For any Classic TV fan, news that Ken Berry — who entertained generations with his gentle form of comedy — has passed away at the age of 85 is certainly sad. His long-ranging career included starring roles in shows like F-Troop, the Andy Griffith Show spinoff, Mayberry R.F.D.; and Mama’s Family. In tribute to Ken and the joy he brought to so many, we take this look back at his life and career in his own words.

By any standard, The Andy Griffith Show was not an easy act to follow. After all, it became one of the most popular shows throughout its run in the 1960s, and grew even bigger over the decades thanks to reruns and the nostalgia factor. But what’s truly amazing is that series star Andy Griffith decided to leave the show after eight seasons, and instead of simple cancellation, it evolved into the series Mayberry R.F.D., which was essentially the same show, but without Sheriff Andy Taylor or his son, Opie. Instead, the focus shifted to widower farmer (eventually head of the town council) Sam Jones, raising his son, Mike, and they were surrounded by all the regular supporting characters of Mayberry — including Aunt Bee. Amazingly it worked, much of it because of actor Ken Berry, who stepped in as Sam.

“Andy and Don Knotts had had an oral agreement that after five years they would walk away from it, but Andy was still doing so great, the network didn’t want him to go,” Ken explains in an extensive video interview with The Archive for American Television. “Don wanted to move on to motion pictures, and in those days, incidentially, that was a step up to get out of television go into the movies. That’s what Don did, but Andy stayed on and he just stayed up there in the ratings all the way. The last year he was on the air, he was number one for the season.

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(Photo Credit: CBS Television Distribution)

“Naturally it was scary,” he adds about coming aboard. “You go into it with great apprehension. All you hope is that you don’t hurt it, because I had nothing to do with the success of The Andy Griffith Show. I wasn’t even a character in the town or anything, and I just hoped that I wouldn’t do anything wrong, that’s all.”

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The Road to Becoming an Actor

Long before moving to Mayberry, he was born Kenneth Ronald Berry on Nov. 3, 1933 in Moline, Illinois. By the age of 12, he realized that he wanted to be a singer and dancer, which was triggered by watching a school assembly that featureed kids offering up a dance performance. Fascinated by movie musicals, he would go the local theater and watch the likes of Fred Astaire. Three years later, he won a local competition that saw him joining a traveling performance ensemble called “The Horace Heidt Youth Opportunity Program.” He spent 15 months doing so, touring both America and Europe and performing on US Air Force bases overseas following World War II. Upon graduation from high school, he volunteered for the army, which he remained a part of for two years. Afterwards, he was signed as a Universal Pictures contract player, where he was able to continue his creative studies.

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(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

By the time he left Universal in 1956, he’d realized he would have to start looking at acting as a career as things were changing as far as musicals were concerned. He did, however, go to Las Vegas where he served as an opening act to Abbott & Costello. That led to him joining a popular stage variety show, The Ken Murray Blackouts, which, in turn, resulted in him becoming a part of The Billy Barnes Review, continuing to do sketches, songs and dancing. Eventually television beckoned, and he played a bell hop named Woody in 10 episodes of the Desilu series The Ann Sothern Show. He had recurring roles in both Dr. Kildare and The Dick Van Dyke Show throughout the early ’60s.

Taking Command of Fort Courage

There were some odd concepts for comedies back in the ’60s (prisoners of war held in a Nazi camp during World War II in the form of Hogan’s Heroes comes to mind), and Ken starred in one of them: F-Troop.The setting is near the end of the Civil War at Fort Courage, and Ken is Wilton Parmenter (a pretty inept guy, truth be told), who is put in charge of the army’s biggest misfits while also dealing with the Indians, the romantic advances of trading store owner Wrangler Jane Angelica Thrift (Melody Patterson), and a couple of his less-than-always-trustworthy soldiers, Sergeant O’Rourke and Corporal Agarn.

“I was up for a show called Ensign Pulver, which is a character from Mr. Roberts that Jack Lemmon played, and I thought, ‘Oh, that’s going to be right up my alley; I can’t wait to see if that’s the one for me. But I was also up for something called F-Troop, and was kind of disappointed until I actually got it and got into it. It was the time of my life. Just great.”

As to the premise of F-Troop, he describes: “I played a man who was a private in the Civil War on the Union side. As it says in the opening song, he sneezed or something in a battle and the troops thought that he was rallying them. They had this big victory, so he was promoted to captain and assigned to a remote post out west someplace. There’s these two guys, a sergeant and a corporal named O’Rouke and Agarn, and they were played by Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch, who became dear friends. And the other guys as well. We just had laughs all day long. Those guys want to make you laugh, and what a great way to make a living, people trying to make you laugh. There was also the Indians called the Hekawis and the chief was played by Frank de Kova. They had larceny in their hearts, too, and they were running this operation where they sold trinkets and Indian stuff that they put together in the village, and Agarn and O’Rourke would sell it, which was illegal. They were not supposed to have any outside interests.”

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(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

The show ran for two seasons from 1965-67 but was then canceled, which was a bit surprising considering that, while not a giant hit, it was certainly successful, and definitely funny. The show had shifted from black and white to color between seasons, which raised the cost, plus Warner Bros’ number of TV shows were dwindling to the point where it was becoming prohibitive to have just a couple of shows in production. Yet despite there only being 65 episodes, the show has managed to live on.

“In those days,” Ken muses as to its appeal, “we hadn’t too long ago come out of a period when there were many westerns on television. They had never done a comedy one, which was a new idea for television. And this was exciting people who knew what we were before we got on the air, just from the promos. But it was great. One of the highlights was that we rode in the Rose Parade in the middle of the first season. We started up in Orange Grove in Pasadena, and you come down bheind the bands and stuff and we’re all on horseback. It was Forrest Tucker, Larry Storch, Jimmy Hampton (who playd the buglar Dobbs) and Joe Brooks (the near-sighted guy), and I, and we turned the corner and there were a lot of kids, of course. You start down this hill, and it’s early in the morning, with the mountains around you and everything, and you could hear these voices cheering. It was one of the highlights of my entire life.”

And Then There Was Mayberry

When the idea arose for more or less continuing The Andy Griffith Show, but with a new leading man, Ken was integrated into the series for several episodes of Season 8. “They sneaked my character in at the end of Andy Griffith,” he says, “just to get their audience kind of used to the idea that here was a character that they would be familiar with. He comes into town rarely, but he’s a part of Mayberry.”

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(Photo Credit: CBS Television Distribution)

The original conception for the show was fairly different from what it ended up becoming: “It was supposed to feature me and a whole family of Italian immigrants,” Ken explains. “I was supposed to have been in the army at some point, and I met them in Italy. Sam was in need of a hired hand, and I wrote to him and asked if he would like to come and be my hired hand. It would be a job; he’d get to this country and maybe, who knows, he might branch off and do something else, or it might be a step up for him. Anyway, he shows up, but he’s with his entire family, including his grandfather and his sister, who’s beautiful. I think they had in mind that that was going to be the love interest for my character. We did a pilot, we shot the show, and the network I don’t think ever liked the idea of doing that. I think they wanted to feature Mayberry and all the characters in Mayberry. They wanted to keep it just like it was. They dropped the idea of the Italian family and we just went ahead with the characters of Mayberry.”

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(Photo Credit: CBS Television Distribution)

Ken was pleased that the cast and crew were extremely welcoming to him. “You know,” he says, “actors get along a lot better than most people give them credit for. I think actors are often prejudged; people think you’re going to have an ego and you’re going to be working with prima donnas and stuff, but the atmsophere almost everywhere has been wecoming. And especially in that case. They hated to see Andy go, of course, because they probably didn’t think it was going to succeed. But they were wonderful.”

Mayberry R.F.D. (the abbreviation actually stands for Rural Free Delivery) ran for three seasons from 1968 to 1971, staying consistently at number four for the first two seasons, and dropping to a very respectable number 15 in year three. CBS nonetheless decided to cancel the show and while fans complained, the network drove on with what ended up being called the “rural purge,” its effort to find younger, more urban viewers. Also lost that year were such classic TV shows as Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hee Haw, though the latter enjoyed a huge afterlife in first-run syndication.

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(Photo Credit: Getty Images)

Ken himself would go on to star in the syndicated show Mama’s Family, spun off of a sketch from The Carol Burnett Show; appear on a number of variety shows, and return to his theatrical roots. But even with all he’s accomplished in his lifetime, it’s pretty obvious that there is something special about his time in Mayberry — a feeling that he shares with both shows’ passionate fanbase.

“There are quite a few groups that get together,” he points out. “They have an annual thing that they do, going down to a place in North Carolina and they have a big week. People get dressed up and they play the part of Barney Fife and Andy Griffith, and all the characters in town. People are in love with Mayberry, and they live this life for what I believe is one week. Then there are other people — The Andy Griffith Show Rerun Watchers of America, who I get a newsletter from regularly. They tell you what people are doing — even people who were only on the show once or something. There are many of those people and they love the town, and the characters, as much as they ever did.”

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(Photo Credit: CBS Television Distribution)

Which is something he absolutely gets: “Of course, one of the big stars of Mayberry R.F.D. was the town itself. It was like visiting Brigadoon once a week. It was a wonderful place to visit, and it never existed. It was idealized, but people loved to visit there, including me. I watched every Andy Griffith Show I could.”

If you’re fascinated by TV history, we cannot recommend enough checking out The Archive for American Television for a wide variety of interviews and coverage.

For an opportunity to check in with some of your favorite Classic TV stars, check out Closerweekly.com’s Classic TV & Film Podcast. 

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