Monday, April 30, 2018

Top TV Moments: Ken Berry

The term “song and dance man” belongs to a bygone era in entertainment. You’d never hear Bruno Mars, who can indeed sing and dance, described that way. But for Ken Berry it’s a label that fits just right. 

Even without his musical talents, which were rarely featured in his series work, the Moline, Illinois native was always a welcome TV presence due to his Midwestern manners and everyman likability. And if you watch the Archive of American Television interview where he reflects on his career, you’ll discover his genial personality was not a result of acting. He’s just a really nice guy.

He starred in three successful series, which by itself puts him in elite company among television stars. But viewers who know him only from those shows have never seen Ken Berry at his best, electrifying an audience with athletic footwork reminiscent of Gene Kelly. Yeah, he was that good. 

The Ann Sothern Show (1960)
Ken Berry’s proverbial big break came when he was spotted by Lucille Ball in a musical stage revue, and invited to join a stable of up-and-coming talents at Desilu. That connection led to his first recurring TV role in a series headlined by one of Lucy’s best friends, Ann Sothern. He played Woody, the eager young bellhop at the Bartley House, in 11 episodes of The Ann Sothern Show. It was a part anyone could play – he usually had one scene and three or four lines – but everybody has to start somewhere.

Dr. Kildare (1961)
My Dr. Kildare knowledge is embarrassingly limited, so I can’t say much about Berry’s character of Dr. John Kapish, who appeared in 25 episodes between 1961 and 1964. Since his name did not appear in the opening credits, I presume it was an incidental role. 

The Dick Van Dyke Show (1964)
Berry made two appearances as Tony Daniels, a dancer and choreographer on The Alan Brady Show. Normally that wouldn’t be substantial enough for a top TV moments list, but “My Mother Can Beat Up My Father” is a really funny episode, with a script that would now be deemed offensive, which makes me like it even more. There’s an amusing scene about halfway through with Berry and Dick Van Dyke that unites two of TV’s nicest guys – as they discuss the best way to clobber Rob’s wife.

F Troop (1965)
Everyone thinks F Troop ran longer than two seasons because it spent decades in continuous syndication, including as part of Nick at Nite’s celebrated classic TV line-up. The role of amiable, clumsy Captain Wilton Parmenter gave Ken Berry his first real taste of TV stardom, as well as a reputation for nimble pratfalls, which for a dancer are just another form of choreographed movement. 

The Hollywood Palace (1965)
During F Troop’s run Berry appeared on The Hollywood Palace with costars Forrest Tucker and Larry Storch. Most of his ‘60s and ‘70s variety show appearances with everyone from Jim Nabors and Andy Williams to Leslie Uggams and Julie Andrews are out of circulation. Thankfully, at least part of this one’s on YouTube. 

Mayberry RFD (1968)
Perhaps this underrated series never achieved the iconic status of The Andy Griffith Show – but it wasn’t AfterMASH either. Mayberry was always a pleasant place to visit, and Ken Berry as farmer turned town councilman Sam Jones fit comfortably into that hospitable setting. This is my favorite of his series work, as the material is more suited to his easygoing character, and is more understated than the broader comedies at both ends of his career.  

The Lucy Show (1968)
Outside the variety show genre, “Lucy Helps Ken Berry” offers the best showcase for the actor’s song and dance skills. He plays Ken Jones (any relation to Sam?), a dance school owner who needs to save his business by teaching a dance routine to some clumsy truck drivers in just one week. It makes sense in context. In the finale Berry dons a dapper straw hat and cane and performs “Steppin’ Out” (the Fred Astaire one, not the Joe Jackson one).

Kinney Shoes Commercials (1970s)
To be honest, I enjoy Berry’s musical tributes to the “Great American Shoe Store” more than any episode of F Troop

The Brady Bunch (1974)
I discussed “Kelly’s Kids” already in the Top TV Moments piece on Brooke Bundy. She and Ken Berry play Brady neighbors Ken and Kathy Kelly, who adopt one son from an orphanage, then go back to adopt his two best friends – one is African-American, the other is Asian. The show was a spinoff attempt written by Sherwood Schwartz, trying to recreate his Brady success with another variation of a blended family. Despite the likability factor of both Berry and Bundy, it likely would not have lasted long. 

The Ken Berry ‘Wow’ Show (1972)
This was the one that got away – a chance to headline a summer variety series and finally showcase all of his musical talents to a national audience. 

The result was silly and hokey but those weren't the worst sins in the world back then, and Berry as expected was among the most gracious of hosts. The cast included Steve Martin, Teri Garr and Cheryl Ladd, which sounds impressive now but meant nothing in 1972 because nobody knew who they were yet. Unfortunately, shows that debuted in summer rarely drew enough viewers to earn a fall pick-up, especially those that aired on Saturday nights when most people had better things to do. It was gone after five episodes.

Fantasy Island (1979)
IMDB lists seven visits to Fantasy Island on Ken Berry’s resume, no less than three of which have him playing an average Joe looking to walk on the wild side. If you were curious I’d start with season three’s “The Lookalikes/Winemaker” as it gave Berry a chance at a dual role – one good guy, one hard-hearted, womanizing gambler. But even his bad guys aren’t all bad.

Mama’s Family (1983)
By number of episodes and length of run, this is Ken Berry’s most successful TV venture – and it’s the one I have the least interest in watching.  

The Carol Burnett Show sketches that introduced Vicki Lawrence’s ‘Mama’ were not just funny – there was an undercurrent of desperation in the dysfunctional family relationships that delivered some unexpectedly dramatic moments within the laughter. Mama’s Family had no such subtext. It’s a dumb comedy that is inexplicably loved by several people I know with otherwise admirable taste. So maybe it’s me that just doesn’t get it. 


  1. Even if it hadn't lasted, I still think Kelly's Kids should have gone to series. I remember enjoying that episode a lot when I was a youngun.

    1. It DID go to series, 12 years later, as TOGETHER WE STAND, which had Elliott Gould & Dee Wallace Stone playing a couple who adopted an Asian boy & black girl to go with their own 2 kids. It didn't last long in that format, so months later it was back as NOTHING IS EASY, which killed off Gould's character and made Stone a super-mom, raising 4 kids by herself AND going to school. That version didn't last long either.

  2. I only have one memory from Ken Berry's WOW! Show, the Awards Time song.

  3. Berry was also the guest star in the LAUGH-IN pilot that ran September 9, 1967...fittingly, as the MISS AMERICA lead-in--a pop-culture crossroad.