Ken Berry: Tapped His Way to Television

A likable light comedian and a superlative song and dance man, Ken Berry had the right skill set to have been a Hollywood and Broadway musical comedy star had he been born a decade or two sooner. That was his full potential.  He aspired to be (and undoubtedly was) the natural heir to guys like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, Ray Bolger, Jack Donahue and Mickey Rooney, and played George M. Cohan in George M!  many times on stage.  As things panned out, he got to pull out all the stops in live theatre and on TV variety shows, but most of his actual roles were on sitcoms and only tapped into part of his gifts. But he was always in demand and enjoyed a long career.

Born in 1933, Berry hailed from Moline, Illinois, and began taking tap dancing classes as a teenager. When still a kid he won a local talent contest sponsored by bandleader and radio personality Horace Heidt; this led to a 15 month tour with Heidt’s show. He next went into the army, where he was placed into special services, where fellow soldier Leonard Nimoy became an advocate. Performing with army shows led to an early appearance on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town. The TV appearance led to a short contract with Universal studios. No movie roles resulted, but he took every available class the studio offered, improving his skills.

In 1956 he performed with Abbott and Costello’s live stage show in Las Vegas, one of the team’s last ventures before splitting up.  In 1957 he appeared with Ken Murray’s Blackouts. The same year he won Arthur Godfrey’s Talent Scouts and toured with Godfrey for six months. Starting in 1958 he began appearing in Billy Barnes Revues, both in Hollywood and on Broadway, an association that would last until 1964. It’s interesting to realize that these old school opportunities were still out there this late in show business history, over 20 years after the death of vaudeville.

With the Billy Barnes shows, Murray worked with people like Lennie Weinrib, Bert Convy, and Jackie Joseph, who became his wife (and whom we’ve been planning to write about for a while, so watch for it!) He was also scouted by the likes of Carol Burnett, Andy Griffith, and Lucille Ball, all of whom would later employ him. For the latter, he was briefly on contract with Desilu, and had a recurring role on The Ann Sothern Show (1960). From here, his TV career began to take off. He had recurring parts on Dr. Kildare (1961-64), Ensign O’Toole (1962-63), The Dick Van Dyke Show (1964), and No Time for Sergeants (1964-65). In 1965, he was given the central of Captain Parmenter on F Troop, where he revealed a gift for slapstick. This lasted until 1967. A recurring part on The Andy Griffith Show in 1968, led to him taking Griffith’s place as town sheriff when the show became Mayberry R.F.D., which he starred on through 1971. Meantime, he’s appeared in the film Hello Down There with Tony Randall and Janet Leigh. There followed the Disney movies Herbie Rides Again (1974) and The Cat from Outer Space (1978). There were innumerable TV guest shots, including three episodes of Love American Style, one of The Love Boat, and SEVEN on Fantasy Island. He did The Carol Burnett Show 19 times, and then he was in the TV movie Eunice (1982) with Burnett, which led to him being cast in Mama’s Family (1983-1990). He did very little screen work after Mama’s Family, but lots of live theatre. Ken Berry passed away in 2018 at the age of 85.