Updated: July 14, 2022
IN MEMORY OF ACTOR-SINGER-DANCER KEN BERRY
Kenneth Ronald Berry (November 3, 1933 – December 1, 2018) was an American actor, dancer and singer. Berry starred on the television series F Troop, The Andy Griffith Show, Mayberry R.F.D. and Mama's Family. He also appeared on Broadway in The Billy Barnes Revue, headlined as George M. Cohan in the musical George M! and provided comic relief for the medical drama Dr. Kildare, with Richard Chamberlain in the 1960s.
Berry was born in Moline in Rock Island County in northwestern Illinois, one of two children of an accountant, Darrell Berry, and his wife, Bernice. Berry was of Swedish-English descent.
Berry realized he wanted to be a dancer and singer at age 12, as he watched a children's dance performance during a school assembly. He dreamed of starring in movie musicals and went to the movie theater to see Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly in some of his favorite films, including Easter Parade, Royal Wedding, On the Town, and Summer Stock.
Berry immediately started tap dance class and, at age 15, won a local talent competition sponsored by radio and television big band leader Horace Heidt. Heidt asked Berry to join his traveling performance ensemble, "The Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program", a popular touring group. He toured the United States and Europe for 15 months with the program, dancing and singing for the public and at post-World War II United States Air Force bases overseas. Berry made lasting relationships with several of his co-cast members and Horace's son, Horace Heidt Jr., who later launched a big band and radio career.
After high school graduation, Berry volunteered for the United States Army, and was assigned to Fort Bragg in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
His first year in the Army was spent in the artillery, where he entered a post talent contest; the winner went on Arlene Francis' Soldier Parade in New York City. Berry, who always carried his tap shoes with him, worked out a routine and a few hours later won the contest. He headed to New York for his television debut.
Berry's second and final year in the Army was with Special Services, under Sergeant Leonard Nimoy, who encouraged Berry to go to Hollywood and pursue acting. As a part of Special Services, he toured Army posts and officers' clubs entertaining the troops, as well as visiting colleges for recruiting purposes. Soon, another talent competition was held, the All Army Talent Competition, looking to find service personnel to appear on Ed Sullivan's Toast of the Town. Berry placed third in the "Specialty Act" category with the song "There'll Be Some Changes Made" and returned to New York City and television.
The Sullivan appearance was to take place shortly before Berry would muster out of the Army. Nimoy sent telegrams to several studios and talent agents asking them to watch Berry on the show. The performance led to an offer from 20th Century Fox and a screen test at Universal Studios. He signed with an agent as soon as he arrived in Hollywood.
Berry accepted Universal's offer and began as a contract player. Soon he was being groomed to take over for Donald O'Connor in the Francis the Talking Mule movie series; however, Mickey Rooney became available and got the part. At Universal, Berry took full advantage of the studio's talent development program and later, under the G.I. Bill, he took jazz dance, ballet, vocal, and additional acting classes.
The movie musicals Berry admired had already seen their heyday; however, acting, which he once thought of as "something I would do between song and dance routines", became the basis of his career.
Berry went on to star in the 1969 musical comedy Hello Down There — reissued as Sub a Dub Dub — as Mel Cheever, the nemesis of Tony Randall and Janet Leigh, and with Denver Pyle in 1976's Guardian of the Wilderness, the story of Galen Clark, the man who created Yosemite National Park. Berry also earned broader success as a Disney star in the films Herbie Rides Again in 1974, with Helen Hayes and Stefanie Powers, and The Cat from Outer Space in 1978, with Sandy Duncan and McLean Stevenson.
In 1956, after being released from Universal, Berry ventured to Las Vegas where he opened for and joined Abbott and Costello in their stage act, performing sketches and song and dance routines at the Sahara Hotel and Casino. While working with Abbott and Costello, he met Dee Arlen, an actress whom he credited with getting him his first big break. This was Berry's first performance on the Las Vegas Strip.
Then, in 1957, Berry was asked by Ken Murray, a well-known vaudeville performer, to join his stage variety show The Ken Murray Blackouts. The Blackouts played to standing-room-only audiences, and Berry was asked to choreograph and perform the opening number for the show when it played the Riviera hotel and casino in Las Vegas.
Berry eventually returned to Las Vegas again in the 1970s at the invitation of Andy Griffith. Griffith, with Berry and Jerry Van Dyke, played Caesars Palace, where Berry performed song and dance numbers sandwiched by Andy and Jerry's stand-up routines.
Actress Dee Arlen referred Berry for a role in the show In League with Ivy at the Cabaret Concert Theatre, a nightclub in Los Angeles. Here he met famed composer–impresario Billy Barnes, the play's composer. Barnes brought Berry into The Billy Barnes Revue ensemble, his next break, and he performed in many of Barnes' shows in the coming years.
While with Barnes, Berry worked with other performers including his future wife, Jackie Joseph, as well as Joyce Jameson, Bert Convy, Patti Regan, Ann Morgan Guilbert, Lennie Weinrib, and sketch writer/director Bob Rodgers. Several cast albums were made.
In November 1959, the original cast of the Broadway show was replaced two weeks after a legal dispute with the producers over a canceled performance. The cast had missed their flight from Chicago after a promotional appearance on Playboy's Penthouse and refunds had to be made to the ticket holders. He performed in several stage shows in Los Angeles; the press dubbed him "another Fred Astaire" and "the next Gene Kelly". His talent was also compared to that of Flamenco Dancer José Greco, the legendary hoofer Donald O'Connor, Ray Bolger, and Jack Donahue.
Arthur Godfrey's Talent Scouts was a prime time television talent contest, that ran from 1946 to 1958. The winner got a week's work on Godfrey's morning television program, which was simulcast on radio. Berry won in 1957, performed his week on the show, and was then asked back for six more weeks. He traveled with Godfrey and performed on remote broadcasts in an Omaha stock yard, in Seattle at a lumber camp, at the Boeing aircraft plant, and at the San Diego Zoo. Berry came up with a new routine for every show, which aired daily.
The Billy Barnes Review was popular with Hollywood, and one evening Carol Burnett was in Los Angeles and saw Berry in the show. She was appearing on The Garry Moore Show in New York and convinced the producers to sign Berry as a guest star. Burnett became a key ally for Berry, using him on her own special, which eventually became CBS's The Carol Burnett Show. Ken was one of Burnett's most frequent guest stars along with Jim Nabors and Steve Lawrence. In 1972, Ken and Carol appeared together in the 1972 color remake of Burnett's Broadway hit, Once Upon a Mattress for CBS.
A notable dramatic performance by Berry was 1982's television movie Eunice, which was based on The Carol Burnett Show sketch, The Family. The Family was somewhat of a pilot for Mama's Family. Berry played Phillip, Eunice's brother, in the special; however he went on to play Vinton, a different brother, on Mama's Family.
The Billy Barnes Review also led to another important connection in his career when he was spotted by Lucille Ball. Ball quickly asked him to join her new talent development program at Desilu, similar to the "talent pools" – known as talent "programs" – that the other studios had. He was under contract with Desilu for six months, performing for both Ball and Barnes at the same time. The reviews for The Billy Barnes Review were largely positive, and additional investors contributed the extra money needed to move the show from the York Playhouse to Broadway, which meant he had to take leave from Desilu.
After returning from New York in 1960, Berry was brought back to Desilu to play Woody, a bell hop, in ten episodes of CBS's The Ann Sothern Show which was set in a New York hotel called the Bartley House. The character Woody served as a "Greek chorus of one" on the series.
In 1968, Ball asked Berry to guest star on The Lucy Show, where he played a bank client needing a loan to start a dance studio. He performed a tribute to the Fred Astaire number "Steppin' Out with My Baby" and a duet with Ball for a rendition of "Lucy's Back in Town".
After numerous smaller roles, Berry was cast as one of three comic relief characters on Dr. Kildare, from 1961 to 1966. A regular on the series, Berry played Dr. Kapish. He also had a role on The Dick Van Dyke Show as a dance instructor several times.
Ken Berry, Andy Griffith and Buddy Foster in Mayberry R.F.D., 1968 Berry continued doing guest roles, but while performing a small part on the short-lived George Burns-Connie Stevens sitcom Wendy and Me, both Burns and Stevens recommended him for the pilot of F Troop for ABC, a western spoof where he played the accident-prone Captain Parmenter—his first weekly role starring in a sitcom.
Berry's co-stars were Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch. Berry called his time on F-Troop "two years of recess" as the entire cast spent time between takes trying to make each other laugh. His grace and agility allowed him to perform choreographed pratfalls over hitching posts, sabers, and trash cans.
In 1967, during the second year of F-Troop, Dick Linke — who was Berry's manager, and also managed Andy Griffith and Jim Nabors — pitched an F Troop stage show to Bill Harrah, founder of Harrah's Entertainment, which included a casino and hotel in Reno, Nevada. Harrah went for it, and Berry, Larry Storch, Forrest Tucker, and James Hampton put together a show, hiring writers and a choreographer to assist. While performing the Reno show they received word that F Troop had been canceled due to a financial dispute between the production company and the studio.
The next year Berry was cast in the featured role of Sam Jones, a widowed farmer, on the last few episodes of The Andy Griffith Show. He took the lead role on the spin-off Mayberry R.F.D.. In September 1968, Berry led the cast of Mayberry R.F.D., as Griffith's character receded. Most of the regular characters stayed with the show. Andy and wife Helen left after a few episodes into season two. Series writers used Berry's "trouper" talents in stories about church revues and talent contests. On the 1970 Mayberry R.F.D. episode "The Charity", he and co-star Paul Hartman performed a soft shoe routine. Berry sometimes ended a show on the porch at dusk, serenading others with such songs as "Carolina Moon". In spite of finishing 15th place for season three, Mayberry R.F.D. was canceled in 1971 in what was called "the rural purge", where shows set in a bucolic locale (The Beverly Hillbillies, Green Acres, and Petticoat Junction) were replaced with the more "hip" fare of Norman Lear (All in the Family) and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
After Mayberry R.F.D., Berry starred in several made-for-TV movies, and his own summer replacement variety show on ABC called The Ken Berry 'Wow' Show in 1972, which ran for five episodes. This show was an launching pad for future stars Steve Martin, Cheryl Ladd and Teri Garr.
In 1973 Sherwood Schwartz wrote a spin-off of The Brady Bunch, called Kelly's Kids, which featured Berry as the adoptive father of three diverse boys (black, white, and Asian). The pilot failed to interest ABC.
Over the next two decades Berry guest starred on many shows, including The Bob Newhart Show, The Julie Andrews Hour, several Mitzi Gaynor specials, The Sonny & Cher Comedy Hour, The Donny & Marie Show, The Love Boat, Fantasy Island, CHiPs, and The Golden Girls.
In 1983, Berry was cast as Vinton Harper in Mama's Family, a spin-off from The Carol Burnett Show with comic actors including Vicki Lawrence, Dorothy Lyman, Rue McClanahan, Betty White, and Beverly Archer during six seasons of the show. Mama's Family aired on NBC from 1983 to 1984 and in repeats until 1985. It was then picked up for first run syndication|first-run syndication from 1986 to 1990. The run totaled 130 episodes.
During and after Mama's Family, Berry toured the United States in various theatrical performances, including multiple performances of Sugar with co-stars such as Donald O'Connor, Mickey Rooney, Soupy Sales, and Bobby Morse, The Music Man with Susan Watson (Patrick Swayze and Lisa Niemi were in the chorus), I Do! I Do! with Loretta Swit, and Gene Kelly's A Salute to Broadway with Howard Keel and Mimi Hines. Kelly, who was Berry's idol, was set to direct the production, but fell ill.
In his younger years, Berry signed with a modeling agency that put him in a variety of spots, including advertisements for tissues, cigarettes, cereal, and a car commercial.
Years later, after signing with a commercial agent, Berry was a spokesman in commercials for Kinney Shoes from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, singing and dancing to the "Great American Shoe Store" jingle.
Berry's first recording experience came with the Billy Barnes cast albums: one from the Broadway performance of The Billy Barnes Review and the second in Billy Barnes' L.A.
After an appearance on The Andy Williams Show, Williams asked Berry to record a solo album on his new Barnaby label. Backed by a full orchestra, Ken Berry RFD was released in 1970.
Berry married Jackie Joseph, a Billy Barnes castmate, on May 29, 1960. They adopted two children together — son John Kenneth in 1964 and daughter Jennifer Kate in 1965. They divorced in 1976. His son John, who later became a co-founder of the Indie rock band Idaho, died in 2016 of brain cancer at the age of 51. Berry's long time partner and companion, Susie Walsh, a stage manager, had been with him for the last 24 years.
Berry "loved cars and anything with wheels" from the time he was a young child, particularly smaller cars, and maintained a 1966 Mini Moke. An avid motorcyclist, he camped and rode the local Los Angeles mountain ranges.
Berry died in Burbank, California, on December 1, 2018, at the age of 85.