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Peter Palmer, the onetime college football player who starred in the Broadway and big-screen musical versions of Li’l Abner as the sweet-natured hillbilly title character from Dogpatch, USA, has died. He was 90.
Palmer died Wednesday on the day after his birthday, his son Steven Palmer announced on Facebook.
“As a family we knew this was coming and that’s why we had such a wonderful celebration of his birthday this weekend,” he wrote. “He enjoyed being celebrated by his children, grandchildren, nieces and nephews and friends and extended family. Gonna miss you, Pops.”
After playing tackle for the University of Illinois — he also performed the national anthem while in uniform before home games — the 6-foot-3, 250-pound baritone won a singing contest while in the U.S. Army. The reward was an appearance on CBS’ The Ed Sullivan Show, where he sang “Granada.”
Producer-writers Melvin Frank and Norman Panama, set to hire Dick Shawn as their Li’l Abner on Broadway, spotted him on the Sullivan show. “A week later I auditioned, and four months later I was in rehearsal,” he recalled in a 2005 interview. “Young people ask me now, ‘How do I start?’ and I tell them to do as I did, ‘At the top,’ because that is how I did it.”
Also featuring Stubby Kaye as Marryin’ Sam, Edie Adams as Daisy Mae and Julie Newmar as Stupefyin’ Jones, Li’l Abner — based on the Al Capp comic strip — opened at the St. James Theatre in November 1956. With Palmer receiving a Theatre World Award, it was a smash hit, lasting nearly 700 performances through July 1958.
For the 1959 movie version at Paramount, Palmer “was not a shoo-in for the role of Abner and they looked and looked but finally called me and flew me out from New York for a screen test. They finally did settle on me,” he said.
Kaye, Newmar and Frank, who would direct the movie, also made the transition, and with Adams pregnant and unavailable, the part of Daisy Mae was taken by newcomer Leslie Parrish. (Also in the cast: Valerie Harper and Donna Douglas.)
But after Li’l Abner, “I could not get arrested on stage for films or TV,” he said.
Peter Webster Palmer was born in Milwaukee on Sept. 20, 1931. He was raised mostly in St. Louis, where he attended Clayton High School and performed as a soloist with the chorus. (They once got to sing for President Truman.)
The strapping Palmer was offered football scholarships to several colleges but chose Illinois so he could also study voice with music professor Bruce Foote, a renowned concert singer at the time.
Meanwhile, with Palmer on the team, the Fighting Illini won the Big Ten championship in 1951 and ’53 and clobbered Stanford in the 1952 Rose Bowl.
“I came to Illinois known as a football player who could sing and left as a singer who could play football,” he said in 2018. “It was such a thrill for me to sing the anthem before the games. It ranks up there with anything I ever did.”
After graduation, Palmer won a contest sponsored by a Chicago radio station, went to Hollywood to study with Nelson Eddy’s teacher and signed with an agent before he was drafted into the U.S. Army.
Following the Li’l Abner movie, Palmer struggled to find work in Hollywood, though he did return to Broadway to star in a revival of Brigadoon in 1963 and to work opposite Carol Channing in Lorelei in 1974.
He also had regular roles on the 1967 ABC drama Custer, starring Wayne Maunder, and the 1977 NBC sitcom The Kallikaks and guest-starred on other series including The Bill Dana Show, Emergency!, The Rockford Files, Three’s Company, Charlie’s Angels, Dallas and Superboy.
Palmer was married twice — his wife of 45 years, singer-actress Aniko Farrell, died in 2011 — and had six children.
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