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Ken Berry, the rubber-legged actor who delighted TV viewers as the blundering Capt. Wilton Parmenter on F Troop and as the accident-prone Vinton Harper on Mama’s Family, has died. He was 85.
Berry, an agile song-and-dance man who was encouraged in show business by his U.S. Army sergeant, future Star Trek legend Leonard Nimoy, died Saturday night at Providence St. Joseph Medical Center in Burbank, his ex-wife, actress Jackie Joseph-Lawrence, told The Hollywood Reporter.
The amiable Berry also was known for starring as town councilor Sam Jones on Mayberry R.F.D., the spinoff of The Andy Griffith Show that was created by CBS after Griffith exited the series — then the No. 1 show in the ratings — after its eighth and final season.
Berry came to fame for portraying the greenhorn Captain Parmenter on ABC’s F Troop, which aired for only two seasons (65 episodes from September 1965 through April 1967) but lived on in syndication for decades.
A private, Parmenter was promoted to take command of Fort Courage in Kansas after his sneeze (which sounded like “Charge!”) propelled Union troops to an inspirational victory over the Confederates.
Berry’s goofball antics, which he dispensed with the dexterity of a trained dancer, supplied many of the show’s highlights. In a 2012 interview with the Archive of American Television, he said he came up with many of the pratfalls himself.
“It was something that I could bring to the show,” he said. “I would choreograph stuff. I would find things in the set or outside that I could use. [It got so that the F Troop scripts would say,] ‘Business to be worked out with Ken on the set.'”
Berry’s legions of fans included the great silent film star Buster Keaton, a master of physical comedy. “He once called me after the show had been on the night before and said, ‘That was a good gag you did last night,'” he recalled. “Wow, that was high praise!”
After F Troop was canceled, Berry was introduced as the widowed farmer Sam in the final four episodes of The Andy Griffith Show; other actors making the transition to Mayberry R.F.D. for the 1968-69 season included George Lindsey (Goober), Jack Dodson (Howard Sprague), Paul Hartman (Emmett) and Frances Bavier (Aunt Bee).
“It was scary,” he said. “I went into that with great apprehension. All you hope is that you don’t hurt it. I had nothing to do with the success of The Andy Griffith Show. I just hoped I wouldn’t do anything wrong.”
Berry performed soft-shoe routines and would occasionally sing on the porch, crooning such homespun fare as “Carolina Moon.” His son on the series was played by Jodie Foster’s brother, Buddy.
Despite its lineage, Mayberry R.F.D. never approached the magic of its classic progenitor and was canceled after three seasons, part of CBS’ purge of rural shows that also saw Petticoat Junction, Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw removed from the network airwaves.
In 1972, he toplined his own summer-replacement series, The Ken Berry ‘Wow’ Show.
When Vicki Lawrence decided to reprise her uproarious role as Thelma from recurring sketches on The Carol Burnett Show, Berry came on board, first for the 1982 movie Eunice and then as the dim locksmith Vinton (married to Dorothy Lymon’s Naomi) on Mama’s Family.
The comedy debuted in 1983 and lasted two seasons on NBC, then achieved stellar ratings over another four seasons in syndication.
On the big screen, the family-friendly Berry also starred in the Disney films Herbie Rides Again (1974) and The Cat From Outer Space (1978).
Kenneth Ronald Berry was born Nov. 3, 1933, in Moline, Illinois. His father was an accountant and his mother a housewife. As a teenager, he won a chance to dance, sing and tour with The Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program; the troupe performed in a different town every Sunday night and even did shows overseas for U.S. Air Force personnel.
Berry came home and graduated from Moline High School, then joined the U.S. Army just after the Korean War. He won a talent contest with a tap dancing routine that earned him a trip to New York and a spot on Soldier Parade, an ABC show hosted by Arlene Francis.
After Nimoy invited him into the Special Services Corps, which entertained fellow troops around the country, Berry won another talent contest; this one got him on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town.
“Lenny told me, ‘You ought to get in touch with some of the people at the talent departments at the studios,” Berry said in the TV Archive interview. “I said, ‘I don’t know how to do that.’ He said, ‘Ah, I’ll do it for you.’ And he did. He sent wires out to agencies and the people in charge of the talent programs at the various studios. I got a couple of bites, and I took the one from Universal.”
Berry noted that he was up for a role in Francis in the Haunted House (1956), the final one in the series, but the part went to Mickey Rooney instead.
Meanwhile, Berry studied acting at Falcon Studios and landed a gig in Las Vegas with Abbott & Costello at the Sahara.
He became a regular with The Billy Barnes Revue, which made it to Broadway, and was spotted by Lucille Ball, who came backstage and offered him a spot in the new talent program at her Desilu Studios.
Berry won notice for playing the hotel bellhop Woody on the Desilu-CBS program The Ann Sothern Show and then was a regular on The Bob Newhart Show, the standup comic’s first foray into television, in 1962.
Berry had recurring roles on two NBC series: Ensign O’Toole, a 1962-63 show that starred Dean Jones, and Richard Chamberlain’s Dr. Kildare. His dancing background then helped him land two episodes of CBS’ The Dick Van Dyke Show, on which he played a choreographer.
Berry also appeared more than a dozen times on The Carol Burnett Show and performed alongside her in a 1972 TV version of Once Upon a Mattress and on stage in From the Top.
In a 1974 episode of the final season of The Brady Bunch, Berry played the adoptive father of three multiracial kids. The episode was meant to serve as a backdoor pilot, but the series was not picked up.
Berry also appeared on other TV shows including Combat!, Hazel, Rawhide, Medical Center, Little House on the Prairie (where he played a circus clown), Fantasy Island and The Golden Girls.
He also performed around the country in The Music Man, Oklahoma!, Promises, Promises and I Do! I Do!
In 1960, Berry married actress Jackie Joseph (The Doris Day Show, the Gremlins movies), whom he had met on The Billy Barnes Revue. They adopted two children before divorcing in 1977 and remained close friends.
In addition to Berry’s ex-wife, their daughter, Jennifer, survives him, as does his partner of 26 years, Susan, and nieces Bonnie and Candy.
The family asks that donations in his name be made to the Motion Picture and Television Fund.
In his TV Archive interview, Berry said that he “didn’t make a lot of money, but I made up for it in quantity. When Mama’s Family was canceled, I was stunned that the phone didn’t ring anymore.” He had been working nonstop for 40 years and decided it was time to slow down.
The highlight of his career was, without a doubt, F Troop. “I have never been that happy in my life,” he said. “I walked on air for a long time. It never let me down. I felt like that every day I went to work. I knew how lucky I was at the time.”
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