living doing that. O.K.,' I thought, 'so I'll just proceed with what I'm doing and try to get jobs at nightclubs.' It never occurred to me to say anything else other than 'O.K., I'll be a nightclub star. I'll just go ahead and be a headliner in nightclubs.' Though I was really disappointed."
He continued, "Before we opened, though, somebody invited me to come along to see the Will Mastin Trio with Sammy Davis Jr. He was just pure, spectacular talent. I had never seen anything like that in my life. And, unfortunately, that was the first nightclub act I'd ever seen. I thought that's what you had to do in order to be a nightclub star, so I quit. I said, 'I give up. I can't do that.' I wish I had gone to see some just plain singers," Ken laughed.
"So," Ken continued, "I went back to the coast and I thought, 'Well, I'm just going to have to scratch out a living as an actor. And if can't do that, then I'll just have to do something else.' Luckily, I started to get work. I got this little job at the Cabaret Theater. It was $11 a week. And then they asked us to take a salary cut to $7, but from that job I got every job I've ever had in my life since--one way or the other, they all just rolled up into a ball and that's how I started to get work."
Ken added, "I entered the 'Arthur Godfrey Talent Scouts' show, and I won that. And then I got a week's worth of work from Arthur Godfrey and then six more weeks during the year. I started working as a day player and I figured, 'Well, this is fine. I'm making it.'
"Around the same time, writer Meredith Wilson arranged for me to do an audition in New York," Ken continued. "I didn't get the part, but it gave me an inroad. I made some contacts there."
Ken's bread and butter during the next few years, from 1958 to 1964, was work with "The Billy Barnes Revue." Ken recalled, "Billy Barnes wrote a series of musical revues, which were very successful in Los Angeles. Lucille Ball, among many others, came to see anything with Billy Barnes' name in the title. He attracted a lot of people in the business. I got a job at Desilu Studios for $50 a week and that helped. And then I was getting $50 at night and doing day work in television whenever I could."
The show had a long run in Hollywood and later ran for three months on Broadway and three months off-Broadway in 1959. It was through the Barnes show that Ken met dancer/comedienne Jackie Joseph. They were married on May 29, 1960. "Jackie and I got married and we both worked and we were doing O.K.," Ken said.
Ken's first real acting role (and his first Screen Actors Guild job) was a part on "The Gale Storm Show." Other early TV appearances included "The Chevy Showroom Starring Andy Williams" in 1959 and "Harrigan and Son" in 1960. "Then," he recalled, "I got recurring work--a bit on 'Dr. Kildare,' for instance." (Ken played Dr. Kapish.)
As it turned out, it was Ken's work on "Dr. Kildare" that indirectly led to his being able to meet his hero Fred Astaire in the early 1960s. Ken had become pals with actor Eddie Ryder, who played Dr. Agurski on "Kildare" (as well as the Marine recruit who conned Gomer into wearing Sgt. Carter's dress blues in the "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C." episode of "The Andy Griffith Show").
Ryder sometimes played pool at Fred Astaire's house and Ken would drop obvious hints that he'd be glad to tag along any time. Ryder never took the bait. But then Ken saw Ryder and Astaire together at a gala billiards exhibition. "I walked over to Eddie and said, 'Now!' He took me over and introduced me to Fred Astaire and we shook hands. I just barely met him, but that was enough."
And Ken remembered an interesting connection to another acting job during this time period. "I got the part of Woody the bellhop on 'The Ann Sothern Show' for one year." Ken recalled that Jackie Joseph was working in England when he wrote her a letter with news that "The Ann Sothern Show" was going to be replaced the next year by a new series called "The Andy Griffith Show."
By this time, Ken's parents had moved to the Los Angeles area. Bernice and Darrell Berry, who had retired from his accounting job, opened a coin-operated laundry in the Los Angeles suburb of Lynwood.
"As a matter of fact," Ken said, "at one time, when I figured I wasn't going to go any further in show business than where I was, and needed to make an investment, I leased the store next to my parents' laundry. It was during the height of the coin-operated dry-cleaning phase."
But by the time Ken got his back-ordered equipment set up, the coin-operated dry-cleaning fad was over. He found himself holding the laundry bag and feeling as though he'd been hung out to dry and had taken himself to the cleaners.
From then on, he assured himself, he'd stick to the entertainment business. (He temporarily forgot this lesson around 1964 when he and Jackie opened a little boutique called It's the Berry's. The "beautiful little shop" did well, but eventually the Berrys recognized that the shop was becoming another albatross around the necks of their entertainment careers.)
Some of Ken's TV shows during this period included "Michael Shayne," "The Garry Moore Show" (which Ken considers his first true guest-starring role), "Mrs. G. Goes to College" and "Father of the Bride" in 1961. Ken also appeared in an episode of "Hennesey." Also, Ken and Jackie both performed in several installments of "The Bob Newhart Show" (a variety show) in 1962.
Ken likewise was featured in two episodes of "The Dick Van Dyke Show" as psychiatrist Tony Daniels in 1964. Other TV shows that year were "The Rogues," "Hazel," "Combat!" and the first two of several episodes of "No Time for Sergeants" (ironically scheduled opposite "The Andy Griffith Show").
The year 1964 was a special one for the Berry family on the home front. They adopted their son, John Kenneth, who was born in May of that year. They also adopted daughter Jennifer Kate (Jenny) following her birth in April 1965.
As far as his career, Ken said that one 1964 show in particular sticks out in his mind. "I was working with George Burns and Connie Stevens on a show called 'Wendy and Me' [in an episode called "Wendy's Secret Wedding," directed by TAGS alum Gene Reynolds and also starring Jonathon Hole, Mayberry mortician/TV repairman Orville Monroe] and they went to bat for me with the studio. Warner Bros. was doing a bunch of pilots. That led to a screen test for 'F Troop.'"
Soon the trumpet was sounding reveille for a new role. Ken played the hilariously bumbling Capt. Wilton Parmenter, courageous leader of the goofball "F Troop" troupe for two seasons (65 episodes) on ABC-TV. "It seems like a lot longer because people have seen so many reruns," Ken recalled. To this day, "F Troop" is still the show, out of all that Ken's done, that the most people ask him about.
"When that was over, I was very disappointed in what my agent was sending me out on," recalled Ken, who wasn't quite ready to perform that kind of "Taps" with his career.
"I said, 'I think what I need is a manager.' So Jackie contacted the man who was head of the West Coast Personal Managers Association. And it was Dick Linke. Dick saw me on a Carol Burnett special, 'Carol and Company.' He signed me. When I met him, I was really amazed that Dick was interested in representing me. Jackie had called him just because he was the president of the personal managers association. He was the most powerful manager in the business. He got anything that he wanted."
Dick Linke knew special talents and people when he saw them. Some of the TV shows Ken appeared on right away were "The Danny Thomas Hour" and "You Don't Say" in 1967, plus a featured role on "The Lucy Show" in 1968.
Ken added, "Then Dick Linke went to work on Andy and Bob Ross, who was then the producer of 'The Andy Griffith Show,' to look at me or at least consider me. He didn't try to push me too hard because he didn't want them to think he was pushing only because I was a client and not because it was right for the show.
"They didn't end up seeing me for a long time because they were seeing other people," Ken continued. "But I went in for a reading with Andy and Bob. It went very well. Andy's a pleasure to work with. It wasn't improvised, but it was a 'cold reading.' It worked very well. And I got that part." Blue-eyed, true-blue farmer Sam Jones became a new friend to all Mayberry fans.
Ken continued, "When Andy had decided to leave, he and Bob had developed a pilot using Mayberry and as many of the characters from the town as they could, but also introducing, in addition to my character, this Italian family [the Vincente family in the final TAGS episode (#241 filmed; #249 to air), titled "Mayberry R.F.D."]. The network didn't want that for some reason and they decided to just go with the other characters."
He reflected, "The network was right for a change--making the decision they made about 'Mayberry R.F.D.' and not changing it so drastically because, rather than introducing the other family (whom the fans had never seen before), they emphasized the characters that the 'Andy Griffith Show' fans already knew."
About Mayberry, Ken told The Bullet, "It's a wonderful place to visit and people would fantasize about living there. It's a place like Brigadoon that shows up every hundred years. It's a place you dream about living, but you know it's fantasy and you don't care."
He added, "I grew up among people very much like that--a bigger town, but not much bigger--and the neighborhood was very much like that and the people were very much like those characters. And it was fun for me to visit, too. It was one of my favorite half hours ever on television and that was long before I met Andy. "He [Andy] is a preparer. He would spend hours agonizing over a script and over the littlest, minute details, so that he knew exactly what he was doing when he got there."
A similar work ethic and attention to detail might be used to describe Ken Berry. About his four episodes of TAGS followed by 78 episodes of "Mayberry R.F.D." from 1968 1971, Ken at the time said, "Some people think a series like 'Mayberry' is a snap, but nothing in this world is a snap unless you want it to be. And then it's not worth it. I work hard at this show because I want it to be as good as possible Just 'good' isn't enough."
In his 1999 Bullet interview, Ken offered this snapshot: "That was a wonderful time. Things were going well. Then we were canceled. As Pat Buttram said, 'It was the year CBS canceled everything with a tree in it.' That was one of the great disappointments of my life. I just thought, 'I'm going to hang it up.' It just made me so disappointed."
But the sure hand and philosophical wisdom imparted by Dick Linke helped steady the course. Ken recalled that, during an elevator ride up to the executive suites at CBS at the height of their Mayberry success, "Dick had said to me, 'Enjoy this while you can.' So he knew that nothing lasts." (That applies even to shows whose Nielsen rankings for three seasons are 4th, 4th and 15th!)
Though Ken again landed on his feet after Mayberry, he had the feeling that he was taking the stairway back down a few floors. He said, "I still worked, but I couldn't work enough to support our life style. So I went on the road. I was still a salable commodity, but I couldn't make enough. About his work on the road doing summer stock and winter stock, Ken frankly observed, "That was the kiss of death. You just disappear from television."
Well, that would not be considered entirely so by most entertainers' standards. However, after his two hit series during seven years, Ken's point about his relative amount of work is well taken. Nevertheless, he did continue to make guest appearances on a variety of, mostly, variety shows, including "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour," "The Jim Nabors Hour" and 19 episodes of "The Carol Burnett Show."
Here's what Carol Burnett told The Hollywood Reporter after Ken's death:
"...He was a phenomenal song-and-dance man. He was funny, he was sexy--he was the whole ball of wax.
"I first saw him in 1960 when he was doing 'The Billy Barnes Revue.' I was on 'The Garry Moore Show' back then, and I told Garry we had to have this guy on the program. So Garry flew Ken in from L.A. And then, a year before I got my CBS show in 1967, I did a special -- 'Carol and Company'-- and my guests were Rock Hudson, Frank Gorshin and Ken Berry.
"On my TV show, he became one of my favorite guests -- we had him on 19 or 20 times. I remember once Ken did a spoof of Fred Astaire singing 'Puttin' on the Ritz." Afterward, I heard from Fred: "That kid is terrific!'
"I just think Kenny was born too late. If he had been born in the days of the MGM musicals, he would have been a huge movie star."
Ken also appeared on "Love, American Style" in 1971 and 1972, with Carol Burnett in the TV movie Once Upon a Mattress in 1972, three Mitzi Gaynor specials (including two as a featured performer), "The Julie Andrews Hour" and an "NBC Follies" in 1973. (He also had managed to squeeze in a guest shot on the top-rated "Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In" as well as a featured performance in a special titled "The First Nine Months Are the Hardest"--with Jackie Joseph, Dick Van Dyke and others--amid his "Mayberry" duties in 1970.)
Ken even had his own variety series on ABC called "The Ken Berry Wow Show," which grew out of an earlier NBC special. The show ran as a replacement series for five episodes in the summer of 1972. During this period, Ken also performed for big crowds in the "big rooms" in Las Vegas with Andy Griffith, Jerry Van Dyke and others.
In 1974 and 1975, Ken and Jackie appeared in 16 episodes of the couples game show "Tattletales." and Ken played Ken Kelly in a 1974 episode of "The Brady Bunch" called "Kelly's Kids," which was a pilot for a possible series.
The next year Ken was a guest star in an episode of "Medical Center." He was in several installments of "The Sonny and Cher Show," in an episode of "The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams" and in an episode of "ChiPs" (as Kelly) in 1977. In 1978 he was on the short-lived series "Apple Pie." He also appeared in the first of his seven episodes of "Fantasy Island," guest-starred on "Ellery Queen" and played the role of London in a 1979 episode of "Little House on the Prairie." All along, Ken had worked in TV movies and miniseries whenever an appealing part came along and his schedule permitted.
Among his TV movies are Wake Me When the War Is Over in (produced by Danny Thomas and directed by TAGS director Gene Nelson; 1969), as Lieut. Murphy in The Reluctant Heroes in 1971, as David Chase in Every Man Needs One in 1972, Letters From Three Lovers (1973), and Guardian of the Wilderness (aka Mountain Man) with Denver Pyle and Love Boat II in 1977.
On the big screen, Ken appeared in Two for the Seesaw with Shirley MacLaine (1962), Hello Down There (re-released as Sub-a Dub-Dub) with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh (1969), as Willoughby Whitfield in Herbie Rides Again with Helen Hayes (1974) and as Frank in the fur-fetched cult classic The Cat from Outer Space with Sandy Duncan and Ronnie Schell (1978).
Ken even made time to record an album, Ken Berry R.F.D. for Barnaby Records (Andy Williams' label) in 1970. Ken recalled, "I had guested on 'The Andy Williams Show,' and Andy said, 'Would you like to do an album?' And I said, 'Well, of course.' It was a brand new experience for me."
The album echoed the kinds of down-home sounds that have always been favorite moments of fans on TAGS and "Mayberry R.F.D." In fact, Ken recalled watching a porch scene of an "R.F.D." rerun several years after it was made. "That was Andy's idea to do that. We sat on the porch and we sang 'A Little Street Where Old Friends Meet.' It was Alice Ghostley's first episode," ("The New Housekeeper," "R.F.D." Episode #57). Ken added, "I don't usually like to watch myself on television or hear myself, but when I happened to see that scene years later, I thought, 'Gee, that's pleasant.' I really enjoyed it."
Another nice deal for Ken during his post-Mayberry years was his role as spokesperson for Kinney Shoes for several years. The commercials in which he tap-danced were sometimes extravagant productions and were such a big hit with viewers that, when Kinney discontinued the ads, they had such a response from viewers asking "Where's Ken Berry?" that they resumed production of the popular commercials.
During this time, Ken also appeared in some theater productions, including Guys and Dolls in Chicago. But what he was really hoping for was another hit TV series that could get him off the road, which he really didn't enjoy. "It was many years before I got a call from Joe Hamilton (by that time Carol Burnett's ex-husband)," Ken remembered. "They were doing a show based on the 'Family' sketch, which I had done on Carol's special, 'Eunice.'"
The new series, of course, was "Mama's Family." Ken played Mama's son, Vinton Harper. (For the record, in the sketch on the "Eunice" special, Ken had played another son, named Phillip.) The series aired for two seasons on NBC and also was shown in primetime reruns on the Peacock network during the summer of 1985.
"We were canceled after just short of two seasons," Ken remembered. "So, I went back on the road"--doing theater productions such as Run for Your Wife in Chicago. "Then I got a call that they had sold 'Mama's Family' to syndication." New episodes were going to be made for the first-run syndication, which would end up lasting from 1986 to 1990, during which time it reigned as the top-rated sitcom in first-run syndication. "Mama's Family" continues to show staying power in both rerun syndication and video distribution.
"That brought me up to what was essentially the end of my career in January 1990," says Ken. Because he and Dick Linke never really had a formal management contract, they really didn't have an official relationship to end. They both just reached the point where they were ready to retire. "We've always been friends and remain so," Ken said in 1999.
Ken continued to get the occasional TV role (for example, "Gimme a Break" in 1985, "Small Wonder" in 1988 and as Thor Anderson in a 1991 episode of "Golden Girls"). And he made the good effort to try theater again for a while. He was in a production of Don't Dress for Dinner in Chicago. In 1993, he starred with pal Carol Burnett in the production of From the Top in Long Beach, Calif. And that same year found him back on the road in a production of Alone Together in Goodfield, Ill.
Early in 1999, Ken even ventured back into television with a guest spot as Sheriff Riley on the CBS comedy "Maggie Winters." He said at the time, "I thought, well, it'd be kind of fun to get my feet wet again and see if I can still do it and see what it's like and see whether I want to do this again and whether I want to pursue it. I had a really nice week, but I don't care if I ever do it again or not." And that was in fact Ken's last acting job in TV.
He did, however, have advice for other aspiring performers. In a 2012 interview for the Archive of American Television, he said, "Get on the stage. Get on your feet. You'll learn more from that the first time out than you'll ever learn from any class."
Ken also knew cars, or more accurately, vehicles of all kinds. They were his hobby for decades. "I love cars. If I could, I'd like to buy a new one about ever two to three months. That would be my dream. If I had a warehouse, I'd put a cot in the corner and a shower, and that would be it. And a microwave, so I could warm up a hot dog or something. And that's where I'd live," he laughed during his 1999 interview for The Bullet.
The many cars (not to mention RVs, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles
and even the occasional unicycle) he has enjoyed owning over the years range from the fun to the whimsical to the practical--from a 1933 American Austin, a British Thames truck, a 1966 Austin Mini-Moke, a Citron 2CV and a Porsche 928 to the occasional Chevy or Ford.
Ken and Jackie Joseph were divorced in 1976, but remained good friends through all the years until his passing. (Jackie married David Lawrence in 2003.)
In response to the initial outpouring of condolence and concern after Ken's passing, Jackie posted, "I'm feeling so much love and gratitude for the affection and kindness expressed by Ken's friends and admirers. And to Susie Walsh, Ken's dear partner for the last 26 years, for bringing him laughter and devotion and care."
Larry Storch, who played Cpl. Agarn on "F Troop," posted this condolence upon learning the news of Ken's passing:
"Dear friends, we are sad to let you know our beloved Captain, Mr. Ken Berry, passed away tonight.
"We just spoke with Jackie Joseph who confirmed the devastating news. We are at a true loss for words. Ken, we hope you know how much you were loved. Goodnight Captain. We miss you already."
Ken and Jackie's son John, a talented musician who also sometimes worked as an actor and roadie in Los Angeles, died of brain cancer in 2016. Daughter Jenny is a teacher.
In addition to Jenny, Ken's survivors include nieces Candy Sue Harder and Bonnie Rae Harder; Susie Walsh, Ken's devoted partner since 1982; and members of the Walsh family.
Funeral arrangements for Ken were incomplete at the time of publication. We'll update this story as more information about arrangements becomes available.
Donations in memory of Ken may be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.